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Start-Up Cofounder, Architect, Content Creator, Mom - The Multi-Hyphenated Layla Shaikley
Aug 28, 2020
Nargis Rahman
contributing writer
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Layla Shaikley; image source: Instagram
Nargis Rahman
contributing writer
Editor's Note: We've been featuring dynamic Muslim women on the blog for awhile, and we are stepping it up with our summer series dedicated to ChangeMakers, women who are living boldly and working to affect change in a myriad of ways – big and small – through their work as community organizers, artists, scientists, activists, educators, health professionals, care givers and more. We hope you are inspired by them to be the change you are searching for in your community!
Growing up, Layla Shaikley’s father had one piece of career advice: “Figure out what you’re passionate about and be the best at it.” Layla, cofounder of Wise Systems, a company that works with “next-generation routing software,” did just that.
Wise Systems works with companies to track data, analyze different metrics and interview drivers to create efficient routes and deliveries.
“Imagine you’re a driver in delivery space or business owner; you have 2,000 customers across America, and you must make 20,000 delivers in a day. What we look at is based on who should drive where and how long has he historically driven. [For example] one stop takes 22 minutes at 7 a.m. or 44 minutes at 11 a.m. ... it’s esteemed learning, pattern recognition,” she says.
Layla is the Vice President of Customer Experience and the only female founder on the team. The founders started off as researchers – CEO Chazz Sims, Ali Kamil and Layla met at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Jemel Derbali, from Harvard Law, is a mutual friend from the Cambridge community.
“MIT is an enterprising place,” inspiring aspiring entrepreneurs to think about building startups, says Layla. “The real commitment and work [however] come after graduation.” MIT allowed the Wise Systems founders to contemplate how and when to build a company after “getting our hands or feet wet and understand the space … [and conduct] research together.”
The group has now been working together for six years, and they have raised $23 million to date for the startup. Wise Systems has bloomed to 50-plus employees in Cambridge, Massachusetts, servicing transportation companies in the United States and many other countries.
What it Means to Show Up as a Muslim Woman
Layla was born to Iraqi parents and raised in California. She’s one of six siblings. She says she’s inspired by her strong powerful career-oriented mother and supportive, intelligent father.
When she was about 14 or 15, 9/11 happened, which had a huge impact on her as a Muslim woman, something that she says she recommits to every day. Going to Islamic school helped her build her identity, adds Layla, although she contemplated what it meant to show up as a Muslim woman, while “competing with tons of stereotypes.”
“There are some things I can choose and some things I can’t. I can alter the way I look and come off distantly Arab and Americanized. I consciously make those decisions repeatedly and decide and stand by my identity,” she says. “We grew up having to defend ourselves day after day. It’s still hard.”
“Always be very self-aware, courageous, and take the calculated risks. Be very adaptable,” she advises other Muslim women.
In 2013, Layla and her friends created a viral #Mipsterz video (Muslim hipsters) to showcase Muslim women who are outside the narrative found in mainstream media, featuring fellow Muslim women like Noor Tagouri and Ibtihaj Muhammad. The video featured women in heels skateboarding while showing off their intersectional American Muslim identities from various walks of life, causing waves in American Muslim communities. Layla co-produced the video. She wrote about the experience for The Atlantic and was later featured on the Secret Lives of Muslims documentary series, where she serves on the executive director board. The series was nominated for an Emmy and Peabody.
“I was shocked by how widely received it was and it is wild to think about how adding an identity to a Muslim female, in the public sphere, was so shocking. I grew up at a time where [our]identity was so boxed that people were shocked that a Hijabi girl could skateboard and was unapologetically Muslim and unapologetically American.”
Architecture Before Computing
Although Layla leads the customer experience support and design, she did not always work in information systems. She completed her masters in architecture from California Polytechnic University, something she still loves and is passionate about.
Her love of avant-garde designs landed her an internship at NASA in 2010, usually only for aero-astro students. At NASA, Layla worked on design elements for robots.
But she had a deep longing to do post-conflict work in Iraq as an architect. That inspired her to jump on a bus from California to Boston, requesting a meeting with the head of MIT to get into the master’s of science in the architecture program. But after listening to her story, he redirected her to continue her NASA track for future jobs.
“I left and I cried and cried outside of his office. I channeled that energy and wrote an emotional letter of why I knew he was wrong.” She received a call saying she got in. “Weeks and months later… I asked him about this story. He said, ‘I needed you to prove to me that’s what you really wanted.’”
She briefly worked as an architectural consultant in Iraq while doing her masters at MIT, what she called her dream job. “How can architecture help people [was] ... something I was obsessed with.” In Iraq, she cofounded TedxBaghdad, meeting people in the preface of war, hoping to highlight leadership. She says it was there that she learned to trust the local intelligence and people who work on the ground.
Layla soon realized she could have more impact through using technology. She began working in MIT’s Development Ventures at the Media Lab by Sandy Pentland and became a cofounder of Wise Systems. She applied her knowledge of “trusting the locals” to her driver technology systems – accompanying drivers on their routes to make sense of their world.
Layla says staying on top of school, being a lifelong learner and finding role models are instrumental in the success, although she says she didn't have role models. “If you’re good at school. people give you privileges. If you’re a certain type of student and you do something break the rules, you’ll get overlooked," she adds.
“Always overreach. Never doubt yourself, [yet] doubt yourself ... stay humble to the extent where you’re learning all the time ... if you’re a creative type and want to build, building a company is the most creative endeavor of my whole life.”
Besides creating content, computing and skateboarding, Layla also spends time with her two young children. She says she draws from motherhood. “[It’s also a] business lesson. If you say you’re going to do something you have to commit.”
Managing her career and being there for her children has been one of her biggest challenges, something so many working moms face, Layla says. But the secret to family and business for her is defining success: “Define what does it mean to have all. Best tennis player, violinist you have to define what is your baseline is for good or [end up] feeling constant mom guilt and inadequacy.
“Without a doubt, motherhood is the most humbling experience in my life, the most incredible and gratifying. You always learn to walk the walk instead of talking the talk. Having a toddler ... she doesn’t care what I do. She does what I do.”
You can catch Layla on Instagram or TikTok @laylool.
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