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With a little help from your boss

With a unique student-loan-repayment program, a Dartmouth businessman invests in young talent

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Photo by Steve Smith/VisionFire

Photo by Steve Smith/VisionFire

Saeed El-Darahali started his career pushing cotton candy. He tasted it for the first time at a fair, and later searched Sobeys for his sugar fix. When they didn’t carry it, he saw an opportunity. At 14, he bought a cotton candy machine, recruited his dad to help, and started selling the bright coloured fluff at corner stores and Boys and Girls Clubs.

El-Darahali, 35, is now the president and CEO of a tech company. He’s earned three degrees and at one point owed $57,000 in student loans. He understands the challenges young people face in this province. So last year, his company SimplyCast introduced a program that pays a portion of student loans for new hires.

The company on Tacoma Drive in Dartmouth has an all-in-one communications platform that allows companies to communicate with customers through their preferred mode of communication, such as email, text, or social media. El-Darahali launched the company in 2010 with one other employee. It now has more than 40 employees; most are in Dartmouth, but some are located in Newfoundland, South Korea, and Singapore.

The SimplyCast office feels like a Silicon Valley start-up. Instead of cubicles, there’s a foosball table, a video-game room, a basketball hoop, and Nerf guns. El-Darahali says his staff’s average age is 32, but a tour of the office gives the feeling it’s much lower.

When El-Darahali graduated from Saint Mary’s University with a bachelor of science in computer science, he experienced the conundrum of applying for entry-level work that required six months to two years of experience. “Why is it called an entry job if you have to have experience? It literally pissed me off,” he says. He promised himself that when he started a company, he’d do things differently.

El-Darahali says many employers want to hire people who are ready to work, but they want someone else to train them. “We need to change their views to think of youth as an investment in society, rather than just an investment in their company,” says El-Darahali.

There was never any doubt El-Darahali would become an entrepreneur. He’s practically been one since his family arrived in Nova Scotia as immigrants from Kuwait in 1992. He’s the oldest of five kids; the son of an engineer father and a teacher mother. “As immigrants, nobody wanted to hire them,” says El-Darahali. His father ended up working at a bakery and money was tight.

El-Darahali went school and then worked at night to help support his family. When he ran his cotton candy business, he made candy from the time he got home from school until 11 p.m. On Fridays, he and his dad made deliveries. The business soon expanded to include fudge and popcorn. El-Darahali still has one of those cotton candy machines. “I’m going to bring it into the office so we can have cotton candy,” he says.

His other jobs included working at a corner store and at a motel as a receptionist and room cleaner. He says he used to get at most three hours of sleep a night. “Every hour I slept I wasn’t making money to support the family, so I tried not to sleep,” says El-Darahali.

He got good grades in school, but his teachers always remarked that he spent too much time working and not enough time studying. That constant pressure had a lasting effect. “How to treat people is something that’s very important to me… I saw how hard I was working and the pain that I went through,” says El-Darahali.

Evan Maynard, 23, has been with SimplyCast since May 2015, starting with a full-time summer work placement and working part time until he’s done school. He graduated in May and will benefit from the student-loan debt repayment program. “It’s a huge weight off my shoulders,” he says, noting that he won’t be responsible for what works out to “basically a second rent payment.” Originally from Harmony, about 15 minutes outside of Truro, Maynard is happy he’ll get to stay in Nova Scotia after graduation.

Michaela Sam, chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students Nova Scotia, has never heard of a company offering a student-loan payment program like SimplyCast’s. “To the contrary, unfortunately, many companies right now have a number of unpaid internships available for young people and are really exploiting [youth] …through the use of unpaid work in a way that’s detrimental to students,” she says. According to the federation, Nova Scotian students graduate with an average of $37,000 in student debt. Sam says SimplyCast’s student loan repayment program is indicative of how large student debts are and how uncertain the future is for today’s graduates.

El-Darahali is the chair of youth retention and immigration for the One Nova Scotia Coalition, the group tasked with implementing the Ivany Report’s recommendations. He says it’s his mission to help as many youth as possible. He worries this generation of youth will become a lost generation if they don’t get better opportunities.

He wants to see other Nova Scotian businesses focus on helping young employees by offering student loan repayment programs. “Think of your own kid and what you want to do for them, do for others,” he says.

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