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.


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.



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