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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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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.


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 Alejandro Martínez 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

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