Women’s Entrepreneurship Week: A Conversation with Ava Nadir, Ravan Jaafar, and Yara Salem

 

On Wednesday, October 17, 2018, the AUIS Entrepreneurship Initiative participated in Women’s Entrepreneurship Week in coordination with Montclair State University’s Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship. AEI hosted Ravan Jaafar, the founder of the Book Cafe Erbil, Ava Nadir, head of Marketing for Zain Kurdistan, and Yara Salem, World Bank Special Representative to Iraq, for a discussion on the female entrepreneurs’ personal challenges and experiences starting their own businesses in the Middle East. Ahmed Tabaqchali, senior AEI advisor, moderated the discussion.

 

All three women echoed the opinions of many woman entrepreneurs who face cultural and religious constraints in addition to the usual challenges surrounding business registration and access to capital in the Middle East. Yara Salem, for example, relayed her experience starting the first life insurance company in Palestine, a project previously deemed unacceptable by religious standards. She was fortunate enough, however, to acquire a bank loan in addition to financial support from her family and friends. Ravan, on the other hand, struggled with financing in the early stages of her business. Given the extremely limited access to capital that entrepreneurs face in Iraq and the KRI, she and her partners had to rely almost entirely on their own salaries to start The Book Cafe. In one particularly difficult attempt to receive funding from a women’s empowerment organization, she was told the only support she could receive was a sewing machine or money for a sewing machine.

 

The discussion also focused on the challenges of working as an entrepreneur within a creative industry in particular. Ava Nadir, who started the communications and media agency Mediawan, noted that creative businesses can be especially difficult to start up given the high capital and inventory requirements. Ravan likewise faced difficulties convincing potential investors that the concept of a book cafe could succeed, given the oft-repeated opinion that no one in Erbil would be interested in reading at a cafe. All three women ultimately acknowledged the significant challenges to starting a business--both as as women and entrepreneurs operating within the financial and bureaucratic constraints of the Middle East. However, a willingness to accept risk and persevere despite cultural and religious stigmas, detrimental registration and legal procedures, and limited access to capital provides the foundation for women to successfully start and grow their businesses.

 

A Parallel Iraq – A thriving entrepreneurial culture has taken root

 
Originally published in bite.tech by Ahmed Tabaqchali and Emily Burlinghaus in October 2018. 
 
 

Most of the coverage and analysis of Iraq post-2003—by international, regional, and local journalists and analysts—has focused on the dysfunctional state and warring political elites whose failures to provide basic services to an already alienated population has come in sharp focus during the recent Basra demonstrations. However, despite the vital nature of this coverage, it has missed a new entrepreneurial Iraq—represented by its youth—that has emerged and flourished in the new cultural openness and interconnectedness of post-2003 Iraq.

Since 2003, Iraqis’ and Westerners’ sentiments of blame and guilt in response to the 2003 invasion—as legitimate as they are—overlook the silver lining that accompanied it. For all its ills, Iraq experiences freedom from state censorship, unfettered access to the world, and life that is mostly free from state interference. It is this openness that has provided youth with an opportunity to create exciting new businesses. They inhabit a parallel Iraq—one that is undiscovered by both the outside world and many Iraqis whose spirits have been crushed by the trauma of conflict and daily grind of living in a country largely defined by corruption and mismanagement.

The opening of “The Station,” the first purpose-built co-working space for young entrepreneurs in Baghdad, in early 2018 brought much neededyet fleeting, attention to this parallel Iraq. The Station, however, is just a small taste of the vibrant entrepreneurial space operating in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq. A recent trip to Baghdad by members of the AUIS Entrepreneurship Initiative (AEI) provided a brief opportunity to explore the scene at The Station, Al-Faisaliya Restaurant & Café, and IQPeace—three different manifestations of the co-working space in the Baghdad. Each location—along with the startups it supports—has a story worth telling.

Over the past several years, a rich culture of entrepreneurship has developed in Baghdad upon which these new co-working spaces and their supported startups have flourished. Some of the most well-known of these success stories include Miswag and Mishwar, online and app-based delivery platforms, and the first “Escape the Room” game in Iraq. Recently-founded startups such as Hilli, Bilweekend, Daraj, Tech4Peace, and Ikfal Nakhla have taken inspiration from these initial success stories and expanded the need and market for co-working spaces, mentorship, and training programs. They have joined the ranks of others such as Brsima, Indigo Canvas, The Book Cafe, and Mirsha Media, as well as training organizations such as re:coded, Tech Hub, and Five One Labs based in Sulaimani and Erbil. These, in turn, are part of a broader network that extends all the way from northern Iraq down to Najaf and Basra.

 

 (below is an overview of three Baghdad-based co-working spaces and a major virtual support network, a list of some unique established and emerging start-ups in Baghdad, and an overview of some additional startups operating at various stages in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.)                                                                             

The visons, business models, and growth challenges of Iraq’s start-ups are no different than start-ups elsewhere in the world; however, they face additional Iraq-specific challenges as detailed in a 2017 report by IRIS “Obstacles and Opportunities for Entrepreneurship in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region.” These broadly fall into three main categories.

Bureaucracy

The first category, bureaucracy, involves an extensive network of public sector requirements to incorporate and maintain companies. Such lengthy procedures place huge financial, time, and operational demands on these start-ups. As a result, most of them opt to operate in the shadow economy—a decision that stunts their growth prospects and hinders their abilities to develop into sustainable growth companies that would expand the private sector.

Infrastructure

The second category, infrastructure challenges, is defined by a number of problems, the most notable of which is the under-developed banking sector and its very slow adoption of mobile banking and payment systems despite the wide adoption of mobile phones. Almost all transactions with suppliers, trade counter-parties, and customers are performed in cash, which strains working capital and affects start-ups’ cash flows and operating flexibility, security, and transaction paper trail, and increases the costs of handling cash. Other infrastructure challenges include a cumbersome legal structure and poor enforcement of existing regulations, both of which affect trade and payment disputes and weaken intellectual property and copy rights.

Access to Capital

The third and the most crucial category is the very limited access to capital. The main sources of growth capital in Iraq come from savings, family, and friends. Entrepreneurs face extremely limited access to or availability of bank lending and local investors. In the rare cases that either of these options are available—i.e.  banks and investors—they demand high collateral and immediate high returns in the form of interest payments or dividends. These limit investments and business options to those that generate quick returns rather than encourage ongoing investments in the form of reinvested earnings that generate sustainable businesses.

The solutions provided by these co-working spaces and AUIS’s upcoming Entrepreneurship Initiative go a long way in providing a nurturing environment essential to encouraging and sustaining the entrepreneurial culture. However, long-term and patient investment capital is crucial for these efforts to be translated into a thriving start-up scene in which existing start-ups can evolve into larger sustainable companies.

Iraq’s challenging environment means that the sustainability of start-ups is fraught with uncertainty. Therefore, only long-term and patient investment capital can accept the high risks and the long wait time for financial returns – which is what is necessary for these start-ups to transform into successful companies. 

In more developed economies, this long-term capital is provided through an ecosystem of angel investors, venture capital firms, and private equity funds. However, the development of these mechanisms in Iraq requires considerable time and the introduction of new laws, regulations, and policies. The dilemma for Iraq is that the need for such long-term capital is immediate, and therefore the need to find solutions to bridge this gap is urgent.

A viable solution is the creation of an investment fund that combines the attributes of angel investment, venture capital, and private equity funds to provide the growth and expansion capital for commercially promising start-ups. However, the risk profile of the underlying investments means that initial funding will come from neither the traditionally risk-averse and short-term focused private sector nor the Iraqi public sector given the enormous demands placed upon it and its strained resources. Therefore, initial investment capital must come from Iraq’s international stakeholders as part of their support and development aid. Private sector capital will, in time, be attracted to the fund once the risk-profile is lowered by evidence of its success and higher possibilities of financial returns.

The fund’s success will, to a large extent, be dependent on the existing entrepreneurial culture that has succeeded despite all odds and prevailing pessimism, and therefore would build upon an existing success story. Its establishment would fuel the enthusiasm and achievement of these young, bright start-ups by providing them with the essential capital required to build upon and sustain their achievements. Their success will invite others to join, and therefore herald the emergence of an independent private sector in Iraq.

Baghdad offers a variety of spaces that provide support in the form of mentorship, and networking, and skills development. These range from a state-of-the-art coworking space to a startup-hosting cafe and community center designated to creativity and innovation.

Al-Faisaliya Restaurant & Cafe

  • Founded in March 2017 in Karrada
  • Cafe and restaurant with live music and local bands like Project 904
  • Features local startups Hili, Daraj, Tech 4 Peace, Razouna, and Jakaroo
  • Hosts game nights, films, speakers, and literary sessions

IQPeace

  • Founded in 2011 in Karrada
  • Center that offers daily support for young innovators and a space for music and art production
  • Develops programming in 5 categories: music production, entrepreneurship, photography, computer programming, and peacebuilding and conflict resolution
  • Helps individuals and groups establish and build membership in specialized clubs on a variety of topics, including music, jazz, chess, and nutrition
  • Uses recyclable and sustainable material in building structures, including a solar-powered phone charging station
  • Organizes the annual Baghdad City of Peace Carnival, which at its most recent celebration in September 2018, attracted approximately 30,000 visitors

The Station

  • Founded in February 2018 in Karrada
  • State-of-the-art co-working space and maker space that offers events, workshops, and talks for innovators and entrepreneurs at different levels of membership for a fee
  • Helps tech, cultural, and social entrepreneurs such as Bilweekend, Baghdad Toastmasters, World Merit Iraq, Daraj, Zuqaq13, Ariika and Ikfal Nakhla by providing physical space, mentorship, and training to develop and expand their businesses

Zain Innovation Campus

  • Support hub for entrepreneurs, currently with a physical space in Amman, Jordan, but with virtual support for entrepreneurs in Iraq in the form of resources, activities, and workshops. Zain augmented this with its youth empowerment platform, ZY, aimed at unlocking opportunities for the youth

The following is just a small list of successful and emerging startups in Baghdad, both independently and with the support of startup spaces such as those listed above:

Miswag: First internet-based startup e-commerce platform in Iraq founded in 2014; delivery service operating out of two main branches in Baghdad and Erbil. Upwards of 700,000 Iraqi users can buy more than 250 brands from over 200 local and international merchants through the online service

Mishwar: Online and mobile-app based home grocery delivery service founded in 2015

Hilli: Founded in December 2016 as a physical and online store based in Baghdad and Erbil to sell handicrafts inspired by Mesopotamian culture; promotes domestic production and empowerment of women IDPs by providing them with employment opportunities

Escape the Room Iraq: First escape room game in Baghdad founded in 2017 for group activities and team-building events

Bilweekend: Travel and tourism startup with the goal of promoting cultural heritage as a factor of country development; organizes group camping trips, museum visits, and adventures to natural sites such as Dukan Lake in Sulaimani and the marshes of southern Iraq

Zuqaq13: Baghdad-based and inspired streetwear brand that designs t-shirts and other souvenirs influenced by pop culture and Iraqi heritage

Ariika: Distributor of beanbags and other alternative furniture, based virtually and at The Station Baghdad

Tech4Peace: Online platform with physical location at Faisaliyya cafe dedicated to exposing the credibility of public statements and social media postings in Iraq and the region. Its mission is to “expose lies, spread truth, and protect individual privacy”

Daraj Library: Book-selling and renting vendor for Arabic and English-language texts and novels with three locations in Baghdad and one in Mosul

Ikfal Nakhla (Palm Tree Subscription): Youth-powered project initiated by a group of entrepreneurs aiming to retain the numbers and productivity of the Iraqi palm tree by providing a date palm tree maintenance service on subscription. The project--whose goal is to encourage the growth and use of domestic palms and dates--remains sustainable by selling a portion of the dates from the trees they maintain on the domestic market. Annual subscriptions vary on the basis of the percentage of dates customers retain in their homes.

Project 904: Youth band that remixes old Iraq songs with modern rock and roll and performs in local venues such as Al-Faisaliya Cafe

Supernova: Computer coding and programming school with online and in-person learning options and Arabic-language content; supported by re:coded

The vibrant start-up ecosystem is not unique to Baghdad; support networks, training organizations, and young creative businesses are emerging all across Iraq. Here are just a few:

Five One Labs: An Erbil and Sulaimani-based start-up incubator that provides entrepreneurs with training, mentorship, and a network of innovators from across the region

re:coded: An Erbil-based organization that supports start-ups through coding bootcamps and a tech start-up academy

The Book Cafe: An Erbil-based café, bookstore, and creative co-working space that hosts speakers, events, film nights, and language learning groups

Brsima: An app-based food delivery service based in Sulaimani and Erbil that connects local restaurants with customers and delivers food to their doors

Peyk Bookstore: Sulaimani-based independent online bookstore that delivers books from all over the world after customers place orders via Facebook and Instagram

Mirsha Media: Erbil-based digital media consultancy that provides virtual reality and augmented reality content, 360° video, and social media marketing and management

Indigo: Sulaimani-based advertising agency that curates and develops brands for companies by using media, buses and taxis, and billboards

Ekaratay: An online real estate platform developed by an Erbil-based team to connect potential home-buyers with sellers; supported by re:coded     

Dakakenna: A Mosul-based shopping delivery service that offers nearly 2,000 items to buy via an iPhone app and shipped directly to customers; the service has already sold over 9 million IQD ($7,578 USD) worth of products and contracted 14 suppliers since inception in July 2018

Girfan Bazaar: Online and app-based platform connecting shoppers to stores in the Erbil bazaar to streamline the shopping experience and connect buyers and sellers with exactly what they are looking for

Erbil Delivery: Online and app-based grocery delivery service that operates its own warehouses in Erbil

Opportunity: Online and app-based platform that connects job seekers with potential employers, volunteer options, and skills development opportunities

Mowja: A Najaf-based self-financing NGO and miniature library and bookstore whose physical space relies on recycled materials 

Science Camp: collaborative laboratory and maker space in which innovators can design and create tech and engineering-focused projects

Disclaimer

Ahmed Tabaqchali’s comments, opinions and analyses are personal views and are intended to be for informational purposes and general interest only and should not be construed as individual investment advice or a recommendation or solicitation to buy, sell or hold any fund or security or to adopt any investment strategy. It does not constitute legal or tax or investment advice. The information provided in this material is compiled from sources that are believed to be reliable, but no guarantee is made of its correctness, is rendered as at publication date and may change without notice and it is not intended as a complete analysis of every material fact regarding Iraq, the region, market or investment. 

Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Private Sector Growth in Iraq and the KRI: A Roundtable with the Dutch Department of Sustainable Economic Development and the Netherlands Enterprise Agency

 

On Saturday, September 8, the AUIS Entrepreneurship Initiative (AEI) hosted the Dutch Consul General in Erbil Willem Cosijn; Second Secretary of the Embassy of the Netherlands in Baghdad Martijn Groen; Senior Policy Officer of the Department of Sustainable Economic Development, Nathalie Gonçalves Aurélio; Policy Officer of Netherlands Enterprise Agency, Sabrina Waltmans; and Policy Officer of the Netherlands Consulate General, Aram Abdallah for a discussion on entrepreneurship, innovation, and private sector growth in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Participants included entrepreneurs, investors, and private sector advocates from Asia Hawala, Kurdistan Economic Development Organization, Five One Labs, Mercy Corps, Zain Iraq, and various local startups.

 

The conversation started with a question posed by Pat Cline, Director of the Entrepreneurship Initiative, about what is needed to sustain economic growth in the KRI and Iraq and how different institutions, including the government, academia, and private sector can contribute to growth. With specific regard to agriculture--a focus area of the Dutch Private Sector Development plan for Iraq--Daban Najmadeen, a representative from the Sulaimani Chamber of Commerce, commented on potential growth areas in the cultivation and export of Kurdish agricultural goods such as wheat, nuts, and pomegranates. He noted that the Chamber of Commerce has made efforts to contract international companies to develop the sector.

 

Ava Nadir, a representative from Zain Iraq, countered that while exports are important, there should also be efforts to have a sustainable domestic market, particularly in regard to food production. For example, despite the potential for trade between northern and southern Iraq, given the pomegranates in the KRI and fishing industry in Basra, there have been few efforts to promote intra-Iraq trade. In addition to the lack of investment in domestic production, there are a number of financial and bureaucratic barriers that deter innovation in agriculture, as well as entrepreneurship and small business growth as a whole.

 

The weakness of the banking sector deters both domestic and foreign investment, and the procedures for establishing a business are extremely lengthy and unclear. The registration process in particular requires multiple signatures from different ministries, and can be quite time intensive and expensive for entrepreneurs. According to Hussam Barznji of Kurdistan Economic Development Organization, there needs to be a centralized government agency or mechanism by which potential business owners can efficiently register businesses. Such a mechanism would increase the transparency and accountability of bureaucratic institutions and reduce the time needed to establish a business.

 

Furthermore, the discussion focused on the myriad of legal difficulties that exist beyond the weak banking system and difficulties of registration procedures. The system by which copyrights are enforced and intellectual property protected is weak and in many cases, nonexistent--a reality that contributes to a general lack of trust in forming business partnerships and bringing ideas to market. The discussion led to a further exploration of the many failures of the legal system to protect consumer rights in the buying of goods and food quality in the supply chain. The participants determined that in addition to legal reform in the registration process, there is a need for additional reforms to protect consumers and the quality of agricultural goods.

 

The discussion ultimately concluded with an assessment similar to that of previous discussions: that entrepreneurs willing to not only take the risk of difficult registration procedures and a poor legal framework, but also push for bureaucratic change at the local government level, are likely to drive positive change in Iraq’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.

Women in Tech and Entrepreneurship Summit

 
On Saturday, April 7, the AUIS Entrepreneurship Initiative [AEI], in coordination with the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GiZ), Google Developer Group, and Zain Iraq, hosted the Women in Tech and Entrepreneurship Summit, organized by Five One Labs and Re:Coded. The full day event involved a panel of female entrepreneurs from across Iraq, and “Intro to Coding” and “Launching your Startup” workshops. Both aspects of the event aimed to raise awareness about and explore opportunities for women in technology and entrepreneurship in Iraq through discussion and training.
 
The panel discussion was moderated by Zahra Shah, Program Manager at Re:Coded, and panelists included Safa Salwan, Founder of Women Techmakers Baghdad; Ava Nadir, Head of Zain Kurdistan Marketing Communication and PR Department; Talar Noore, Founder and CEO of WWB Consulting; and Hero Mohammed, Software Developer and Founder of Hackasuly. The discussion ranged from personal experiences and challenges to advice to aspiring entrepreneurs, with a particular focus on the intersection between entrepreneurship, technology, and soft skills.
 
Safa Salwan articulated this nexus when she advised students to work on enhancing their soft skills to add value to “hard” IT skills because this is what will make them invaluable with the rise of artificial intelligence in the future. There was a general consensus among the panelists that communication and critical thinking skills were essential to excelling in any field, including tech.
 
Specifically addressing the issue of gender in male-dominated spaces like tech and entrepreneurship, Ava Nadir stated the need to empower women to believe that they could depend on themselves as individuals in order to be successful. Likewise, Talar Noore focused on the characteristics of drive and curiosity as essential to female entrepreneurship. In fact, some aspects of tech and entrepreneurship had an equalizing effect that dissolved the divide between men and women’s ability to be developers or entrepreneurs. Hero Mohammad summed up the liberating and equalizing effect that the act of coding: “Your code doesn’t care if you’re male or female.”
 
In the spirit of pairing advice and inspiration with action for the audience members, Five One Labs and Re:Coded hosted the workshops “Launching your Startup” and “Intro to Coding: Creating an Android App.” The former, hosted by Alice Bosley and Pat Cline, with support from entrepreneurs from Five One Labs, focused on strategies for interviewing customers, brainstorming solutions, and developing a business idea to pitch to an entrepreneur in the community. The coding workshop, led by Zahra Shah, focused on the basics of Java programming and XML, and encouraged participants to write a few lines of code themselves.

Assessing Women's Entrepreneurial Potential in the Aftermath of the Kuwait Conference

 

On Monday, March 12, the AUIS Entrepreneurship Initiative hosted the event, “Assessing Women’s Entrepreneurial Potential in the Aftermath of the Kuwait Conference” as a follow-up to the inaugural IRIS Dialogues held the previous day. The event was designed to be an open discussion to share ideas about increasing women’s participation in Iraq’s entrepreneurship sector.

 

The discussion was led by Christina Andreassen, Business Development and Education Manager at WOMENA, a Dubai-based angel investment platform geared toward female entrepreneurs in the MENA region; Aziz Al-Nasiri, CEO of Noah’s Ark, an online initiative to foster entrepreneurship in Iraq; and Zahra Shah, Program Manager at Iraq re:coded, a humanitarian startup that trains conflict affected youth with tech and entrepreneurship skills. It also included input from a range of female entrepreneurs, including Hero Mohammad (Helena Hub), Ghareba Hussain (Nujin), Fatima Muhammad (Tech Teens), Talar Noore (World Wide Business Management), and Ava Nadir (Zain Iraq), in addition to representatives of NGOs and the private sector.

 

The discussion began with an overview of the entrepreneurial scene in the UAE and obstacles and opportunities to applying aspects of the model there to entrepreneurship and women’s participation in Iraq. The discussion fostered a debate about the unique challenges Iraqis and particularly female Iraqi entrepreneurs face and how they can be overcome using existing models or locally developed solutions.

 

According to the participants, female entrepreneurs in Iraq face a twofold challenge: one in navigating the issues that affect growth of the entrepreneurial sector as a whole and one in overcoming the gap between men and women’s participation in entrepreneurship. Despite high rates of education, especially among women, Iraq faces systemic issues including a lack of  middle class, limited use of the latest technology and an education system that fails to foster innovative ideas, brain drain, difficulties in financing, ethical issues such as corruption, lack of customized training programs relevant to Iraqi issues, and cultural issues such as risk aversion and hesitancy to work in teams.

 

One female entrepreneur sensed people felt a lack of trust toward women, and another noted that she had hired a male CEO because she thought he would attract more business. While some gender-specific issues impeding women’s participation can be alleviated through a variety of outreach and advocacy campaigns through media and education, the government and private sector needed to take active roles in making the ecosystem more amenable toward entrepreneurship broadly and female entrepreneurs specifically. In particular, reforms to investment laws, the establishment of venture funds and coworking spaces, and coordination between government ministries, banks, private sector actors, and chambers of commerce to improve private sector conditions could make a difference in the lives of entrepreneurs. In addition, requirements that entrepreneurs have a sponsor (kafeel) to start their own business and lengthy bureaucratic procedures to acquire a loan are just two examples of potential areas of reform.

 

Given the short length of the discussion, the participants decided that the best way to continue fostering a more entrepreneurship-friendly private sector with greater opportunities for women was to maintain a sustained dialogue in the aftermath of the roundtable.

 

Special thanks to Womena for partnering with us on their Women of MENA Campaign and raffling off tickets to two of our participants for the STEP Conference held in Dubai from March 28-29.

AUIS Global Entrepreneurship Week

 
On November 16, 2017, IRIS hosted an informal discussion and Q & A session with entrepreneurs in the Kurdistan Region and Iraq as part of Global Entrepreneurship Week (“GEW”), a weeklong worldwide event hosted by the Global Entrepreneurship Network (“GEN”). GEN is a group aimed at providing support to aspiring entrepreneurs through access to investors, researchers, and policymakers across 170 countries. Each year since November 2008, it has hosted GEW to celebrate the achievements and experiences of entrepreneurs through activities, competitions, and networking events.
 
The AUIS Entrepreneurship Week event aimed to provide AUIS students with perspectives, challenges, and advice on starting businesses in the current entrepreneurial environment. It began with remarks by AUIS President Bruce Ferguson, an educator, entrepreneur and investor with a lifelong interest in technology-based innovation, who discussed his own background, as well as the importance of entrepreneurship in Iraq and Kurdistan today. After a brief introduction, he opened the floor to the panel of eight entrepreneurs who shared their experiences of starting businesses in the country.
 
The panelists included Hallo Sagrma, director of Indigo Canvas; Hevi Manmy, CEO of Bazary Online; Alice Bosley, Co-Founder of FiveOne Labs; Fatin Al-Weli, Co-Founder of Escape the Room Iraq; Bayad Jamal, CEO of Bayad Inc.; Talar Noore, Founder and CEO of Worldwide Business Management, LLC; Rawaz Rauf of Hiwa Rauf for Investment and Development (HRID); and Hemen Askary, Branch Manager of the Lavazza Franchise in Sulaimani.
 
The entrepreneurs gave a variety of answers in response to a question about some of their biggest challenges. Some highlighted the personal challenges of accepting risk and trusting business partners, while others expressed the difficulties of dealing with outdated laws or, in some cases, the total absence of laws governing activities such as e-commerce. The general sentiment was that despite the legal and regulatory obstacles that may exist especially in Iraq, personal drive and initiative can overcome those challenges.
 
Many of the students at the event were interested not only in the personal experiences of the panelists, but also advice about when and how to start their own business. The panelists almost unanimously asserted that university was the best time to start developing a business plan. It was ideal for aspiring entrepreneurs to organize a team and implement a project idea while still in the safety net of university life so they were ready for clients by the time they graduated. Other advice included showing a willingness to trust business partners and share ideas with people who could provide support--from both financial and mentorship standpoints. Despite a temptation to protect ideas out of a fear that they may be stolen, the reality is that many ideas have existed for years and no one has taken the initiative to transform them into successful businesses.
 
One of the most important pieces of advice that the entrepreneurs agreed upon was the lack of necessity to “reinvent the wheel,” especially in Iraq. Many successful entrepreneurs in other countries had already spent a significant amount of time ironing out the difficulties associated with implementing an idea. Rather than creating entirely new processes, it was best to learn from the successful stories of others.

Workshop: Design Thinking and the Entrepreneurial Process

 
On July 24, 2017, the newly-established AUIS Entrepreneurship Initiative (AEI) and FiveOne Labs co-hosted a workshop on design thinking and the entrepreneurial process in partnership with the Nishtiman Youth Network. The workshop was facilitated by Alice Bosley, Executive Director of Five One Labs, and IRIS Research Fellow Aaron Bartnick, future MBA candidate at the University of Oxford.
The workshop drew 50 students from six universities across the region, including AUIS.

After a brief welcome from the workshop facilitators, AUIS President Professor Bruce Walker Ferguson offered opening remarks on the role that entrepreneurship can play in supporting societal change, and emphasized the entrepreneurial potential of Iraq and the Kurdistan Region. Professor Hemin Latif followed these remarks with an overview of the three attributes he considers to be essential to an entrepreneurial mindset: the innovative vision to see unmet needs and come up with new solutions, the willingness to take risks, and the resilience to stick with a venture over the long term, despite the inevitable setbacks encountered along the way.

 

Bosley then led the group in an hour-long “design sprint,” in which participants paired off and conducted several iterations of user research before designing a product to help meet a need they uncovered. This process, she explained in conclusion, is exactly how you should be approaching your startup ideas.

 

AEI is a research and advocacy program focused on improving Iraq and the Kurdistan Region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. AEI will continue to host events like this one throughout the year, while publishing research like the recently released report, “Obstacles and Opportunities for Entrepreneurship in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region.”

 

Five One Labs is a start-up incubator that helps refugees and conflict-affected entrepreneurs launch and grow their businesses in the Middle East. Launched first in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Five One Labs aim to empower individuals to rebuild their lives and livelihoods and to contribute to the economic growth of their communities.

 

Entrepreneurship in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region

 

On June 19, 2017, AEI under the auspices of IRIS hosted a workshop entitled “Barriers and Opportunities for Entrepreneurship in the Kurdistan Region and Iraq,” in partnership with the Iraq Middle Market Development Foundation (IMMDF), IraqCom Technologies, and the Qaiwan Group. The event was chaired by Dr. Diar Ahmed, Managing Director of IraqCom Technologies, and IRIS Research Fellow Aaron Bartnick, future MBA candidate at the University of Oxford.

The meeting brought together over two dozen entrepreneurs, venture capital leaders, academics, government representatives, and members of the international NGO community from across the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), Iraq, and the MENA region. AUIS students and faculty also participated in the event. The diversity of perspectives and experiences present at the event reflects both the complex network of stakeholders in Iraq’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and the huge potential a strong entrepreneurship sector represents for both Iraq and the KRI.

The event was structured in two parts. After opening remarks from AUIS President Bruce Walker Ferguson and Dr. Diar Ahmed, participants worked to establish a shared understanding of the unique context and challenges of entrepreneurship in Iraq and the KRI. In seeking to answer the question, “What does it mean to be an entrepreneur in Iraq?”, the panel discussed a wide array of challenges, including capital access, a complex regulatory environment, barriers to market entry, infrastructure limitations, and cultural norms around entrepreneurship and risk taking.

In the second part of the discussion, the group focused on developing a roadmap to making entrepreneurship a more accessible career option in Iraq and the KRI. Specific recommendations included streamlining the business incorporation process, expanding access to mobile banking and payment platforms, and partnering with government institutions to increase capital flows to entrepreneurs. Recognizing the lack of infrastructure, mentorship, and capital support in the KRI, the group also expressed support for AUIS’ proposed establishment of an entrepreneurship lab based at the university.

Most importantly, however, the group concluded that all of these structural changes must exist on top of a cultural foundation that encourages risk taking and ‘destigmatizes’ failure. That cultural shift will take time, but it is the lynchpin for creating a successful entrepreneurial ecosystem in Iraq and the KRI.

IRIS also published a full report following this event. Download it here.

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