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Iraq presents a unique ‘situation’ for aspiring entrepreneurs.

“The biggest challenge in Iraq is ‘the situation,’” Salih Zain, an 18-year-old entrepreneur from Baghdad, said. “The security situation [in 2014] is really bad… ISIS has started to freak everyone out!”

Zain has co-organized two Startup Weekends in Baghdad, and led the organization of a third. He suggests that rumors about ISIS arriving in Baghdad have had a serious affect on the market for startups, despite a successful Startup Weekend in August.

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“Entrepreneurs are really scared and stressed… One of the most successful startups in Iraq had to stop because of ‘the situation,’” Zain said. “We have been hearing news about ISIS arriving in Baghdad, and many people focused on these lies… A lot of Iraqis would say, ‘You guys are crazy! You guys don’t think about those who are getting killed! You guys must stop and sympathize with others!’… [entrepreneurs] can not market a product during such a period of time.”

Zain referenced Miswag.net, a Baghdad ecommerce startup focused on selling and delivering cloths that was recently forced to suspend their service. Despite such setbacks, Zain remains confident that with simple mobile apps, Baghdad’s many infrastructural problems can be made less frustrating– and dangerous– for Iraqis.

“If I wanna go to another city [in Iraq], I don’t know what’s there,” Zain said. “I don’t know if it’s safe to go there or not. Imagine if there were an app– that with one tap– I could see peoples’ review of ‘the situation’ in that area [of Iraq]… Is it safe or dangerous? How is the road?… It’s really important to know these details.”

Zain points to the ubiquitous problems facing Iraqis in terms of government participation, medical infrastructure, and rampant traffic. In terms of dealing with ‘the situation,’ he emphasizes a paradoxical, creative balance of observation and isolation.

“After a long period of wars and economic blockades, Iraqis started to make excuses for all failures by comparing our ‘situation’ to worse ones,” Zain said.  “If you want to be an entrepreneur [in Baghdad], you should create your own world– your own castle where you don’t listen to the bad news. You need to disconnect from some of the realities of ‘the situation’… and work like crazy.”

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Zain is a 12th grade student, who while studying science, fell into the development of mobile applications. Zain is a UX/UI designer, and co-founded Fikra Space, a community hub for computer scientists and designers to share their interests and goals. He admits that most Iraqis don’t understand what ‘entrepreneurship’ means, and that the national educational system is outdated in training students in emerging tech.

“Since we have no internships [in Iraq], students and graduates see themselves in an infinite loop– they have the knowledge [to be valuable], but work experience is required to find a job,” Zain said. “Private companies and secure government sectors look for people who have experience.”

According to Zain, government jobs are alluring to Iraqis because they offer such luxuries as additional training and retirement compensation for selected workers. But after decades of war– and with the promise of a government pension obscured by competition and conflict– Zain has made other, entrepreneurial arrangements for his future.

Through Fikra Space, Zain has grown his personal experience in lieu of a professional internship, while organizing Startup Weekends as a means to grow his company’s community of talent. This practice has also helped him improve his skills as a designer, while encouraging other young Iraqis to do the same.

“As an Iraqi entrepreneur, you don’t need to scratch your head and wait for an opportunity– it’s right there in front of you,” Zain said. “Try to use technology to solve the millions of simple and complex problems facing the people around you… [Iraqis] need to believe that creating their own job is better than working in the government.”

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If you’re an Iraqi looking to launch a Startup Weekend in your area, please visit http://baghdad.startupweekend.org/ for more information on past events, sponsorship, and the capable network of entrepreneurs near you.

See more photos from Startup Weekend Baghdad!


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Ross Buchanan