BEIRUT: While some Lebanese entrepreneurs aspire to become part of Silicon Valley's elite tech ecosystem, Lara Noujaim had her fair share of working with the biggest names in the world of digital business, and decided to return to her much-loved country of Lebanon.
Her family first came to the United States in 2006, right after the start of the 33-day Lebanese-Israeli war; Noujaim who had just graduated from the American University of Beirut with a degree in business finance didn't know where to place her feet upon arrival.
"I was starting from scratch, so I decided to go into what I studied and went to work at a number of insurance companies which taught me so many things from sales to marketing, social media and much more, I always wanted to find new roles for myself," Noujaim told Annahar.
After leaving the insurance industry in 2009, she decided to continue her education by enrolling in Santa Clara University for an MBA in digital marketing; Noujaim landed a job at Yahoo as a search editor where she would help engineers flow algorithms to generate better search results.
She stayed on with Yahoo for a year before being recruited by Google as a contractor for its then newly published Google Map, but subsequently decided to leave the online giant to venture into something smaller after finishing her MBA in 2010.
"I decided to go into a startup called Milestone Internet Marketing, which offers online marketing solutions for a number of hotels in the area; my choice to leave both Google and Yahoo were based on personal growth," Noujaim says, "I mean you learn a lot at first, and then you become better at doing your required tasks toward the project you're working on but it becomes a boring routine after some time and I needed something more fast paced."
The tech enthusiast noted that opting for a riskier startup is due to her desire to be placed in situations outside of her comfort zone and to be working in something she has never done before. "Honestly I fit more in startups since they're smaller organizations. They run at a much faster pace and complimented my multi-tasking personality by simultaneously working on numerous things, thus my thirst for knowledge helped me pick up everything I needed to know," she added.
Nonetheless, after five years in the U.S., Noujaim's lingering feeling of homesickness started kicking in and she decided to come back to Lebanon in September 2011 at a time where the local tech scene was still in its embryonic stage.
"It was the best decision of my life to come back, it made my family really happy and I personally couldn't wait to get on the plane, although I could have stayed and worked with companies to move up the ladder, but I didn't feel like I was an added value there," she says. "In the American system you're just a number, a drop within an ocean but I wanted to come back and benefit my country with the information and experiences that I learned and acquired."
When Noujaim got home, she quickly heard about Game Cooks, a game development studio founded during the Arab Spring by two brothers, Lebnan and Arz Nader; who had previously released a game called Run for Peace, in light of the series of revolutions happening in multiple Arab countries.
"The game really grabbed people's attention because it was about peace in the Middle East, but it was also a quite addictive game," says Noujaim, "While out with friends, I bumped into Lebnan and found out they were looking to grow their team and fill a marketing position, I applied and directly started working with them in 2013 as director of publishing."
Game Cooks founder Lebnan Nader hailed Noujaim's quick learning pace while admiring her sense of professionalism and decision to come back to Lebanon to give back to the country she holds dearest.
"Lara is a very dedicated professional; she's passionate about gaming and about the team as well! She managed, in a record time, to become the go-to person when it comes to market Intel, industry news and gaming updates. I think she made a good decision to come back to Beirut and help a company like ours, to place a footprint on the international map," Nader told Annahar.
The tech savvy Noujaim had no experience in gaming, apart from the ones she used to play on her mobile phone. So there was a lot she needed to learn; the type of challenge Noujaim always viewed as positive. It was "very rewarding, since in this industry you can teach yourself, so if you're curious and willing enough you can go and find the solutions by yourself."
Ali Hammoud, a former Game Cooks 3D artist, highlighted Noujaim's passion in contributing to the region's growing tech and gaming industries by taking everything she learned in the States and introducing them to a region still in its tech infancy.
"She was very excited to join forces with Game Cooks, and successfully helped bring the real name of the company and industry to the world stage, while simultaneously being a great friend in and out of the workplace," Hammoud said.
However, while looking back on her time in the United States, she doesn't deny the immense quantity of information and her experiences picked up from the star-spangled Silicon Valley. She notes that "when I was there, I didn't feel the same happiness that I have here, I'm not talking about the nightlife scene here; I could be sitting on my balcony at home and it would fill me up with satisfaction where I wouldn't find anywhere else."
Noujaim argues that the people should not depend on their universities or schools to actually discover what they really want to do as a career, since there's "barely any guidance in terms of career orientation. I know people that are miserable with what they're doing because they weren't guided properly," she says.
"It's only when you enter the workforce that you realize your capabilities and what you actually like and don't like; taking classes doesn't really tell you much."
"I guess it's all about gut feeling, you can't control it, you don't get it after receiving a diploma in your hands, you build it up as you go through experiences in life and the most important part is the people you meet, especially if they fill a mentorship role for you," she continued.
While the young tech enthusiast is not looking to leave Lebanon anytime soon, she feels that her experience abroad made her realize what she left behind.
"It's necessary for one to leave his country to really be reminded of what it means to stay and invest in one's own homeland. There is no other way, it changes your perspective about so many things," Noujaim told Annahar.
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