Bridging Communities of Conflict-Affected Entrepreneurs in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq
Five One Labs is a startup incubator in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq that equips youth with the tools to rebuild their lives with dignity.
At the end of each incubator cohort, Five One Labs hosts a Demo Day to showcase the hard work of all of the entrepreneurs in our incubator program. In this video, you will meet the founders from our most recent cohort and get a glimpse into our new coworking space, The Lab, in Sulaimani, Iraq!
What problem does the idea help to solve and how does your solution work? (2,000 characters maximum)
Displaced individuals face challenges to rebuilding, including legal limitations on the right to work, lack of access to capital or local networks, and bias from host community members, who feel that newcomers place a burden on already scarce resources. By stimulating job creation through entrepreneurship, our incubator enables entrepreneurs to create sustainable livelihoods in their new communities. By including entrepreneurs from all backgrounds, including locals, in all of our programs, we are also promoting social cohesion and unity in the community.
Our target participants are skilled and educated displaced or conflict-affected entrepreneurs -- Syrians as well as Iraqis of all genders and backgrounds -- living in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq who have higher degrees and need support to launch their ventures. For example, this could be a Syrian artist who wants to open an art gallery, or a coder who wants to launch his own software company, but doesn’t have the network or the business know-how to be able to do so.
Since launching in mid-2017, we have run two incubator programs with 18 startups. In the past six months, we have taken feedback from our entrepreneurs and community members to revamp our program, from our recruitment to our curriculum. To directly reach refugees and IDPs across the economic spectrum, we are now offering our incubator fully in Arabic, whereas our past programs were in English. We are also bringing on board more local and regional mentors (rather than international ones) to support the entrepreneurs given they have a more granular knowledge of the Iraqi business environment.
We also realized that enrolling in a three-month, full-time incubator is a big decision, so we have changed our recruitment model so that all applicants enroll in month-long “Ignite” bootcamps prior to the incubator. This program helps entrepreneurs test the market and feasibility of their startup ideas before committing to launching their businesses.
Geography of focus (500 characters)
Our programs serve conflict-affected youth in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), including refugees, IDPs and locals, who would like to launch their own scalable businesses. We selected this geography not only because our team cares deeply about the Middle East, but also because unlike in some other parts of the region, refugees have the right to work in the KRI, which is a key legal point to ensure the success of our programs.
Building Bridges: What bridge does your idea build between people on the move and neighbors towards a shared future of stability and promise? (500 characters)
Being an entrepreneur is about solving problems, and we are bridging young entrepreneurs across communities (locals and displaced) together to ensure that the views of all are represented in any solutions that come from our incubator and beyond. Being an entrepreneur is challenging, especially challenging for a displaced individual who may lack networks or mentors. By connecting these entrepreneurs to each other and to the local ecosystem, we are hoping to create a mutually supportive community.
What human need is your idea solving for? (1,000 characters)
We believe that the ability to support ourselves, to succeed and thrive in a way that enables us to use our skills and capitalize on our own interests, is linked with re-building human dignity. While we can find any job to simply sustain ourselves, we know that doing something that we are truly passionate about will ultimately bring us the most joy.
At the core of Five One Labs is the belief in human dignity, which we put at the center of our work. We view refugees and internally displaced youth not as beneficiaries but as agents of change in their communities. Our programs take the significant untapped potential of these young people and use business incubation as a creative way to harness the talents of these highly skilled refugees, particularly women.
What this means practically is that our community members come to us with ideas for scalable businesses, and we work alongside them to ensure that this business is solving a problem or meeting a local need that he identified.
What will be different within the community of focus as a result of implementing your idea? (1,000 characters)
Our incubator generates impact by boosting local economies through job creation and refugee integration; developing entrepreneurial ecosystems to make it easier to start businesses; and creating inclusive cohorts with refugees and host community members to combat tension.
To understand the incubator’s short-term impact, we survey our entrepreneurs before, during and after program to assess what they have learned and how their confidence levels have changed. For breadth of our program, we measure the number of participants in our incubator and percent women and displaced participants, among others, anod how this changes cohort-on-cohort. For depth we measure the percentage of entrepreneurs who have launched their business by the incubator’s end; have their first customers; have functioning businesses one year after the incubator; have salary increases; and have received investment. We also look at how many jobs each startup creates to understand the economic impact on the community.
What is the inspiration behind your idea? (1,000 characters)
The message we have overwhelming heard among displaced and local young people in the KRI for the past several years has been the desire to take control of their futures. Throughout the conflict in Iraq, young Syrians and Iraqis found it difficult to find meaningful employment, and they realized that they could no longer rely on the government (traditionally the largest employer) to provide stable jobs. Insecurity also meant that private sector jobs were also scarce, as many companies shrunk or shut down operations.
This is where an incubator is important. By starting their own businesses and creating jobs for themselves, our community members are in fact taking control of their own futures. The program encourages experimentation and creativity, and translates the resourcefulness and skills of young people into concrete solutions to complex problems. Expert mentorship and access to a community in our coworking space create a supportive environment where our entrepreneurs can thrive.
Describe the dynamics of the community in which the idea is to be implemented. (1,000 characters)
To provide context from a bird’s-eye level, the KRI is home to 250,000 Syrian refugees and over one million internally displaced Iraqis. A recent Kurdistan Regional Government study showed that 80% of refugees are employed in the region’s capital but primarily in the service/food industries. The main group of unemployed refugees are those with university degrees, as skilled positions are subject to the most bias or skills mismatch. Syrian women are also highly under-employed, with less than 8% in the workforce. What this means on a more personal level is that there is a willingness and desire to engage in dignified work, but the supply of jobs is not there or legal obstacles make it challenging to work.
On a community level, we see that there is a substantial number of refugees or IDPs that are urban, and many are living among and working alongside the local community in the KRI’s cities.
Members of the community -- university students, entrepreneus, mentors, business people, local NGOs and humanitarian organizations -- participate in a hackathon in our coworking space. The hackathon tackled two local challenges: pollution/recycling and problems resulting from road congestion.
How does your idea leverage and empower community strengths and assets to help create an environment for success? (1,000 characters)
An entrepreneur cannot succeed without the backing of a supportive ecosystem. While one of the most fundamental success factors for the incubator has been the motivation and talent of the entrepreneurs themselves, we have also leveraged the strengths of the entire community to create an environment in which our entrepreneurs can thrive.
Some of these strengths include universities that are increasingly supporting entrepreneurship and tailoring curricula to that will enable business development; businesspeople who are willing to share their expertise with budding entrepreneurs; a supportive community of capacity-building organizations who meet regularly to exchange best practices; and eager civil society and youth groups willing to partner in advertising entrepreneurship programs.
All of these assets tie into the core aspects of our incubator model -- training, mentorship, community and access to finance.
Our bi-monthly business breakfasts are a great example of how we leverage the skills and time of the whole community to ensure a successful ecosystem. In this breakfast held during International Women's Day, women entrepreneurs in Five One Labs programs share a meal at our coworking space with other prominent women from the community in Sulaimani -- investors, businesswomen, founders and academics, among others -- in the hopes that they will all foster meaningful connections.
What other partners or stakeholders will work alongside you in implementing the idea, if any? (1,000 characters)
Our focus on local partnerships has been a critical component of everything that we do. While we are an organization with a global outlook, from day one our programs have been driven by local demand and have been designed alongside the community. We spent a year developing our curriculum, which caters to the needs of post-conflict early-stage founders, and over the past several months have redesigned our incubator program to ensure that it best suits the dynamics within the KRI.
In meeting the demand for idea-stage entrepreneurship education, we have worked directly with local tech companies, NGOs and humanitarian organizations, youth and women’s groups, investors and educational institutions, to conduct outreach for our programs and to make entrepreneurship a possibility for everyone. This grassroots, bottom-up implementation has relied on local collaborations from the very earliest stages because an entrepreneur cannot succeed without the support of the local ecosystem.
What part of the displacement journey is your solution addressing
Arriving and settling at a destination community
Tell us how you'd describe the type of innovation you are proposing
Service: A new or enhanced service that creates value for end beneficiaries
Idea Proposal Stage
Early Adoption: We have completed a pilot and analyzed the impact of that pilot on the intended users of the idea. I have proof of user uptake (i.e. 16% to 49% of the target population or 1,000 to 50,000 users).
Group or Organization Name
Five One Labs
Tell us more about your group or organization [or lived experience as a displaced person?] (1000 characters)
Our mission is to use entrepreneurship to help conflict-affected individuals rebuild and thrive. While the incubator is our flagship program, it is one of several initiatives we have to achieve our mission. For example, after listening to the challenges that women entrepreneurs face, we developed a Female Founders Fellowship to work with growth-stage female founders. Many of our community members have indicated they need more access to startup funding, so we are working with local businesspeople to encourage angel investing; are partnering with NGOs to provide small grants; and are doing research required to start a fund.
Our team is made up of members of all of the communities that we work with. We have members who are experts in design thinking and have experience advising startups in challenging environments; we have expert trainers and event planners; and everyone is creative, compassionate and open-minded. Most importantly, we believe in the power of entrepreneurship
fiveonelabs.org, facebook.com/fiveonelabs, instagram.com/fiveonelabs, twitter.com/fiveonelabs
Type of submitter
We are a registered Non-Profit Organization
Organization Headquarters: Country
Organization Headquarters: City / State
In preparation for expert feedback: What are three unanswered questions or challenges that you could use support on in these categories? These questions will be answered directly by experts matched specifically to your idea. (600 characters)
1. How do we ensure our entrepreneurs’ continued success after they graduate from our three-month incubator?
2. Our startup incubator is free of charge for our participants, as we want to make sure that none of our users goes into debt or is otherwise harmed by joining Five One Labs. However, many partners have asked why we don’t charge or at least take equity in our businesses. What are your perspectives?
3. We currently work with very early, idea-stage entrepreneurs to help them take the first steps towards launching a business. Is this the right stage of entrepreneur to work with?
Did you use the resources offered during the Improve Phase (mentorship, expert feedback, community research)? (2000 characters)
Yes, we benefited from a lot of feedback during this phase! We spoke to our mentor, who asked us very practical questions about how we operate our incubator on the ground in reality, and particularly how we address certain key issues - supporting IDPs versus refugees, including women in all of our programs, and utilizing other resources to support our entrepreneurs. We received feedback from an expert, who answered the three questions we posed. It was a very useful exercise for engage in conversations with independent experts and mentors who did not know about our model so that we could gather feedback from independent sources.
We also were pleased to have ongoing conversations with other participants on the platform, including having phone calls offline to better understand their models, learn how we can apply their lessons learned to our programs, compare challenges and opportunities and see how we might collaborate moving forward.
Finally, and most importantly, we went back to our community of entrepreneurs in Iraq and got feedback on the incubation programs we’ve run so far. We started testing a variety of new approaches to supporting entrepreneurs. These included hosting gatherings for female founders every two weeks during the incubator to provide additional support to women entrepreneurs; hosting an event to connect entrepreneurs to potential tech co-founders given the lack of CTOs was an issue we identified; and redesigning our post-incubator “Investment Committee” structure for one of our entrepreneurs to make it better suit her needs at this stage in her business.
Five One Labs entrepreneur Manar describes her experience in the incubator to share her lessons learned with future founders!
In what ways would potential BridgeBuilder funds allow you to pursue your idea that other funding opportunities have not? (1000 characters)
Human centered design focuses on a process of testing and iterating to constantly learn, modify and improve ideas based on our user needs. Having BridgeBuilder funding would allow us to be more user-centered in how we operate as an organization. We would have the flexibility to prioritize the areas that are most important for our founders and deprioritize ones that we’ve realized aren’t as helpful.
Much of our funding comes from governments and institutional donors, who have very strict budgeting and planning processes that make it challenging to be agile and receptive to feedback as we receive it given we are bound to annual funding cycles. We would also use the fund to test new areas of work that our founders have requested, like helping our entrepreneurs scale their businesses, making better connections between investors and entrepreneurs, or providing clearer market data and information about the process of launching a business before diving head first into pursuing that path.
What aspects or proportion of the overall idea would potential BridgeBuilder funds primarily support? (1000 characters)
Bridgebuilder would allow us to fill a few key gaps that we have identified in our programs based on user and expert support: 1) supporting women during and after the incubation process to overcome the additional obstacles they face in launching scalable or tech startups, including the provision of seed funding; 2) providing high quality, hands-on continued support after the incubator is over, to ensure our entrepreneurs have a strong framework through which to launch their business and 3) connecting diverse entrepreneurs with potential co-founders and local mentors to accompany them in the journey of launching their startup. Finally, as mentioned in the previous question, it will allow us to test new ways to support our entrepreneurs, like connecting regional investors with startups that are ready to scale regionally. The core components of our programs will continue to be funded through institutional donors but receiving an additional $250,000 will allow over a year of flexibility.
What are the key steps or activities for your idea for implementation in the next 1-3 years? (1000 characters)
Over the next six months we will continue to refine our incubator model. Activities include:
- Completing our first full tech incubator and running our first full Arabic-language incubator
- Determining the impact of our Incubate Women’s Initiative and our new technical advisory
- Developing a more robust post-incubator support program and investment committee structure
Within the next year, we will pilot new activities to deepen our startup support programming. Activities include:
- Providing scale up and investment readiness support programs, including developing and running investment readiness workshops; connecting entrepreneurs with international markets; and building a community of local investors
- Providing tailored one-on-one advisory services to our wider community
By the end of 2020 we plan to expand our reach across Iraq and test market interest by:
- Digitizing parts of our curriculum into online videos in local languages
- Running short workshops across Iraq
What will community-level impact look like over the timeframe of your idea? How will you determine whether or not you have achieved that impact? And what outstanding questions do you still have? (1000 characters)
IMPACT: By the end of 2022 we will incubate 75 scalable businesses from across Iraq and Syria and provide advisory support, investment readiness, mentorship and connections to 2,500 along the business development pipeline (from idea stage to fundraising).
MEASUREMENT: Through surveys before the incubator, every week during and after the program is done, we will measure the increase in knowledge of confidence of our entrepreneurs, and every six months after our program we will collect survey data on the status of each business (revenue, employees, investment, etc). For non-incubation programs, we will conduct similar pre- and post-program learning surveys.
QUESTION: While aiming to reach a broad number of entrepreneurs over the coming three years, how can we remain responsive to the needs of the entrepreneurs in the market as the nascent ecosystem continues to evolve and grow?
Describe the individual or team that will implement this idea (if a partnership, please explain breakdown of roles and responsibilities for each entity). (1000 characters)
We are fortunate to have a team of 15 people in two cities that have experience in entrepreneurship, design thinking, humanitarian innovation, marketing and event management. Our diverse team comes from across Iraq and Syria, represents the community of entrepreneurs that we work with and speaks all of their local languages. Our alumni entrepreneurs serve as mentors and advisors for our current cohort and we have a technical advisor to support our founders with the tech aspects of their businesses.
We also have a network of dozens of mentors from across the world - most of them entrepreneurs - and host regular experts in Iraq from all over the world to advise our founders share their knowledge with our entrepreneurs. We are working with a local telecoms company to sponsor regular monthly entrepreneurship events; are partnering with tech organizations to host hackathons and tech festivals; and host regular trainings with universities. Our work is truly a community effort!
Lastly, how did you apply new learnings to your idea? (1000 characters)
We are constantly adapting and improving our idea based on feedback from our users. Based on feedback we received, we launched the “Incubate Women Initiative” in our current tech incubator, which is a biweekly meeting for women in technology to talk about their experiences and to meet impressive women in the community. We hope that this will also encourage more women to pursue technology-based businesses and provide role models for others. We are also testing a new model of Investment Committee (the post-incubator support for seed funding winners) with new IC members based on feedback from our entrepreneur. Finally, we’re hosting a developer fair this week to connect the founders in our current tech cohort with potential co-founders and CTOs. We hosted this based on feedback from entrepreneurs that one of the most challenging parts of launching a business (particularly for non-technical founders) is doing it alone.