The Following is an Interview about my personal and professional life in the past 5 years, written and published by StartMENAUp on their site on Nov 23, 2020. Hani (The author) and I discussed the status of Refugee Entrepreneurship and some personal takes on the adventures of starting 300 businesses in the Middle East.
There are some people you talk with that have such palpable energy and passion for a subject that, by the end of the conversation, you yourself are a total convert to their cause. Doing interviews virtually makes it all the more impressive that I could feel Anas’ excitement for his work with refugee founders, and his love for the Middle East, practically from his first word through our Zoom call.
Born and raised in Iraq, Anas has spent the better part of the past 13 years living, studying, and working in Jordan, with excursions to countries across Europe and the Middle East sprinkled in between. The word “balance” came up a few times when describing his personal journey – finding a nice balance between the Middle East and the West, his search for a job with the right balance between technology and business. I got that sense that he’s found that balance in his current position as Jusoor’s MENA Region Entrepreneurship Manager, based in Jordan.
If “balance” sets the scene for Anas, then “need” explains his passon. Over the course of our conversation, he put forth a very different perspective on what “need” means for refugees. Beyond tangible items like food, shelter, and clothing, Anas described to me how the refugees he works with need to create, need to build. “Necessity is the mother of all invention,” so the saying goes, and I can tell you that the current and future “inventions” of these refugee founders get Anas really fired up.
Check out our full discussion below. My guess is that you’ll be fired up by the end of it too
Can you start by introducing yourself and your personal and professional journey up to this point?
My name is Anas. I’m originally from Iraq, but I left my home country 13 years ago. Since then, I’ve lived, worked, and studied in almost a dozen countries. Today, I find myself in Jordan, which is a great sweet spot between the quality of life that I found in the West, while living in the heart of the region I love – the Middle East.
I started my work in technology at 14 when I made my first app. After working on a few projects early in my career, I realized that I didn’t want to be a programmer for the rest of my life, but I also didn’t want to be a businessman out of touch with technology. Similar to how I just described life in Jordan, Entrepreneurship is my professional sweet spot between these two types of roles.
My work with Techstars and, most recently, Jusoor, where I’ve managed a series of different programs, from supporting small businesses to region wide training, competitions, and our newest project which includes a tech accelerator, gave me the opportunity to have one foot in each world. For the past two years, I’ve been helping to create and launch business in the Middle East.
Can you explain Jusoor’s background and evolution?
Jusoor is an entrepreneurship NGO founded by private sector Syrians and Syrian-Americans working mostly in the U.S. and the Gulf. Before the war in Syria, they planned for Jusoor to build bridges (jusoor means “bridges” in Arabic) between academics, researchers and investors in the U.S. and Syria.
Thing evolved over the past decade and in 2015 we launched our entrepreneurship program with a new set of goals:
- to help the Syrian refugees in the Middle East and Europe integrate into host communities, not as refugees but as economic contributors
- to prepare the next generation of Syrian business and thought leaders, who could potentially rebuild Syria in the future
These goals drew interest from successful Arabs living abroad – people like me, who had the opportunity to leave our homelands and never look back, but who chose to turn around and “walk the walk.”
So how does this play out in terms of the programs you manage for entrepreneurs?
Currently, we have two main programs – one for small businesses and one for startups. We actually started with just the startup program, mostly because the founders of Jusoor and I had previous startup experience, but we noticed that more than 75% of the refugees that came to use for support, were really running small businesses rather than tech startups.
Given the various regions and types of businesses that you’re working with, how do you go about training potential entrepreneurs?
We do our best to give participants a monthlong “A to Z” overview of starting a business, where most of the trainers have entrepreneurship experience and experience working with the World Bank. This means that the trainers have the macro economics “know-how” and micro level knowledge of running a business. We want to give that double perspective to our founders as well. Entrepreneurs in the Middle East always need to keep an eye on the macro environment. You never know when one country is going to go through a coup or an invasion, etc. Founders have to be extra vigilant and extra ready to pivot at a moment’s notice. We’ve invested heavily in our curriculum (in-person and online), our programs, our handbooks, etc. to the point where we’ve basically compiled the “Bible” for starting a business in the Middle East.
That kind of end result requires market research. We interview around 100 founders every year, trying to figure out what they need to succeed. Change happens so rapidly, we constantly have to adapt to new situations, whether it’s legal restrictions for refugee founders, some unforeseen geopolitical unrest – it’s always a surprise.
On that point, localizing our programs is essential. When I first joined in 2018, I thought that we’d only have to localize by country, but that was a very naive thought from young Anas. In reality, we had to localize by city, or at least by region. The Palestinian entrepreneurs, for example, in Amman, have different challenges than those in Mafraq.
Beyond training, how else do you help companies get off the ground?
We organize your “stereotypical” startup demo days, except that all the founders are from refugee backgrounds. At the end of the day, we grant prizes ranging from 5,000-20,000 USD. By U.S. standards, that would just last a couple months, but in the Middle East, that investment can take you through 5 or 6 months. That should give you enough time to work out deals with the investors and partners that you met at the demo day.
Mentorship is also a key component of our program. We connect startups with experts in key business areas, as well as leaders in your industry. Let’s say that you have a flight insurance startup, we’ll connect you with experts in management, financial investment, marketing, and business processing, because all companies need those, but then we also bring you people that work at Delta or the FAA … people that can help you within your industry.
Recently, we expanded to provide services and technical assistance as well. We work closely with an internal marketing agency and a management consultancy, whose costs we cover so that the entrepreneurs can get top-quality services as part of their participation in our program. Most of the consultants work for top companies such as Deloitte, World bank, Microsoft, Google, etc. We really try to work with the best of the best. Just because they’re refugees doesn’t mean that they should settle for anything less. Our marketing partner covers logos, websites, brands, marketing campaigns, etc.
In general, we aim to be a holistic, “one-stop-shop” for refugee founders. Remember, they’re usually new to their host country – a Syrian founder in Turkey might not know how to reach these kinds of services, or if they can, it might cost them 10x what it should or they can afford.
We do the same thing with a legal team who works to help the team navigate the different regulations in each country. In Iraq or Jordan, you need permission from the national intelligence agency (the CIA & FBI equivalent) to launch a business, which can lead to challenges if, for example, you have the same last name as someone involved with the wrong people. They will know if someone with the last name of Azzam, for example, has ties to Hezbollah or ISIS, so they’re worried that if Hani Azzam started a business, he might help this uncle or cousin. It seems like a silly example, but it actually creates real obstacles. In the Middle East, hundreds of thousands of people might share the same last name.
I can imagine working with governments isn’t easy. How do you address the legal context for refugee founders?
Jusoor works with local legal and policy stakeholders to support that make it easier for refugees in registering startups in their respective host countries. Many Arab governments already host a large number of refugees and therefore are reluctant to fully integrate more refugees into their societies, so we pitch them the “half full part of the glass.” Real life examples make the case for us. One Syrian female programmer started her business and hired 20 Jordanians. We tell them, “look, if you allow more Syrians to create businesses, you’ll create jobs for your own citizens.” Don’t forget – all the money that this Syrian woman makes goes right back into the Jordanian economy – she pays rent to a Jordanian landlord, she goes to Jordanian shopping malls, she pays taxes here … all of her income is going to Jordan! It seems like there’s a will for the government to fix things, but we often find ourselves stuck in the bureaucracy.
Do you have any stats that give a sense of your impact thus far?
In just the past five years we’ve supported more than 5,000 entrepreneur refugees, and worked with more than 300 businesses. We’ve directly invested in 50 of them. We’re planning to go even bigger in 2021! With everything online, we’re cutting costs on my flights and logistics, and we’re channeling that into reaching more people for the same dollar amount.
Are there any standout startups that you could talk a little more about?
I have like a dozen! I’ll talk about the top few that come to mind though.
Shiffer is an app to help refugees send and receive documents in the Middle East. The founder learned from personal experience that it costs $50 to send a piece of paper between countries, but there’s also people traveling between those two countries all the time. He created something like “Uber for documents” across borders. He applied to our programs three times, and we rejected him – he just didn’t have the right business model, he had no experience, he had no technical founder…every year we told him “Okay, X is a major red flag, go fix it, and we’ll try again next year.” In 2017, we enrolled him and he ended up with one of our top three prizes! We referred him to the MIT Innovate for Refugees, where he got the first prize!
Another one is Security Mode, which was started by a group of Jordanian women. They live in Zarqa, which is the province in North Jordan that borders Iraq. There was only one mobile repair shop in their area, and it was run by a group of young men. Being relatively conservative, the women didn’t feel comfortable giving their phones over to the young men. Three of them had already gone to Amman for mobile repair training. They asked us to help them launch the first female-led mobile repair shop in their town and I immediately said “f*** yeah! Let’s do it!” We invested in them, connected them with community-based organizations, and now there’s a safe place for women to go and repair their electronics.
There are just so many of them. Interestingly enough, about 80% of our startups have a social benefit (even if they don’t report it). We’re not a “social impact” investor per se – we mainly focus on “for profit” businesses – but we’ve found that if you’re a refugee founder, you’re going to create a business that solves your own problems. Inherently, there’s a huge social impact.
Here’s another example – we accepted a Palestinian-Syrian refugee (double truouble! Oh, and he was living in Iraq – triple trouble!) into our program. His name is Khaldoun, he’s a genius, and he started a company called Leftsaver. He developed an algorithm that helps restaurants save a double-digit percentage of their raw material. It’s basically a normal security camera pointed at the trashcan in the restaurant. The camera takes regular pictures of the diners’ trash, the algorithm analyzes what the customers are throwing away, and then sends a detailed report to the chef. The restaurants who pay for his service, which isn’t cheap, actually save money in the long run because they intelligently lower their procurement costs.
The list just goes on. We supported another company, this one is called Spermly. It was founded by a doctor, engineer, and businessman on the Syrian-Turkish border. They found the existing process of artificial insemination in the Gaziantep area really inefficient – the sperm analysis could take weeks, and even then, it wasn’t very accurate. They developed their own algorithm, which takes hours instead of weeks. It’s more accurate, and it costs next to nothing. They came to us and asked “can you help get us into a few hospitals in Gaziantep? I straight up told them “Are you kidding me?? You guys could go from LA to Tokyo” I think that was the startup we invested the most in last year.
Ooh, last one I’ll mention is Sharqi Shop, a platform that connects artisans and producers of soap and other handmade crafts in the Middle East with shoppers in Europe and the Gulf.
Bottom line – there are amazing technological solutions coming from people that the international community least expects. As you can tell, we’re sector agnostic – it’s been everything from sperm to art (laughs). It’s been a wild journey.
Do you see shared characteristics in entrepreneurs that have lived through conflicts? Do those experiences give founders any unexpected advantages?
For sure! I actually just published an article on this topic called 10 Lessons I Learned from Working with 300 Startups Across the Middle East. First of all, refugees are freaking resilient. If an American founder starts a company that ends up failing, they can just move in with their parents for a couple months, start another company, and move on. If a refugee fails, there’s no food on the table that month. They work harder, they put in longer hours. Failure for them means death, so it’s not an option. They work out of need, not just out of want. That’s one of the reasons why I haven’t started my own startup yet – I want to be a successful founder, but I don’t have the need. Many refugee founders simply have the need.
The second thing is context. When I came to Jordan after the refugee crisis, I saw experts in Geneva and Washington designing solutions, but they’ve never stepped a foot in the Middle East! When I accepted my job with Jusoor, I asked that for whatever project I’m on, I need representation from the host community and from the refugees. That’s taken us really far. We make sure there are refugees on our committee that designs and assesses our programs. This creates beautiful situations – some rich, powerful guy from Harvard might tell us we need to do x, y, z and this 19-year old Syrian girl tells him, well that can’t happen because of one, two, three (she’s right, of course). Context is very important.
Thirdly, they’re always willing to learn and to help. Honestly, our standard Arab mindset isn’t suited for entrepreneurship. If someone asks us “do you know how to do this?” we say “yes, I do,” even if we don’t. We’re really proud, which can get in the way. For some reason though, refugees realize that they can’t play ball with that tribalism and old tradition. When they don’t know something, they ask for help. On top of that, they’re very kind and willing to help others. I’ll often run into a situation where I have no expertise, but one of our startups speaks up and says “I’ve been working on this for years.” When I ask them for help, they do it.
I even saw this happen one time between competitors! I stayed on the whole call wondering “are they going to give them misleading information?” Nope, they gave them leads! They realize it’s a lifelong journey and cutting other people down isn’t going to get them far.
Finally, we’ve found that while refugees may start a business out of financial need, the business also provides self-worth. It gives them a place in the world. Unfortunately, they have been stripped of the opportunity to be somebody that matters. So, they start companies because they want to have an impact. Even if they are the people in most need of support, that doesn’t stop them from giving, which is just an incredible mindset. I hope entrepreneurs in other countries will take note of it!
Why are you so passionate about what you’re doing? What keeps you resilient?
What keeps me going is the people. Just being in the same room as twenty ambitious entrepreneurs that have taken punches left and right for years, but they’re standing on their feet — those are people that you’re willing to walk through hell to support. I get an incredible amount of energy from being part of something larger than myself. Someone recently came up to me after an event and he said “my name is Moath. You probably don’t remember me but you came to visit us in a refugee camp a couple of years ago. You gave a quick talk about entrepreneurship and being a refugee founder. After you left, I spent the next two years growing and learning. Now, I’ve started my own business and I’m making six figures a year.” Stories like this bring me in tears.
it’s a frustrating job. There are days when all I do is stare at excel sheets, but on the other side of the screen with numbers that are draining my eyes, are the lives of people and families and kids and future leaders and youth. They did not accept the status quo – instead, they decided to do something about it. That’s a worthy enough cause to leave a boring, stereotypical life in order to be here. Personally, I tried to run away from the Middle East. I was a refugee myself, I survived several bombings, I was shot at, I was almost kidnapped, I was threatened, I went through alot. After that, I just wanted to forget, but I couldn’t. It was like… like trying to forget a beautiful girl – she’s always on the back of your mind.
Tell me a bit more about that “beautiful girl.” What does it mean to you personally to work in the Arab world?
After I left Iraq in 2006, I didn’t go back for almost 13 years. In August 2019, I got a phone call from Seedstars, and they said, “we had an employee that was supposed to go Baghdad for an investment readiness training with the Central Bank, but his visa was canceled at the last moment.” I was in Beirut at the time. They told me, “we already sent you the ticket. We’re not asking, we’re telling you.” All I could respond was, ”well, okay!” I had half a day to prepare for a trip that I had been waiting for basically half my life. Going back to Baghdad made my career even more relevant. It reminded me why I do what I do. When I arrived, my face was stuck to the cab window, looking at the city that I grew up in. The driver told me “you’re the happiest passenger I’ve ever given a ride to in Baghdad. You realize you’re in Baghdad, right!?” I’m incredibly in love with the Middle East. I have family in Europe, I have family in North America, but I chose to be here and I chose to stay here because I feel like I belong here. My impact is here, and I feel at home here – whether it’s in Iraq, Jordan, Syria, or Palestine.
From a birds-eye view, what does the entrepreneurship ecosystem in the Middle East look like to you?
Are you a fan of Star Wars? Yes.
Okay, well it’s pretty much like every country is its own planet.
Iraq is like Tatooine, the scavenger planet. They can make anything happen, even with limited resources. We had a team of engineers from one of the technical universities there design a hovercraft to go over the shallow waters in Iraq for only $800. It’s a DIY – if a UX designer saw it, he would have a heart attack – but, it worked!
Then you would have Korriban, the birthplace of the Sith … no, no, that’s too evil… OK, you would have the capital of the Republic (Coruscant) – that would be Dubai. That’s where the money is, that’s where the politics is, that’s where many of the successful startups go.
You also have some of the beautiful places, like where Padme grew up (Naboo). It was beautiful and colorful. In our galaxy, that’s Beirut. I lived in Beirut and worked from the Beirut Digital District. They’re really advanced, especially design-wise and UX-wise. Wherever you go in the Middle East, the Head of Marketing, or the Head of Design is usually Lebanese.
To be honest with you, the stereotype here is that, to have a nice successful startup, you need a Jordanian CTO, a Khaleeji (person from the Gulf) CEO (to raise money), a Lebanese Head of Design/UX, and then if you need a COO, you get an Iraqi or Palestinian guy, because these guys are tough, they get shit done.
I would say each ecosystem has their own strengths and weaknesses. We had a session with Seedstars where we studied four ecosystems – Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt. Each one has strength in a certain area, but it could use help from the other three in other places. I’m trying to figure out how we can build more mutually beneficial connections. In a way, refugees have already solved it. If you’re a Syrian in Jordan, you’re already connecting those two countries. Your startup will be more resilient than a single-nationality company.
What’s your advice for people who are outside MENA, but looking to get more involved in supporting entrepreneurship there?
For anyone that thinks they aren’t good enough, or they don’t have the expertise to support a startup in another region, I would say that you’re already better than you think. You bring more than your expertise to the table, you bring your history, your way of thinking, your entire life context. Two minds working on a problem is better than one, and two minds that live oceans apart working on a problem is better than two local guys working on it. Even on a personal note, I have no plans to get married to an Iraqi woman – I wouldn’t want to be with someone that had the same childhood as I did.
Next, the Middle East is a small market – if a Palestinian startup is only focused on their domestic market in the West Bank, there’s no way they’ll survive beyond their early years. They have to go beyond the boundaries of their country. Same thing with Jordan. Bigger countries like Iraq and Egypt may be a different story, but especially if you’re in a small Levant country, you need to expand and try to penetrate the U.S. or the European market. So if you’re from these countries, you can help by being a “fixer” for Arab startups. You can mentor them, you can get them connected to the right stakeholders in your country, you can be their window into that market.
The third thing I’d suggest is to volunteer. Sure, Boston is nice, but would you rather go to Tufts for four years and then intern at a company in Boston for six months, or would you rather intern at a company in Ramallah? You should choose the exciting option! If you’re a young millennial, consider applying to a startup. Work with them as an intern – most of the time, it’s a degree requirement anyway, so might as well have an adventure along the way. You’ll definitely pick up some exciting stories to tell your grandkids. I’ve worked and lived in many places in the world, but my life here is way more exciting. There are things happening all the time.
I attended a webinar for a Jordanian startup that had moved to the Bay Area to participate in the Alchemist accelerator. They told us about the difference in mindset between the Arab way of running a tech startup and the American way. In my opinion, this collaboration between cultures is really beneficial and much needed in many organizations.
What about you? Are there any dream projects for you on the horizon?
Right now, my long term plan is to go back to my home country and launch my own VC fund. Access to capital is the number one challenge for entrepreneurs there. Everything else is (relatively) easy. Think about organizations like Techstars – they have done so many exciting things, they have ten years of experience running 45 accelerators around the world. They invest in an average of 180 companies every year. My point is, we have experience when it comes to building companies, it’s just this access to capital that stops maybe 90% of entrepreneurs.
Right now, I’m managing programs with an aim to accelerate startups, which is much simpler – it’s mainly operations, running demo days, and mentoring programs. Still, you’re pretty much at the heart of the business factory. In the past year and half, I’ve witnessed the birth and adolescence of 100 companies, so it feels like the right place to be. I just really hope that my country will figure out this election thing that we’re going through. We need to solve the foreign interference in our government, in our economy, and solve the whole issue of mafias/militias and foreign aid monopolies. Easy, right? There are tons of challenges, but it’s something that I would love to spend my 30s and 40s doing.
I was sponsored by the Central Bank of Iraq to go to Baghdad and meet with investors. I did some investment readiness training too, so I am well connected there. The thing is, even being in Amman, it’s too far away. Contacts and history just get lost in the distance. At this point, I’m trying to learn more about my own country. I’m reading books about it. I’m working with various think tanks, I helped establish a few startups in Iraq. I’m glad that Jusoor is finally investing in Iraqi startups. At this point though, I don’t think I’m there yet in terms of network and knowledge to raise a multimillion-dollar fund. The likes of Five One Labs, the Station, and dozens of other stakeholders are doing impressive work right now building an “investable” ecosystem.
Published by startmenaup