(The following letter was received from friend al-Amjad Tawfiq Isstaif, member of the Startup Weekend Damascus organizing team.)
I’m writing on behalf of my colleagues and friends at Wikilogia – the community partner/organizer of Startup Weekend Damascus. We’ve been working hard for the last year promoting entrepreneurship here in Damascus. It’s important for us share our vision for what needs to be done to support entrepreneurship in Syria.
As you might already know, the circumstances in Syria are bad. It’s really hard to talk about startups and entrepreneurship in general. We did our best back in February 2014, hoping that things might change in the short term.
Unfortunately, things have changed dramatically for the worst. A proper environment to help startups thrive is not possible in Syria right now.
This does not hinder our strong belief in the importance of entrepreneurship for the future of our country. With the help of our community of young entrepreneurs and makers, we’ve been working hard to ensure that the exciting wave of enthusiasm will not turn into a fad that declines over time.
At the same time, as part of our responsibility as local leaders, it’s important for us to be honest and realistic about how hard entrepreneurship is in the current Syrian situation. For this reason, after many meetups and discussions with our community members, we concluded that another Startup Weekend event is not the right step towards a thriving startup community. We believe the 54-format doesn’t deliver the right message about how hard and what it truly takes to start a business now in Syria. We recently published a blog post informing our fans and followers.
As I mention in the blog post, the most important thing we need to do is to continue our mission at Wikilogia – to build a community platform which gathers and connects the ambitious, Syrian youth working on their dreams.
Startup Weekend was a huge success and helped us draw the attention of a large audience of youth and youth supporters to the importance of entrepreneurship. Without UP Global’s support and belief in our efforts, our mission would have been much harder to gain momentum around. We’re really thankful for everything the UP community has done to help entrepreneurship spark in Syria.
We promised our community to carry out the message, and we will always feel happy to share with you our new insights and findings along our journey.
Despite the zeitgeist of violence throughout the nation, young Syrians are mustering an entrepreneurial spirit.
“Entrepreneurship isn’t only about advanced technology startups; a lot of [Syrians] are starting [non-technical] businesses, initiatives, and projects to solve local problems,” Al-Amjad Tawfiq Isstaif, a co-founder at Wikilogia, said. “The local needs are huge, and I think there is great potential.”
Developers, industrial engineers, and designers echoed this sentiment, as more than 400 participants registered to support the country’s first Startup Weekend.
Between a crowded, youthful conference room and a procession of Syrian business mentors, Startup Weekend Damascus was cause for optimism in the nation’s business community. The Startup Weekend format is based on a 54-hour incubation period for entrepreneurs, allocating time for team-building, mentorship, and product evaluation. Ideas are judged at the event’s conclusion, and teams are awarded further startup resources for their business.
“Seeing my talented friends and colleagues disappointed and uncertain about their future[s], and about the future of their country is the main motivation for me [to organize,]” Isstaif said. “No jobs, closed schools and universities, having to leave the country to make a living for your family… Entrepreneurship is a good answer to face all these challenges.”
T3DMaker, the event’s victorious startup, designed a 3D printing prototype from local resources. The team also intends to develop and sell plastic filament “ink” to accompany their domestically-manufactured product. T3DMaker will be provided a $1000 cash prize, and complimentary month of mentorship and workspace access.
Robox, an application-versatile robot that is easy to program, won second prize. Robox is programmed through a simple visual IDE that allows users to implement sophisticated applications without the need to write code.
Third prize was awarded to Pharmgram, an application dedicated to helping patients find more convenient pharmaceutical services, while providing drugstores with an easier means of informational exchange.
“The main challenge is to make the right balance between supporting and promoting entrepreneurship – which is of mid-long term [economic] importance – with the urgent [needs] of destruction and relief,” Isstaif said. “There are a lot of problems to solve, and cool ideas that can be applied locally, but you can’t build a scalable business around them… we are in a war, and there is no reliable entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
Isstaif said that the traditional approach preferred by many Syrian entrepreneurs is to build scalable businesses that do not relate directly to local needs, before moving business operations outside the country.
According to estimates by the WorldBank, Syria’s economy has shrank between 15%-20% during the last three years of civil war, and is ranked among the most difficult national economies in which to do business. This standard is evaluated by a general access to permits, basic utilities, property, investment, personal credit, and more.
In the case of Syria, an unrelenting, brutal war continues, despite UN-sponsored maneuvering in Geneva last week.
“The main problem we faced [in organizing] was uncertainty… and the safety problem,” Isstaif said. “Second comes things like electricity and internet availability.”
“The need for [Startup Weekend] came from huge community enthusiasm after launching an entrepreneurship program in Wikilogia Hackerspace,” Muhammad Al-Syrwan, a web developer and event organizer, said. “There were a lot of promising ideas that needed support, and at the same time there was no funding for them.”
Al-Syrwan suggested that Startup Weekend Damascus could help transition Syria from consumption to production in the global technology market.
“In Syria, there are no big companies in the technology production field, so there aren’t many job opportunities for graduate engineering students,” Al-Syrwan said. “The only way to make a good career is to make a startup. Otherwise [graduates] find themselves working as IT support, coders, or system administrators.”
Students and business people mingled intently in Damascus, as they have throughout the middle east this month. Startup Weekends have been hosted in Syria, Jordan, and Iran during February 2014.
Organizer Ahmad Sufian Bayram explained that the goal of this weekend does not fall short of creating local startups.
“We want to expand our community with help from Syrians all over the world, in order to build a supportive entrepreneurial environment,” Bayram said. “Startup Weekend events can be [a catalyst], but much more work is still needed.”
While other tech communities do not face the same challenges as Syria’s entrepreneurs, there is hopeful solidarity in pizza, soda, and three days of hard work.
See all the photos from Startup Weekend Damascus HERE.
Imperialism, ideology, and war are not historically unique developments in a city that predates human record. After ten millennia, there is very little that the city of Damascus has not experienced. A Startup Weekend; however, is one such event.
On February 18, 2014, the international community will gain its first introscopic look into the entrepreneurial community of Damascus, the capital city of civil-war-laden Syria.
The 54-hour event will measure public interest in Startup technologies within Damascus, and will reward a winner with access to venture funding and publicity. The three-day event, organized by Ahmed Sufian Bayram, will be preceded by a “bootcamp” for participants, and will include a cast of international entrepreneurs scheduled to attend online.
Event mentorship includes: Rania Succar (Google); Kinan Sweidan (Shooofi) and Fadi Mujahid (Game Power 7). The event will be held in the city’s Al Mezzah neighborhood, west of central Damascus.
Startup Weekends have been a community rallying event among hopeful entrepreneurs across the Arab world for several years. Prior to Damascus, Startup Weekends have been hosted in Ramallah, Amman, Jeddah and Beirut, as well as Cairo, Dubai, and Casablanca. Iran will host its first Startup Weekend beginning February 12, and Libya is scheduled to host its second event on February 27.
Registration for the event closed on February 5, with nearly 400 registrations filed.
The UP Global blog will host follow-up coverage of the events, people and ideas that made Startup Weekend Damascus possible; including interviews with the hosts, and a review of the Damascus’ brightest entrepreneurial thinking.