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Adiba Salloum on Training and Professional Development in Berlin’s Startup Community

Adiba Salloum doesn’t have much time on her hands. She’s the head of Human Resources at sofatutor.com, one of the four founders of the Digital Career Institute, and a founding member of The Purple Squirrel Society, a human resources collective based in Berlin. We talk to Adiba about her experience as an HR manager in the startup scene, her unique approach to learning and training, and how she’s working to make the lives of refugees better here in Germany.


You’re an active member of the human resources community here in Berlin. What made you want to pursue a career in HR?

It was actually more of a coincidence that made me choose this path than a long-defined pursuit. Being friends with Stephan, the founder of sofatutor.com, I was one of the first people that joined the sofatutor project before it was even a company. Once the startup was founded, the first step was to get our friends on board. Soon, it turned out that we needed more help. So I started to officially recruit for the sofatutor team. Then, little by little, I moved from Recruitment to an HR role. Now I lead a team of 6 people and I am responsible for all HR processes at sofatutor.com.

Sofatutor.com is an EdTech startup. As its head of HR, can you talk about the company’s approach to learning, not just for its users but for the company as a whole?

sofatutor.com is an online learning platform for pupils of all grades, so obviously learning is very important to all of our team members. We deeply believe in the product we are building and see the social impact that we can have. Developing a product that is as new and innovative as sofatutor.com also means that you have to learn and adapt very quickly. In facing new challenges, for instance, most of the time we are the first ones to encounter the problems, and thus must solve them ourselves. So learning is part of our daily work and we prioritize it in many ways. We make research part of a project, bring mentors to the company, and give the teams time and freedom to develop ideas and, most importantly, to make their own mistakes and learn from them.

How does sofatutor.com help its employees to develop their skills? Do you offer training to your employees? If so, what benefits have you seen?

We want to create a working environment that enables everyone to develop and achieve their full potential through individual trainings, but also like to motivate people to share their knowledge within the groups. So we discuss the employees’ needs in our feedback sessions and choose something very particular and specific to the person. This can be a workshop in Barcelona, a conference in Las Vegas, or simply a pro in video-production who spends one day with our content team in order to challenge their ideas and improve their workflows.

Let’s talk about the Devugees Digital Career Institute. It’s an amazing project. What motivated you to start a web development training program for refugees in Germany?

I was always interested in education and people’s development. When I graduated from my doctoral program in the beginning of 2016, the refugee-challenge was one of the biggest facing Berlin and Germany as a whole. I met two of my co-founders at that time, who were working with Stephan on Devugees. I joined them very quickly because I knew what skills a developer should have in order to find a good job here in Berlin. And that way I knew I could help with what I am actually really good at: Bringing people to jobs that they will love for years.

How do you think the training or retraining will positively impact the lives of the Devugees participants?

In the Devugees program we train our participants in the basics of web development. We focus on frontend, but have a basic training in the backend as well. I have been in HR for over eight years now and I am very well connected to the digital scene here in Berlin, so I can confidently say: Every single company is looking for developers! So, yes, I am very sure that the training has a positive impact on their lives. Finding a good job not only means earning money, it also means finding friends and connecting with locals — three steps that make integration so much easier.

Do you think that startups or smaller, younger companies have a different approach to learning and professional development than more established corporations?

Yes, I think startups tend to do much more ‘learning on the job’ than bigger companies. It is more individualized and they use tools like meet-ups and networking events to exchange ideas and learn about trends. Seeing what others do is one way to approach learning. Bigger companies with thousands of employees have to structure their learning differently and make it accessible for everyone. In smaller companies, every employee can talk about individual learning with his/her boss or HR manager.

As an HR head and the founder of a business, you’re not only constantly on the hunt for new talent, but actively trying to make the lives of your employees better so they can excel at their jobs. What is some advice you would give to companies who want to really take care of their employees so that they can grow with the company?

Do not choose a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Listen to what your team wants to learn. Take care of the people in the team that can teach, and empower them to do so. Be ahead of the market and monitor trends. And last but not least: Do it your way.