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Five One Labs: A startup incubator displaced and conflict-affected entrepreneurs in Iraq

Five One Labs is a start-up incubator that helps displaced and conflict-affected entrepreneurs in Iraq launch and grow their businesses.

Photo of Patricia

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*Please Upload User Experience Map (as attachment) and any additional insights gathered from Beneficiary Feedback in this field

Why does the target community define this problem as urgent and/or a priority? How is the idea leveraging and empowering community assets to help create an environment for success? (1000 characters)

This problem is urgent because it is linked to a fundamental challenge faced by both the displaced and local community in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) -- the need to find meaningful employment that leverages an individual’s assets, talents, and experience. Rebuilding livelihoods is critical to prosperity and peace in the conflict-affected communities we serve. Our training program, which we have written to be relevant to the local environment and needs, is adapted to suit the needs of early stage entrepreneurs in post-conflict contexts. As such, our incubator fills in the skills gaps - particularly in business creation - that our entrepreneurs may have, so they can better leverage their existing skills to launch businesses. We also provide financing that suits the community’s needs. Our program is designed to ensure our participants’ success; we provide grants to lower the risk for our entrepreneurs in launching, and in the future will also provide low-interest loans.

How does the idea fit within the larger ecosystem that surrounds it? Urgent needs are usually a symptom of a larger issue that rests within multiple interrelated symptoms - share what you know about the context surrounding the problem you are aiming to solve. (500 characters)

Nearly 250,000 Syrians and 1.2 million Iraqis have been displaced to the KRI. While refugees have the right to work, they face limitations like lack of access to capital, local knowledge, and access to networks. Political and economic turmoil, drop in oil prices and and political infighting with Baghdad also mean jobs are scarce for local youth. These problems are particularly acute for refugees and locals who are better-educated, as they struggle to find jobs that match their skill sets.

How does the idea affect or change the fundamental nature of the larger ecosystem that surrounds it (as described above) in a new and/or far-reaching way? (500 characters)

Our idea stimulates local economic development through job creation and also improves social cohesion through the inclusion of all members of the community. Through our bespoke trainings we offer new skills that may not be accessible via the university system. Our mentorship expands the ecosystem by providing access to a global network. With our networking events and coworking space, we create a supportive community and bring together like-minded individuals to learn from each other.

What will be different within the target community as a result of implementing the idea? What is the scope and scale of that difference? How long will it take to see that difference and how will it be sustained beyond BridgeBuilder support? (500 characters)

Over the course of our programs, our entrepreneurs strengthen their business, leadership, and technical skills. They will also have improved livelihoods once they launch their businesses or begin utilizing their new skills, which most often takes place by the end or in the months after the end of our program. In the long run, improved local economic development takes place within our target community, as an entrepreneur employes others, expands, and generates revenue for her business.

How has the idea evolved or responded to your user research during the Beneficiary Feedback Phase and any further insights provided if you participated in the Expert Feedback Phase? (1000 characters)

During this phase we surveyed our target audience to learn how to improve our existing programs and see if our initial market research still stood or whether the needs and circumstances of our community have changed. The surveys showed that first, many individuals wanted a bigger community of entrepreneurs and more connections with other entrepreneurs post-program. We will create the “Entrepreneurship in Kurdistan” Facebook page to encourage conversation and cooperation. We will implement this in the coming weeks and initially use it to test what types of content and community events members are interested in. The surveys also showed the desire for a dedicated space to meet and work, which has validated our idea for a coworking space, which is currently under construction. Finally, we received useful suggestions on the types of one-off trainings that entrepreneurs would like, mainly marketing and finance. We will test new modules online and in person over the coming months.

What are the key steps for implementation in the next 1-3 years? (You can attach a timeline or GANTT chart in place of a written plan, if desired.) (1000 characters)

Our 1-3 year plan is to continue testing our model in the KRI before expanding to other areas affected by displacement. In the short term (six months to one year), we will launch our coworking space in the city of Sulaimani, and continue improving our incubation, pipeline development, and additional entrepreneur support. We will run the next iteration of our incubator in fall 2018, with the aim of incubating 10-15 new startups by the end of December, and organize a third iteration of the program in Erbil spring 2018. We will also begin expanding across Iraq, and hopefully run trainings in Mosul and potentially Baghdad. We will then expand to other areas in the region (like Jordan or Lebanon) affected by displacement. Our location decision will be based on several factors, including developments in the legal environment that affect refugee right to work; the need and demand for our service in a given community; and the willingness of partner organizations to support our work.

Describe the individual or team that will implement this idea (if a partnership, please explain breakdown of roles and responsibilities for each entity). (Feel free to share an organizational chart or visual description of your team). (500 characters)

Our team is made up of four full-time staff members have experience in design thinking, humanitarian innovation and entrepreneurship in Iraq and the wider Middle East. We are entrepreneurs, community builders, facilitators and understand curriculum development, political risk and community development. Outside of our staff, we have a network of over 50 mentors worldwide and work with local partners to provide world class recruitment, mentorship, programming and advisory support.

What aspects of the idea would potential BridgeBuilder funds primarily support? (500 characters)

BridgeBuilder funds would defray the costs directly associated with our incubator program, such as participant stipends; prototyping stipends; recruitment, community and pipeline development events; trainer costs; and seed funding for our entrepreneurs, among others.

In preparation for our Expert Feedback Phase: What are three unanswered questions or challenges that you could use support on in your project? These questions will be answered directly by experts matched specifically to your idea and needs.

1. What are ways to better integrate impact measurement into our programming in a way that is less burdensome on our participants? 2. How can we make our business model more sustainable? 3. How can we incentivize investors to unlock the potential of the Iraqi startup ecosystem?

Explain your project idea (2,000 characters)

Five One Labs is a startup incubator in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) that provides displaced and conflicted-affected entrepreneurs with the skills and support to launch scalable, innovative businesses. As the first start up incubator in Iraq, we are rethinking the traditional humanitarian approach to livelihoods in favor of a more sustainable solution. Our incubation program – a full-time, three month experience for talented youth with business ideas – provides free coworking and community space; bespoke training in design thinking, business skills, leadership and resilience; mentorship from global entrepreneurs and experts; and intensive advisory support. We connect entrepreneurs with local role models to broaden their networks and provide living and childcare stipends to allow our participants to focus full-time on their businesses. In short, we go to great lengths to ensure the young changemakers in our programs can overcome personal and professional challenges, develop a lifelong, inclusive community, and thrive. Our regular entrepreneurship programming, coworking spaces and community and networking events build the entrepreneurial ecosystem and ensure connections between changemakers and innovators from all backgrounds. Our solution is one that bridges prosperity and peace. By promoting entrepreneurship in conflict-affected parts of the world, we are contributing to local economic development, social cohesion, and resilience through business development, innovation, and leadership.

Who are the beneficiaries? (1,000 characters)

For each startup cohort, we welcome 50% displaced and 50% local entrepreneurs in an effort to build diverse, inclusive communities of like-minded changemakers. Our program targets young entrepreneurs, from 18 to 35, who are highly skilled but have often been unable to find work at their level. They do not have to have business experience, but they must have a scalable business idea. We also work with entrepreneurs who may have had a business in their home country and are looking to restart a similar business in their new environment. Gender diversity is also extremely important to us. In our first startup cohort, more than 50% of our founders were women. We host events that celebrate women leaders in entrepreneurship in technology and give childcare stipends to those who need them. For future cohorts, we are planning to provide more types support - conversation groups, additional advisory sessions, and more - to ensure that women can thrive in our programs.

How is your idea unique? (1,000 characters)

We flip the humanitarian paradigm on its head: rather than seeing displaced individuals as ‘beneficiaries’ of aid, we see them as assets to their new communities. Post-conflict communities contain rich talents, experiences, and skills that can contribute to a lively and vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem, economic growth and stronger livelihoods. One of our strengths is our curriculum, which we designed in-house to be conflict and trauma-sensitive and to fit the local economic context. Our incubator model is also unique because it applies to context of displacement and conflict regardless of geography. Our programs differ from humanitarian livelihoods work because in an effort to spur employment for others, we focus our training on entrepreneurs with scalable business ideas rather than providing vocational skills-building or training focused on predetermined industries. While we are sector agnostic, we look for businesses that have scalable business models and are tech-related.

Idea Proposal Stage (choose one)

  • Majority Adoption: I have expanded the pilot significantly and the program product or service has been adopted by the majority of our intended user base.

Tell us more about your organization/company (1 sentence and website URL)

Five One Labs is a start-up incubator in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq that helps refugees and conflict-affected entrepreneurs launch and grow their businesses. Website: Facebook: Twitter:

Expertise in sector

  • 3-5 years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.

In 3-4 sentences, tell us the inspiration or story that encouraged you to start this project.

Having spent a significant amount of time working, living in and studying the Middle East, we were well aware of the significant talent and potential of the region’s population – which was not always being cultivated when individuals were being displaced. We were inspired to start Five One Labs as a way to supports refugees and conflict-affected communities in their efforts to create more sustainable, empowered livelihoods and to help provide them the skills and support necessary to do so.

Please explain how your selected topic areas are influenced, in the local context of your project (1,000 characters).

For Iraq and Syria, peace and prosperity are deeply connected. A lack of prosperity is often one of the drivers of conflict; this is especially true in the Middle East, where economic protests were a trigger for the war in Syria. Continuous violence has meant that neither country has experienced consistent peace in many years, which in turn has stifled prosperity and growth for Syrians and Iraqis alike. Displaced individuals face additional 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 refugees strain scarce resources. By stimulating job creation, our incubator creates a meaningful solution to an urgent need of displaced people. It enables entrepreneurs, especially ones who are well-educated and have difficulty finding employment, to create sustainable livelihoods. By including entrepreneurs from all backgrounds, we are also promoting social cohesion.

Who will work alongside your organization in the project idea? (1,000 characters)

A key part of our model is building partnerships with local organizations, like coding bootcamps; universities; skills-building, humanitarian and women’s organizations. We have taken great care to cultivate relationships with organizations that refer potential participants to our incubator, so partnerships are critical for pipeline development. Second, it enables us to build a community of like-minded individuals because we aim to foster a diverse and supportive environment for our entrepreneurs. We co-sponsor events with local organizations and collaborate with past participants to serve as ambassadors who do outreach on our behalf. An example of this collaboration is a series of events called “Entrepreneurship for All,” in which we conducted in-person and online trainings in partnership with and for local community and leadership groups; invited our entrepreneur alumni to run trainings in local languages and mentor participants; and recruited volunteers from community groups.

Please share some of the top strengths identified in the community which your project will serve (500 characters)

The community we work with have a great enthusiasm for entrepreneurship and a strong desire to take control of their future, particularly given the conflicts that have affected them throughout a large part of their lives. They are skilled and well-educated -- many at a university level -- and want to use their talents to create a sustainable livelihood for themselves and their families.

Geographic Focus

We are based in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and our participants come from across Syria and Iraq.

How many months are required for the project idea? (500 characters)

Our program (recruitment, incubation and follow up) will take five months. We intend to run two three-month cohorts in the next year (in October 2018 and in April 2019). We believe in constant iteration. With the partnership of the entrepreneurs from our first cohort, we are adapting our program to create a stronger user experience. This includes building out our leadership curriculum to include case studies from Iraq, moving some modules online, and providing more written resources.

Did you submit this idea to our 2017 BridgeBuilder Challenge? (Y/N)

  • No


Join the conversation:

Photo of Ashley Meek

Hi there,

This is a really interesting idea to be done in KRI. We've recently undergone some lessons learned in a similar project in Erbil.

Do you think the incentives being provided for returnee's may cause issues for the program sustainability? We also found language lessons to be useful for those who do not speak Kurdish but are trying to develop businesses in KRI. Have you had any challenges with the legal aspect of displaced persons finding formal employment? I know it is mentioned in your strategy, we had similar challenges to overcome in our livelihoods programming in KRI.

Photo of Patricia

Hi Ashley,

Thanks for your questions. With regards to the legal aspects of formal employment, we aren't necessarily seeking to employ the IDPs/refugees or help them find more traditional employment, but we know that IDPs have a more challenging time legally than refugee when they work. This is also the case when it comes to business registration. A refugee will need a legal ID/residency to be able to register a business work, but an IDP faces more restrictions when it comes to ownership. For instance, it is often the case that if they are allowed to register a business, it may need to happen with shared ownership with a local.

For sustainability, we are going to expand our business model to begin charging for certain programming but in a way that ensures that we can support those who are more vulnerable and unable to pay. The next incubator program will remain cost-free for the entrepreneurs, and they will continue to receive small monthly stipends. The stipend is not high enough that it would encourage someone to join the program just to obtain this stipend. Additionally, we seek to ensure that the application process is competitive/rigorous enough that we will hopefully be able to tell if someone is only applying for financial reasons.

I hope that helps! I'd be happy to hear more about your experience in the KRI. Please feel free to email me at patricia(at)!

Photo of Anubha Sharma

teaching a man to fish rather than serving up a meal is the best way to handle the inequity and helplessness that arises from it. We follow the same philosophy in our project as well. It was interesting reading about your project. Good luck.

Photo of Patricia

Hi Anubha -- we totally agree with you! And we really appreciate the work you are doing with Angel Express. I think the volunteer model is a great one. We are in the process of trying to expand the volunteer component of our work. All of our mentors are volunteers, but we are also trying to see how else we can incorporate volunteers into our programming! There are a lot of people who offer their time to us, and we want to make sure that we can use it in the most beneficial way. If you have any suggestions, they would be greatly appreciated :)


Photo of Anubha Sharma

Hey Patricia,
What has worked for us best is having defined simple tasks that volunteers can plug into like teaching the children, keeping them engaged and connected through intense training and feedback meetings for sharing of best practices, also we have created a community through a variety of whatsapp groups into which everyone is plugged in, we find we can dip into this talent pool and find support for many specialized activities as and when we need.
We will have a new website up in about a month or so which will give more insights, you can look us up at, you can also check out our facebook page for stories about our work. Please feel free to ask any other specific questions.

Photo of Patricia

Hi Anubha -- I think narrowing down the tasks as you've suggested is a good idea. One thing we tried to do is to create a sort of "advisory council" of our peers so that they have more ownership of certain parts of our work -- for example, mentorship, corporate outreach, etc. The WhatsApp group is also another great suggestion because we can pull talent when we need it!

I'm looking forward to checking out your new website :)

Photo of Macheru Karuku

Hi Patricia,
While going through your idea, I momentarily drifted into the unfortunate world of conflicts that have caused so much pain to humankind at all the corners of the globe. And to imagine that there is no end in sight.......?
I take this opportunity to salute you for your efforts of trying to build resilience to the IDP's. One thing that I am sure of is that entrepreneurial skills are universal and what your beneficiaries learn from you will be their permanent asset whenever and wherever they go. All the best for your idea.

Photo of Patricia

Macheru, thank you very much for your kind words! We definitely agree with regards to entrepreneurial skills being universal. The skills are something a person can use whether they decide to stay in their new communities or go back to their homes. Additionally, I think many of the skills entrepreneurs have are very useful outside the context of starting one's own business!

Photo of Nick McGirl

Hi Patricia,

Beautiful and important work :) Congratulations! I'd love to hear more about how you are engaging and empowering the beneficiaries to take ownership, leadership and governance in shaping the community. Regarding your first challenge on sustainable business model, I would also ask on what is your 'exit strategy' and how can instead of looking to become sustainable pass on all of your knowledge and impact onto other local organisations who can take it on and deliver it more cheaply (universities etc?). Recommend you check out for an organisation who have developed a very lean and digitalised incubation model in low resource areas. Your second and third questions might be inter-connected :) You might know them but also check out Gaza Sky Geeks who have had some good success attracting investors, often on 'learning journeys'. I feel like the best source of funding for this are high net worth individuals passionate about entrepreneurship in such markets, for this one also a big target could / should be diaspora check out Ashoka's approach to attracting and giving identity to individual supporters at, also check out Endeavor's way of doing this. As a footnote we are more than happy to plug any of your young entrepreneurs who have a 'social element' to their work into our international network. I'm also interested if your strategic choice to brand so internationally (with website in English etc) affects your ability to reach the most marginalised / those who don't speak English ?

Photo of Patricia

Hi Nick,

Thanks very much for all your questions! I'll try to answer them all here, but if I missed anything, please let me know!

- With regards to our branding internationally, we have used our website and our Twitter page mostly for donors/our international presence because the most common form of communication here in Iraq is usually done through Facebook, so we are most active on this page. The reason we chose to have most of our programming in English (for now) is that the communities we work with do not speak the same language. For example, the local community speaks Kurdish, while IDPs tend to speak Arabic, and Syrian refugees speak both Arabic and Kurdish (but often a different dialect of Kurdish than the host community depending on their location). We wanted to ensure that we could run our incubator in a way that was inclusive of everyone so that we could also improve social cohesion/reduce tensions between communities.

We have begun offering trainings in both Arabic and Kurdish so that we can expand entrepreneurship skills across communities (and to individuals who have different education levels). For the most part, the individuals who have taken interest in our programming tend to have technical/university degrees or some substantial work experience because we are looking to incubate businesses that are more scalable, and thus incorporate technology in some capacity. So, for example, we incubate businesses such as ed tech platforms and clothing designers that sell online rather than businesses that may be started more by necessity entrepreneurs.

We are planning to continue expanding our Kurdish and Arabic offerings to be able to reach more people across the Kurdistan Region and also across Iraq more broadly. We especially are interested in running women's Arabic-language training programs for entrepreneurs who will also be matching with Arabic-speaking female mentors, so stay tuned for updates on that!

- With regards to investors and Gaza Sky Geeks' approach, we are definitely working that in to our model as well! We are going to be bringing a delegation of investors/VCs/CEOs (including members of the diaspora) from the US and other places around the world to visit the Kurdistan Region and meet with our entrepreneurs to show everyone that there is a lot of talent and potential here!

- Thanks very much for your offer to connect our entrepreneurs to the Changemaker Network. I would love to chat more about this offline if you have the time so we can learn a bit more how it works. Please feel free to email me at patricia(at) so that we can connect!

- For sustainability purposes, we are working on making the organization more financial sustainable (for example, by experimenting with charging for certain events/trainings like many other regional incubators/entrepreneurship and tech programs do). We are also opening a coworking space now and are testing out the business model to see how things can be more sustainable (and what price points we should be charging).

Otherwise we are always expanding our community of local champions, supporters and entrepreneurs to make sure that they are always connected to the work that we are doing. This means having a team of local trainers and volunteers who can deliver trainings in multiple languages and also do outreach on our behalf); ensuring that our alumni entrepreneurs are serving as mentors for new entpreneurs, etc.

We have also written our curriculum in-house so that it is tailored to the local context, and we are continuing to refine it. We modified it after our first incubator cohort and will most likely do the same after the second cohort, which is set to begin in mid-September!

Thanks again for the feedback, and I hope that answers your questions!


Photo of Isaac Jumba

Dear Patricia null 

Congratulations so far on the project. In particular, I am amazed by the diversity of the startups within your hub, in terms of the differrent problems they are solving. It will be great to read through your updated idea in the coming days especially with regards to the feedback you got from the local beneficiaries, and in terms of what the next immediate steps of the lab looks like.

In my ecoystem (Africa), one of the issues labs and incubators still struggle with is sustainability and scale. What are you envsioning for Five One Labs? Are there any interestimg models that you feel would work well?

Photo of Patricia

Hi Isaac -- thanks for your comments! We are asking ourselves similar questions to the ones you are experimenting with, and I think it's a challenge many incubators/accelerators face around the world. We are a non-profit organization ourselves but are trying to diversify our revenue streams in different ways. For example, we are building a coworking space that will have seats and office space available to rent, along with a cafe, and we are also experimenting (mostly in the research phase now) with various financing mechanisms that would generate some revenue for us in the longer term. Another option is charging small amounts for certain types of trainings (but not the incubator program itself). Have you had any other additional ideas?


Photo of Jon Hanson

Hi Patricia, looks like a great project. I'm interested to know, given the mobility of IDPs in Iraq and the move towards returning to places of origin post-conflict, will this affect your project?

Photo of Patricia

Hi Jon, that's a great question! We actually have a number of participants who are starting businesses outside of the areas where we work. For instance, while our incubator and other programming take place in the Kurdistan Region, we have participants who attend from Mosul (with the intent of starting their businesses there). Additionally, some of our entrepreneurs are starting online businesses whose target customers are outside of the Kurdistan Region.

We encourage both of these types of businesses because our aim is to help our entrepreneurs find employment and contribute to local economic development -- wherever that may be! We are also fully supportive of anyone starting a business in a place like Mosul because equipping entrepreneurs from that city with the tools and network needed to start a business there will be crucial to contributing to the city's reconstruction.

Photo of Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO)

Hi Patricia,
Congratulations on your project so far! This sounds like a great program that supports skilled, ambitious people to succeed even while facing the challenges brought by displacement. I'm excited to see how your project develops!

Photo of Kate Chance

Hi Patricia, this sounds like a great way to address the problem. I especially like how you plan to assist displaced entrepreneurs in addition to local individuals. How do you plan to ensure that displaced individuals are represented equally in your program? Best of luck with this!

Photo of Patricia

Hi Kate -- thanks for your question! We take great care to ensure that we have balanced cohorts and participation in our programs. What this means is we do a lot of pipeline development so that the community knows about our incubator. We specifically run short trainings (in English, Arabic and Kurdish) in partnership with humanitarian organizations, in refugee camps, in local community centers, etc. where we know that our target audience would be. We also have a list of partners that we always contact to advertise our programs when we are organizing any trainings so that we can maximize our reach. I hope that helps!

Photo of Kurt Davis

Have you seen this translation app? Not sure if it can be helpful

Photo of Kurt Davis

I'd like to help with this project as well. We can combine knowledge. Please also see my Southern Africa Venture Partnership project.

Photo of Patricia

Hi Kurt -- it seems we have a lot of synergies in our work. I would love to chat with you to exchange ideas. Please feel free to email me ( so that we can schedule a time to talk!

Photo of Kurt Davis

Yes, thank you. I certainly would like to help out and find ways to trade ideas. I'll email you!

Photo of Alejandro Herrera

Hi Patricia, Congratulations for the idea, I believe that entrepreneurship is a solid tool to create peace, I have a question that methodologies use for startup incubation and acceleration? It is possible to know a startup that has already finished the process. Thank you

Photo of Patricia

Hi Alejandro -- thanks for your question. I would be happy to continue the conversation by email if you'd like? You can contact me on

Photo of Janet Ilott

Hi Patricia, I would be interested in learning more about your leadership curriculum. What is included in this curriculum?

Photo of Patricia

Hi Janet thanks for your question. We are in the process of revising the curriculum now based on feedback from our first cohort, but it includes modules such as "How to Be a CEO," managing yourself and your team, emotional intelligence, building company culture and values, etc. We try and make these sessions as interactive and as useful as possible for our founders!