On Wednesday, March 6, the AUIS Entrepreneurship Initiative hosted a roundtable titled “Fostering Entrepreneurship & Tech Innovation in Iraq” in coordination with the sixth annual Sulaimani Forum. The discussion convened representatives from various startups, incubators and coworking spaces, and government and non-governmental organizations invested in supporting the entrepreneurship ecosystem. The discussion was moderated by Pat Cline, director of the AUIS Entrepreneurship Initiative, and focused on increasing the technical and entrepreneurial capacity of young Iraqis through university education, private sector funding, and support from government and NGOs.
Many of the participants echoed the sentiment of the majority of successful entrepreneurs in Iraq--that the major obstacle to entrepreneurship was not a poor regulatory environment--despite the clear need for reform--but rather the lack of investment. A number of issues, ranging from a lack of loan guarantees for entrepreneurs to exorbitant stake and control existing investors often take in nascent companies, prove to be deterrents for starting a business, and more significantly, scaling up. Existing government-led initiatives aimed at increasing financing for entrepreneurs had done little to truly expand access to capital. Tamweel, one such program, had allocated funds for small businesses, but many of the funds were restricted to particular industries or projects, and thus, had gone largely unused.
Participants raised the prospect of working through universities to expand access to capital for young entrepreneurs. Jafar Sadik, CEO of BeCorp in Baghdad, referenced a program at Dijla University that offered financing to students at low interest rates, and Hameed Al-Naser noted that during ISIS’s occupation of Mosul, organizers who later created Mosul Space used universities in Erbil and Kirkuk to hold training sessions and raise awareness about maker spaces in Mosul and around Iraq. Furthermore, a number of private companies and international organizations have begun focusing their efforts on universities. GiZ, the German development organization, recently launched a program called Intilaq--or Launch--to encourage entrepreneurship on campuses.
Another issue that entrepreneurs raised was that of “brain drain,” or the exodus of qualified employees in fields such as business and IT, in addition to a large pool of under-qualified applicants in Iraq in general. In response, companies such as Careem and Ammar Ameen’s Miswag had shifted their focus to recruit smart candidates with soft skills and the ability to learn quickly. Instead of recruiting candidates on the basis of their major in college, they offered training and professional development opportunities to complement existing soft skills. Such a business approach encouraged talented Iraqis to remain in Iraq and contribute to a stronger private sector.