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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.

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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)!

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