Interview by Charlotte Chedeville, WIL Forum’s Project Manager
Naseba Global WIL Economic Forum places a particular emphasis on social impact, promoting collective action to build a more sustainable future. In addition to name famous headline speakers, the agenda features many social entrepreneurs, change-makers and game changers.
Leading up to the forum, we will be publishing personal interviews to help you get to know these unsung heroes. Patricia Letayf is the co-founder of Five One Labs, one of the first start-up incubators in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. We exchanged with her to understand more about their mission, and were curious to find out what led her to focus on entrepreneurship in a region where most seem to provide relief and humanitarian aid.
You used to advise clients on the political, security and reputational risks to their operations in the region… When did ‘social impact’ become important to you?
Social impact has always been important to me. Having studied politics and international relations, I was regularly exposed to and aware of pressing social challenges – given that these are often consequences of political decision-making, corruption, or insecurity in some capacity. And at the root of social impact is the need to tackle these challenges in a creative way.
Given its importance to the development of the Middle East, the topics of education and employment for youth in the region have been an interest of mine for some time. However, seeing the impact of the political crises and conflicts in the region while in my previous job as a political analyst really pushed me to make a career shift. So I decided to pursue a master’s degree in economic development at Columbia University, where the idea for Five One Labs was born.
You co-founded Five One Labs, which is one of the first start-up incubators in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. What inspired you to start this venture?
The ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria have created the worst crisis of displacement in our lifetime, and across the world, more than 65 million people are displaced. This number was, and continues to be, a staggering figure, particularly as the average length of displacement for those fleeing violence is now 17 years. Being displaced for such a long period of time means that you not only need to find a way to make a living for yourself and your family in an unfamiliar context, but do so in a way that empowers you to rebuild with dignity.
And having spent a significant amount of time working, living in and studying the Middle East, my co-founders and I were well aware of the significant talent and potential of the region’s population. We were inspired to start Five One Labs as a way to support refugees and conflict-affected communities in their efforts to create more sustainable, empowered livelihoods and to help provide them with the skills and support necessary to do so.
The name “Five One” comes from the 1951 Refugee Convention that gives refugees the right to work. The initiative hopes to push back on the current humanitarian paradigm by treating refugees as agents of change rather than as burdens or beneficiaries.
Why did you choose to focus on entrepreneurship in this part of the world – as opposed to relief or humanitarian work?
When we think about rebuilding after displacement, one of the first things that comes to mind is employment. However, our research revealed that individuals displaced from their homes face a number of challenges when restarting their lives. These include legal barriers to finding jobs (ex. some are not allowed to be hired in certain sectors); lack of access to local networks – and this is critical given the notion of “wasta” in the Middle East; and potential bias against them from the local community stemming from the idea that displaced people use up valuable resources or receive unfair amounts of international aid, among others.
Considering someone affected by conflict will, on average, be away from their home for nearly two decades, long-term and sustainable solutions are critical. This is why we chose to use entrepreneurship as a solution.
Focusing on entrepreneurship not only addresses the livelihoods component of displacement by generating employment but also touches on the critical issue of social cohesion.
Those who are displaced can integrate into society by starting their own businesses that hire others (both other displaced and host community members) and ease any tensions over perceptions of strained public resources.
What has this venture taught you so far?
Take great care to really understand the needs of the people you are working with, be patient and always, always have a backup plan!
Can you tell us about one story or person that particularly moved or touched you since you have started Five One Labs?
Venturing into entrepreneurship can be a challenge anywhere in the world and, working in Iraqi Kurdistan, we have seen some incredible stories of resilience and perseverance among our refugee founders. We are working with Hadi [the name was changed to respect the person’s privacy], a young entrepreneur from Baghdad who had been forced to move three times because of wars in Iraq and Syria – which also meant that attended multiple universities before successfully graduating with an architecture degree.
Despite the hardship of displacement, Hadi believed in the transformative power of education and wanted to ensure that others like himself would have the opportunity to pursue their studies no matter where in Iraq they were. He enrolled in a nine-month long coding boot camp to acquire the technical skills he needed to pursue his dream – building an ed-tech platform to provide interactive, low-cost tutoring solutions for school-aged children.
Thanks to his passion for his business, his drive and motivation and his constant positivity, he has begun to build his platform and secured a grant to prototype his business. We could not be happier for Hadi – he is truly an inspiration for us and other budding entrepreneurs!
What do you hope to see in the future in the entrepreneurship space in this part of the world?
Two things come to mind—equal opportunity for all to participate in the entrepreneurship space and more active government support for new ventures.
Working with displaced entrepreneurs at Five One Labs has shown that certain segments of the population are often excluded from or underrepresented in the start-up ecosystem, whether for political, legal, social or cultural reasons. This not only includes refugees and women, but also individuals with disabilities and populations in non-urban areas.
We have seen in many countries the economic benefits of refugee and female labor force participation, so doing more targeted outreach to these individuals could yield positive results, not only for them personally but for society as a whole.
We hear regularly from governments in the region that they want to support private sector development, but this will require substantial reform to the business enabling environment. For example, at Five One Labs, one of the most common concerns we hear from entrepreneurs is “someone is going to steal my idea” because of the lack of legal protections. Greater efforts made towards legal reform, such as passing intellectual property and bankruptcy laws will increase the confidence of entrepreneurs and simplify the often difficult journey of starting their own businesses.
Tell us about a woman that has impacted your life.
My sister, Danielle – and this impact happens on a daily basis for me. She has dedicated her career to empowering teenage girls to pursuing careers in technology by providing them the support – both personal and professional – to do just that. On a professional level, I watched her go through many sleepless nights as she worked to develop an interactive mentorship app to help these talented girls expand their networks.
Personally, she has a deep connection with all of the girls that she works with and always pays special attention to each of them, even if this means she doesn’t have any time left for herself.
It is her combination of grit, compassion and her go-getter mentality that has truly made her an inspiration for me – and for the young women she works with!
Are there websites, books, or films that are inspiring you right now about women’s empowerment, business, and/or social impact?
Of course! Some of the websites include Dalberg’s blog, Mashable’s Social Good section, Echoing Green’s idea page, the Acumen blog, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, among others. Some great podcasts related to entrepreneurship that I listen to are StartUp Podcast, How I Built This and Nerdette. I recently read Peace Through Entrepreneurship by Steven Koltai, which really resonated with me. The key message is that cultivating a start-up culture can contribute not only to economic development but to stability and security.
You will be speaking at the Global WIL Economic Forum in Dubai this October. What do you look forward to the most?
Hearing diverse perspectives, meeting change makers from around the world and being empowered by others doing innovative and impactful work. And of course, sharing the story of the incredible Five One Labs entrepreneurs we met over the past year!