Carla Harris: Imagine having to flee your home and start over in a new country without your savings, a network, or an education that’s recognized. Imagine the difficulties you would encounter trying to build wealth. For millions of people, this is not imaginary.
The world is in a refugee crisis. From Ukraine to Venezuela, South Sudan to Myanmar, the UN Refugee Agency reports that over 26 million people had fled their homes as of early 2021, the highest number in recorded history.
But even after these individuals deal with the hardships of displacement, the struggle to start a business or even find work is often what holds them back from rebuilding their lives. Today, we’ll focus on solutions for displaced entrepreneurs that are taking shape in the northern region of Iraq - Kurdistan, that may act as a model to be replicated worldwide.
We’ll speak to a refugee who started an agriculture tech firm in his new home in Kurdistan.
Displaced Entrepreneur: If you had to leave your country, don’t keep waiting for the day you go back to your country to start doing things.
Carla Harris: And later we’ll speak to Alice Bosley and Patricia Letayf of Five One Labs, an incubator focused on displaced founders.
Alice Bosley: These are entrepreneurs. These are innovators. These are creators. These are providers of jobs that can benefit and modernize the local economy.
Carla Harris: Welcome to Access and Opportunity, I'm your host Carla Harris. And we're telling the stories of individuals working to drive change within their communities. We provide context about systemic inequities and share tangible examples of how ideas around access and opportunity are being made real every day.
Today’s story takes us to the city of Erbil in Kurdistan, and it starts with something small. A strawberry.
Displaced Entrepreneur: The strawberry is a crop known to be sensitive to the environment. It needs highly specific conditions to grow. Our system helped a farmer who was growing strawberries in greenhouses.
Carla Harris: The refugee entrepreneur we’re hearing from today has asked to remain unnamed and not reveal his country of origin in order to protect his safety and rights as a displaced person. It’s just one of the many hurdles he’s encountered growing his company, Green Shovel, a business that helps farmers utilize technology to produce crops that were virtually unheard of in the region, like strawberries.
Displaced Entrepreneur: Of course, the ones that we usually get in markets are mostly imported. During the shipping and storage process, strawberries lose a lot of their flavors. You cannot compare imported fruits to locally grown ones, locally grown ones are always fresher and tastier.
Carla Harris: Growing strawberries in Iraq takes finesse. You need the right watering schedule, right temperatures, the right soil conditions. It’s something that’s almost impossible to pull off by a human farmer, which is why our entrepreneur goes farm-to-farm in the region pitching his AI-based software and greenhouse systems to the local farmers. His company is based in the Iraqi city of Erbil. But he hasn’t always lived in Erbil. He grew up in a village in a neighboring country.
Displaced Entrepreneur: Village life was very beautiful. My friends were near me and we used to spend beautiful times together. We’d play games together everyday like football in courts in the village. But I always dedicated time to studying because I wanted to finish my education and get high grades in every class. I moved to the city center to finish high school. My GPA qualified me to study mechanical and electrical engineering.
Carla Harris: This was back in 2011. Pro-democracy protests were erupting across our entrepreneur’s home country, and soon it would plunge into a full-fledged civil war that, more than a decade later, is ongoing.
News reporter: The scenes are unprecedented. Day after day of protest.
News reporter: More than 1500 schools and colleges have been targeted or damaged.
Displaced Entrepreneur: I was in my final year of high school then and I was getting ready to start college. As students, we were worried all the time. We were not sure what was going to happen in the future. Some people said there wouldn’t be any finals at all. We studied anyway, but we never knew if what we were doing would result in anything. We told ourselves that whatever the future looked like, we would adapt and make the best of it.
Carla Harris: In 2012, just as our entrepreneur was about to leave home for university, he was forced to drop everything and flee.
Displaced Entrepreneur: I was about to start studying. All my paperwork was finished. But unfortunately, the country was not safe, so I decided to look for other options to avoid wasting time.
Carla Harris: For our entrepreneur, going to university was his dream since he was a kid. He didn’t want to leave home, but he knew he couldn’t stay and get an education, so he applied to study IT engineering in Iraq, at a university in Erbil. And he got in.
Displaced Entrepreneur: The reason why someone decides to leave their country changes from person to person. Some people decide to leave because of the difficult livelihood, some leave to seek education elsewhere – I was one of these people – while others decide to leave because of the deteriorating situation in the country and the damage to their homes.
Carla Harris: It’s hard to overstate the difficulties of being forced to leave your home country. But while many hope the displacement is temporary, only 3% of refugees return to their country of origin. For most, there’s no choice but to start a new life, and this often means losing their accreditation, learning a new language, and navigating local bureaucracies to build a new network from scratch. In this regard, our entrepreneur was an outlier - for him, the system worked.
He was able to transfer his credit requirements and he was given residency without any issues. He was happy to find that the locals in Erbil were welcoming and respectful. The city itself was vibrant, located in the heart of the Kurdistan region where modern and ancient life coexist. It was a place for new beginnings.
Displaced Entrepreneur: I had some challenges with the language. I speak a different dialect of Kurdish than the one spoken in Erbil. But because the teaching language was in English, everyone was able to speak English. It was the language that connected us to each other.
Carla Harris: It was this ease of transition that gave our entrepreneur the opportunity to pursue his interests and thrive. So he got back to work, burying his head in his schoolwork. He started learning about artificial intelligence, and got hooked. As he got deeper into his studies he was reminded of something he had seen as a kid.
Displaced Entrepreneur: A lot of my neighbors were working in agriculture like any other village. I had some knowledge about the field, how farmers were suffering due to their inability to reach many of the modern farming tools that would have made their lives easier and helped them increase their production and income.
Carla Harris: He and a few of his classmates put their heads together and came up with the idea for Green Shovel. They would create a smart agriculture system. They would control temperature and humidity in greenhouses, create smart irrigation and soil quality measuring systems that would allow farmers to grow better crops with less work.
It was a strong concept, but our now entrepreneur had never started a business before then - which is hard under any circumstance. But for him, someone who didn’t have a personal network in his new country, getting Green Shovel off the ground would be a challenge.
That’s when he found an incubator for entrepreneurs from conflict areas called Five One Labs.
Displaced Entrepreneur: I met the requirements to participate in their business incubator. It was a three month-long incubator and the experience that I gained from it was very important. They introduced us to all the skills that a startup would need, like marketing, prototypes, user research and all the surveys we conducted with them. When the incubator finished, the projects were assessed and we got first place, which qualified us to get seed funding and move forward with our business idea.
Carla Harris: Our entrepreneur is part of a larger entrepreneurial shift taking root in Iraq. Until 2021, there were no venture capital funds in Iraq, but in the past two years, two funds have launched as the region opens its doors to more investment. There's been an inflow of capital from outside investors who previously were hesitant to put their money behind Iraq’s startups because of a lack of data and bureaucracy. There are still glaring gaps in the distribution of this capital, especially for female founders in the region. But for our entrepreneur, this shift has been the opportunity of a lifetime.
As he's gotten more experience as an entrepreneur, he's been able to overcome some of the hurdles that plague first time business owners.
Displaced Entrepreneur: In the beginning, farmers were not interested because of our marketing strategy. We were depending on social media to market our products because using social media didn’t cost us a lot. But, social media didn’t work well with the farmers. So we came up with another strategy to reach them. We decided to physically go to where they were and directly demonstrate and explain our products and services to them.
Carla Harris: He came up with a new business model - he would allow farmers to use his system for free, and only pay once it earned them a profit. And it worked. Now, Green Shovel is growing rapidly. It’s not only helping local farmers, but also employing Iraqis.
Displaced Entrepreneur: More than 100 clients have benefited from our services and products. We have a team of directors, a product team, a programming team and a marketing team. I can’t really imagine what things would’ve looked like now if I was still in my country.
If you had to leave your country, don’t keep waiting for the day you go back to your country to start doing things.
Carla Harris: Our entrepreneur’s accomplishments in Iraq highlight what can happen when there are systems in place for refugees to get the resources they need to succeed. For many displaced people, however, there are impossible hurdles to the kind of success our entrepreneur was able to create. For example, a 2018 survey by the World Bank estimated that 4 in 5 refugees in Uganda are unemployed and that refugees earn wages that are 35 to 45% lower than the host population.
This is where my guests Alice Bosley and Patricia Letayf come in. Alice and Patricia started Five One Labs, the organization that helped launch Green Shovel. Since launching as the first incubator in Iraq in 2017, Five One Labs has provided funding to roughly 90 scalable startups. They've also offered training and networking opportunities to thousands of aspiring displaced and conflict affected entrepreneurs. And Alice and Patricia are not stopping there: they're working on implementing the Five One Labs model in other areas around the world. They already offer their program in multiple languages to accommodate the diversity of their cohorts, but expansion will require time and patience as their team becomes intimately familiar with the cultural and business nuances of each country.
I sat down with Alice and Patricia to talk about Five One Labs.
Carla Harris: Alice and Patricia, thank you so much for being here with me today. It's a pleasure to have you both on the show. Are you ready? Can we jump right in?
Alice Bosley: Yes. Thank you so much.
Patricia Letayf: We are ready to go.
Carla Harris: Okay. Alrighty. So let's talk about Five One Labs. Alice, what's the significance of Five One?
Alice Bosley: Yeah, so the name Five One Labs comes from the 1951 refugee convention that gives refugees the right to work. So when we launched our mission was that we would help diverse entrepreneurs and conflict affected areas to start and grow innovative, scalable businesses in order to benefit themselves and their local community.
Carla Harris: I heard that you guys often joke that it was so much friction to get this started you thought you were going to catch a fire. So can you explain some of the challenges of putting together this kind of organization?
Alice Bosley: The one piece of advice I would give to someone trying to launch something like this is just: maintain flexibility. I arrived in Iraq, the summer of 2017 to launch Five One Labs the week before an independence referendum that took place in the Kurdistan region of the country. During this referendum, the majority of people in that region actually voted in favor of independence and the Iraqi government retaliated by closing all of the land borders, the airports, they stopped all international money transfers into the region and a variety of other things. And so we were weeks away from launching our first incubator program. Patricia couldn't come in to visit us. We didn't have access to any of our money. So we ended up running our whole first incubation program by going to the Western Union every day, getting $1,500 out, because that was all that was allowed with money laundering rules, every 24 hours, and using these like tiny backpacks full of cash to run this incubator while our entrepreneurs were concerned that there would be a civil war – and it was fine! We, you know, we managed it. It was totally fine, but it's one of those situations. And situations like this happen, not all the time, but fairly frequently, if you're working in a place that, you know, has ups and downs. Especially, I mean, we've all experienced Covid, so I think one thing that has really kept us in good stead is just kind of keeping a smile on our face and just being, being really flexible and going with the flow.
Carla Harris: Wow. You just articulated the script of a Netflix movie. I cannot believe [laughs] — it's already impressive what you guys just did, but now talk about that, that's a whole different level of flexibility. But I take my hat off to you guys that you were resilient in a moment. So what specific challenges do displaced individuals face as they look to try to create wealth? – or let me, let me take it back one, Patricia – as they look to even get started?
Patricia Letayf: Yeah, that's a, that's a great question. The first is that a lot of the time a displaced individual may have a certificate, a college degree, and that might not transfer to their local community. So for example, we have an architect in Syria and was displaced to Iraq. And he wasn't able to use those certifications to get an equivalent job when he moved to a new country. And this is quite common, especially in terms of medical professionals. You hear this a lot now, with refugees coming from Afghanistan to the U.S., for example. Other challenges include the fact that someone who is displaced might not have access to a local network – and we all know how important networks and networking can be. In addition to this issue of certifications, you often may not have access to wealth or capital. Maybe you left everything that you had at home and you left and fled for your life, so you're really lacking in a lot of those things.
Carla Harris: Mmhmm.
Alice Bosley: You know, in the humanitarian space, when we spoke about people who had been displaced by conflict, we often called them ‘beneficiaries’. There was this idea, you know, you are receiving aid. We are helping you, you know, you are these kind of poor, helpless people that we need to provide food to. And when we started Five One Labs, I think this main thing that we wanted to make sure happened was that we did change the narrative. And then in addition, we have this motto of, “all are welcome” – and so we make sure to include local entrepreneurs, as well.
Carla Harris: So you really are creating an ecosystem.
Alice Bosley: Yeah. We’re the first startup incubator in the whole country. And I think in many ways we were able to set the scene for what it means to be an entrepreneur. And we say over and over, “diversity is the key to innovation”. If you don't have a diverse cohort, if you don't allow diverse ideas in, then you're not going to be as creative and your ideas aren't going to be as successful. So, for us, that's really important. And I think we actually have been able to color the way the whole ecosystem has been created in Iraq. You see tons of women entrepreneurs. It's incredible, actually, I think – the type of diversity you see amongst all the people that want to launch their own businesses. These are entrepreneurs. These are innovators. These are creators. These are providers of jobs that can benefit and modernize the local economy.
Carla Harris: Well, I'll tell you, you are saying a verse out of a song that I wrote. I gotta tell ya, Alice. And, and one of the things that I say all the time: “You need the diversity in order to have the innovation,” and here's the thesis, right? Everybody is competing around innovation. I don't care who you are. And if you agree with that, then you need a lot of ideas in order to innovate, because innovation is born from ideas. If you need a lot of ideas, then you need a lot of perspectives because, after all, ideas are born from perspectives. If you need a lot of perspectives, you need a lot of experiences, because perspectives are born from experiences. And if you need a lot of experiences, you better start with a lot of different people, because experiences are born from people. So you got to start with a lot of different people in order to get to that one idea that allows you to innovate, which is just what you said in a much more succinct way, but I am so thrilled to hear you say that as you start up, because you all have been very intentional about the balance. So can you speak a little bit about that? Because that is a very important playbook for people who are just starting organizations, whether it's an incubator and accelerator, or a company, to be that intentional about it and how you all did it. Because, if you don't, you're not that intentional, it doesn't just happen. Especially when you're running fast, you reach for the familiar.
Alice Bosley: From the very beginning, we said, this is what we need to do. This is what we're going to focus on. And so when we designed our program, we thought, what are all of the things that an entrepreneur needs to be successful? So we decided that in every incubator cohort that we had, it would be roughly 50% local entrepreneurs and roughly 50% displaced entrepreneurs. And then when it came to women and men, we said the same thing. And so from the very beginning, this was how we designed our programs so that everybody would have different perspectives. The people who had been displaced would create these close ties with local entrepreneurs as well. Especially in a place like Iraq that has a history of conflict and political and racial issues, there were a lot of entrepreneurs, more in the beginning when we first launched than recently, but a lot of entrepreneurs were really nervous about sharing their ideas with people who could potentially steal them and launch their own businesses. There was this huge trust component – even within the cohorts, we found that entrepreneurs were really nervous about sharing their ideas with each other. And I think one of the signs that the ecosystem is really kind of developing and becoming more vibrant is the fact that now when you meet an entrepreneur, they go, “Hey, I'm so-and-so, let me tell you about my business idea.”
Carla Harris: Right. Right. So, I mean, clearly there were entrepreneurs in Iraq before, you know, the last five or six years since you all got started. So, is it safe to say that the kinds of businesses that were being started were businesses that were not capital intensive? Because they could, they could use sort of the local community, the local network to get their businesses started and they weren't as dependent upon external funding, like you might be able to get internationally or that you might be able to get from large venture funds – is that fair?
Patricia Letayf: That's correct. I think when people ask us about the main challenges of being an entrepreneur in Iraq, one of them is the lack of access to capital. And we know that entrepreneurs across the world say that, but it's quite acute in Iraq. We have a really big gap in terms of that really early seed stage or pre-seed stage. Entrepreneurs are often self-financing or doing friends and family rounds, but I mean the main, the main way to describe them as they're scrappy, they're launching their businesses without access to large pots of capital. And they're really creative.
Carla Harris: Right. Right. So Patricia, as Director of Operations, can you explain how Five One Labs works?
Patricia Letayf: Absolutely. So we are a nonprofit organization, so we're registered in the U.S. as a 501(c)(3). And as of now, we have three offices in Iraq, two in the north and Kurdistan and one in Baghdad. And as a non-profit, most of our funding is coming from institutional donors, governments and international organizations. So, USAID is a large donor, the German government, for example. We provide training, mentorship, community seed funding. You know, in the past year, basically since January 2021, more than a quarter of our outgoings went straight to the entrepreneurs.
Carla Harris: So can you give us a sense of the scale of your work so far?
Alice Bosley: Yeah. So since 2017 we have run eight cohorts in our incubator. About 112 startups have gone through our incubation to launch out the other side. In all of our programs, I think we've provided close to $700,000 in seed funding. So that’s specifically funding to launch businesses. And then we've provided another $100,000 to $200,000 in stipends. This was a decision we made early on. Anywhere in the world, the risk of launching a business is high. Especially when you're trying to launch an innovative tech startup. You know, we make sure to provide small living stipends as well as, actually, child care stipends to all of our entrepreneurs, so that they have the space to take the risk to launch a business, knowing that they could fail and that failure would not harm them.
Displaced Entrepreneur: Oh, wow. That's an innovation I haven't heard of in the United States. That's really smart. Now you're a nonprofit in the United States, but I understand that you all are thinking about a for-profit arm. So tell us a little bit about that decision and why?
Patricia Letayf: Sure. I'll jump in. Carla. So I think first and foremost, the priority for us right now is to expand geographically. So we have this big presence in Iraq and we think our model is scalable and can apply to other contexts. So we're currently planning for pilots in other parts of the world. So we will be running one in the U.S. with the Afghan community. And we're looking, also, at the Venezuelan community in Brazil. In terms of our for-profit work, we have an initiative called Five One Invest that we launched in October of 2020 because there's this big funding gap. So we are looking to try and close that gap by increasing access to capital for entrepreneurs. So trying to provide matchmaking services, hosting pitch events, we've been running investor trips to Iraq prior to Covid to try and incentivize regional investors to come and put their money into Iraqi startups.
Carla Harris: Very good. And it sounds like it makes a lot of sense at this time because the UN Refugee Agency said that the number of displaced people, and I think this is around the world, has doubled, in the last 10 years, and now it's over 80 million people. And so if you can expand to some of these countries that you just mentioned, Patricia, then I think that might prove the point that you guys have a scalable model, you think?
Patricia Letayf: Yeah, I hope so. I think displaced individuals face a lot of challenges, but I think once they are ready to work, and ready to use their skills and kickstart their lives again, I think we both are so passionate about entrepreneurship and I think it's a great way to use the skills that someone already has and help them kind of launch a business, not only to support themselves, but also to give back in their communities.
Carla Harris: So what impact would a meaningfully employed population of displaced individuals have on the world economy, let alone on the local economy?
Alice Bosley: Oh my gosh, there's some really incredible data. For example, Turkey, between 2011 and 2016, they allowed Syrians the right to work and to start businesses, which not every country around the world does. So this is a really incredible fact between that time. Syrian refugees created 6,000 new businesses in Turkey and each startup on average employed 9.4 people. So this is a hugely beneficial data point for the Turkish. In the United States, there's data on immigrants, rather than refugees, but immigrants are twice as likely as U.S.-born Americans to start new businesses and there's data that shows that most of the new jobs in the American economy come from new businesses and small businesses. You know, there's data by Alexander Betts at Oxford University on Uganda, where refugees have the right to work, and they have shown that in Uganda – as opposed to some of the countries bordering Uganda that do not allow refugees the right to work – there has been a boost in their economy because they allow refugees to work, have purchasing power, benefit their local economy. And so more and more there's data showing that refugees add to the GDP and that if you allow asylum seekers to work earlier, let's say in Europe, or if you allow refugees to work in general, this is a good…it's a good thing for your country, as well as for them.
Carla Harris: Well, let me encourage you all as you are just getting started to engage in producing white papers and research because those who don't get it will hug the data. And the more you put the data out there, the more powerful the message will be around: it's not just about being better for the beneficiaries, to use your words from the beginning of this conversation, it's really about being self-serving if you want to by opening your arms to welcome people who might be displaced, as they will add and drive your economy, if given the opportunity to do so.
Alice and Patricia. Thank you so very much for taking the time to speak with us on Access and Opportunity.
Alice Bosley: Thank you so much for having us.
Patricia Letayf: It’s been a pleasure. Come visit us in Iraq anytime.
Carla Harris: Oh, listen – and thank you for the invitation – I may take you up on it.
Carla Harris: I want to extend a heartfelt thank you to our entrepreneur for so bravely sharing his story, and to Alice Bosley and Patricia Letayf for joining me on this episode of Access and Opportunity.
What did you think of today's episode? Send us your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org. And to continue learning about individuals working to drive systematic change within their communities, subscribe to Access and Opportunity on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.
Thanks for coming along.