Adam Hedengren
Last updated: 26 November, 2014

#YMEstartup attracts big crowd in Erbil to talk entrepreneurship (VIDEO)

For years, Erbil and Sulaimani have been key driving forces behind an increasingly autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. Businesses have flocked there, bringing a surge in Kurdish refugees eager to return from exile in Europe. Yet, in light of the ongoing war with the Islamic State, it might seem strange to talk about business. But in fact, it’s more important than ever.

For this reason, Your Middle East decided to touch down in Erbil with its #YMEstartup roadshow, which has roamed across the major cities of the Middle East and North Africa during the past six months. The grand premier in Istanbul has been followed with equally successful events in Dubai, Amman and Tunis.

Erbil was the final stop in 2014. And despite ongoing turmoil, interest from local entrepreneurs was huge, with a turnout of about 150 guests. Your Middle East COO Aurore Belfrage kicked off the event by praising the passion in the Middle Eastern startup scene and stressing the importance of being both determined and naïve.

She then handed the floor to Sweden’s Ambassador to Iraq, Mr Jörgen Lindström, who shared a similar narrative, emphasizing a sense of optimism in a difficult situation. “Dreams, courage and will are some of the things that all of you who sit here tonight have in common,” he said.

THE EVENING moved on with the first local entrepreneur, Ms Banu Ali, co-organizer of Startup Weekend Sulaimani. That event was the first of its kind when it took the Kurdish region by storm in 2012. Yet, in the early phase of the project, Ali was slightly skeptical about the prospects for success.

“We didn’t believe there would be many people to come and pitch their ideas. But we were definitely wrong,” she said. “This is a great time to start your business in Iraq because a lot of ideas haven’t happened yet.”

In recent years, Iraqi Kurdistan has experienced rapid growth and drawn the attention of foreign investors. The regional government was in a strong financial position before the war with the Islamic State, much thanks to its significant oil reserves. Meanwhile, startups are still struggling to access funds – a common challenge across the wider Middle East. And according to panelists at #YMEstartup Erbil, it’s something that must be dealt with now.

“Dreams, courage and will are some of the things that all of you who sit here tonight have in common”

With limited access to venture capital and an immature understanding among a new generation of angel investors of the risks and mentoring involved in investing in startups, Belfrage suggested that “we start a boot camp for angel investors,” adding that “we could turn it around and have a panel with entrepreneurs for judges.”

Key to any startup is legal expertise; hence it was not by coincidence that Rejna Alaaldin joined the expert panel. Alaaldin founded Kurdistan Legal Services, a law firm in Erbil, after she lost appetite for working under someone else’s leadership. She mentioned, however, that being a female leader in Kurdistan can be quite the challenge: “Middle Eastern men don’t like to receive orders from women, even the younger men.”

Ultimately, though, it was indeed women who remained in the spotlight throughout the evening. At the end of the event, a young female entrepreneur, Shireen Mohammed, took center stage to pitch her business idea, which focused on minority groups and rights through a mobile app. An effort that seemed more urgent than ever, as minorities in the area are fleeing from the brutality of ISIS.

The #YMEstartup events across MENA focus on coaching entrepreneurs in the art of storytelling to attract the attention and capital of investors. In Erbil, Your Middle East had gathered a distinguished investors panel made up of Mrs Talan Aouny, CEO and founder of Erbil Manpower, Dr Hemin Latif, Vice President at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS) and Rawaz Rauf, Commercial and Strategy Advisor at Hiwa Rauf Group.

THE PANELISTS were impressed by Shireen’s passion and innovation. Practice makes perfect and in the positive spirit of the evening the panel gave great insights on best practice when pitching. A key learning was to create an emotional connection with your audience as soon as possible. Next step is to establish credibility – when Shireen mentioned that international journalists used her content to cover the area and the conflict she received spontaneous applause. True to the #YMEstartup format, Ms. Belfrage repeatedly interrupted the pitch to get the panellists comments, and at one point she jokingly reminded herself to breath between sentences and passion.

In her concluding remarks, Mrs Talal emphasized the need to be patient and focused when building a business. Dr Hemin poetically compared successful innovators with travellers who with new eyes explore new territories and are able to be attentive and spot opportunities.

But perhaps the biggest lesson of the night was that prosperity and social progress go hand in hand, and as such, entrepreneurs play a vital part in building a better future – for all – in modern Kurdistan.

A special thanks to our sponsors USAID-Foras and Kia North Iraq, NIM Automotive Trading Co