Syria Digital Lab sat down with Ahmad Sufian Bayram, Syrian entrepreneur, activist and author of ‘Entrepreneurship in Exile – offering Insights into Syria Refugees Startups in Host Countries’. Today, Ahmad is the Regional Manager at Techstars Middle East and Africa, a worldwide network that helps entrepreneurs succeed.
During our chat, Ahmad told the SDL team about his opinions on and requirements for building a thriving technology ecosystem for Syrian entrepreneurs. He shed light on some fascinating research from his work and called on some of the region’s most prominent entrepreneurs to join Syria Digital Lab and help us #Solve4Syria.
Part I: The Syrian Entrepreneurship Landscape
1. We want to create an ecosystem where Syrian entrepreneurs can thrive. What do you think entrepreneurs need most to succeed?
Through my work at Techstars, I find myself, on a daily basis, helping founders and connecting them to entrepreneurial ecosystems around the world. From Silicon Valley to Berlin, to Cape Town and Dubai, I came to realize that entrepreneurship cannot exist without an ecosystem to support it. I learned that startup success has much more to do with finding a supportive environment than simply having a brilliant idea.
To help Syrian entrepreneurs overcome the many barriers that prevent them from turning dreams into realities, we need to induct entrepreneurs into local business environments and build supportive refugee communities. Moreover, we must provide entrepreneurs with regulatory policies and grant Syrian entrepreneurs access to funding and banking services.
2. Can you tell us a little bit about the trends and demographics you are seeing in the Syrian entrepreneurship space?
Throughout the decade spanning the Syrian conflict, refugees have shown extraordinary strength and admirable resilience. Many have gone on to achieve their ambitions of becoming entrepreneurs. However, they are often referred to with the prefix ‘refugee’ or ‘immigrant’. Interestingly, they boast far higher entrepreneurship rates than the native population where they settled. In Turkey, Jordan, Germany, and Canada, we hear stories of many Syrian refugees who took a step and made a decision to start their own businesses and become entrepreneurs.
3. What sectors do you see the most innovation come from?
Through my research we found that Syrian entrepreneurs in host countries contributed to a wide range of sectors. The most common industry was ‘general services’, with 28.5% of participants opening businesses such as restaurants, grocery stores, barbershops, etc.
The second most common sector among independent Syrian entrepreneurs was information and technology along with administrative services with 27.8% of startups participating in our study registering businesses in this field.
Part II: Syria Digital Lab
1. Here at SDL we talk a lot about building a digital ecosystem for entrepreneurs to thrive in, what is needed to build such an ecosystem in your opinion?
Building a startup ecosystem takes long-term commitment and consideration. In Brad Feld’s book ‘Startup Communities’, Feld contends that “entrepreneurs have to take a long-term view (20+ years)”. And I agree, this mindset will push support organizations to collaborate rather than compete and think long-term rather than short-term.
2. How can individuals support Syrian entrepreneurs?
Many people can play a major role to support Syrian startups. Syrians who have immigrated earlier must assume responsibility for helping new Syrian businesses by providing guidance and counseling. They can also play a vital role in connecting newcomers with local businesses and government officials while advocating for new enterprises and providing information and legal support for Syrian refugee entrepreneurs. For example, many Syrian entrepreneurs don’t have the knowledge to navigate these processes and need advice on how to establish businesses in their host countries.
3. Who else do u think we should invite into the SDL ecosystem?
Saleem Najjar, Co-Founder of Yapip and Sharqi Shop
Ronaldo Mouchawar, CEO and co-founder of Souq.com
Abdalghani Agha, CEO and co-founder of Hasob
Lojain Jbawi, CEO and co-founder of Louji.
4. We have a number of challenges across a variety of sectors. Currently we are focused don healthcare, education and youth engagement. Do you feel these are the most pressing issues Syrians in Syria, the diaspora and host communities face?
Yes. Those are the top sectors. I’d add social impact to the above as well.
Part III: The Path to Success
1. Where do you see the greatest opportunity in the tech sector for Syrian entrepreneurs?
I would not limit the opportunities to one sector. We’ve seen successful Syrian businesses in many fields.
2. And the biggest challenges? What do you see as the greatest obstacles for Syrian entrepreneurs operating in the tech sector?
Based on a study that I published earlier this year exploring the major challenges Syrian founders face, travel limitations emerged as the greatest obstacle for Syrian entrepreneurs. Refugees are denied permission to leave the country or even the camp they settled in. The complex regulatory policies and unfriendly rules towards displaced persons add another layer of challenges for ambitious businesses
3. What is one piece of advice you have for entrepreneurs?
If you’re not willing to invest in yourself, why should anybody be willing to invest anything in you?
Investors usually invest in people, not in ideas. So, you have to keep learning, keep growing and keep working on your mindset. Attend online courses, peer-to-peer learning groups, learn from your friends, share knowledge.
4. How much of success do you attribute to luck and how much do you think is skill?
In my opinion, it very much has to do with skill rather than luck. The harder you work, the more opportunity and chance you create to yourself.