“I want to tell the whole world that Syria has people with ideas worth spreading,” says young Alaa Alsewid, a freshly graduated food engineer who is taking it upon herself to encourage and inspire Syrian youth to rebuild her war-torn country.
It’s a Wednesday afternoon during the holy month of Ramadan in Syria and the streets of her natal Homs sing the quiet lament of a city that is still healing the memories of an ongoing war. But Alsewid’s joyful, free-spirited tone composes a different melody. “We need people to believe in what they can do and have faith to start new things,” says the 23-year-old woman, who lead a team of 41 volunteers to organise Startup Weekend Homs, a trademark 54-hour long event led by Techstars around the world.
The young engineer and her team managed to gather 77 would-be entrepreneurs who journeyed through uncertain roads across all corners of Syria - from the Northern seaside town of Lattakia, to Tartous, Aleppo, Hama, Deir Al-Zor and the capital, Damascus - to gather at the event, the first of its kind in the Southern city, located just 51 km away from the Lebanese border.
The city, which underwent a painful three-year siege between 2011 and 2014, is now recovering from conflict, and young change makers like Alsewid hope that entrepreneurship can give youth the tools to rebuild an economy in ruins. “Homs now is in a period of recovery. We’ve lost facilities, infrastructure, and people, but the city is now trying to come alive,” she says.
Having organised several youth-led events, including of TEDx talks, Alsewid aims to ignite a spark for young Syrians to get together and reinvent their future. “My goal is to give opportunities for people by organising events,” she says. “But I realised we can do something bigger: to encourage them to start businesses and startups. The word entrepreneurship is not common in our society and no one knows what it means. Since there are no centres providing skills and training, I started thinking about organising a Startup Weekend event to spread the culture of entrepreneurship in my community and encourage youth to create startups that have an impact on the economic situation."
Entrepreneurship is not a common word in our society and no one knows what it means.
Since the war began, the Levantine country’s economy has plummeted to unprecedented levels, taking its the battered economy to its early-1990s size. A recent report by BMI published on Business Insider shows whopping drops in Syria's GDP growth rates since 2011, including an estimated 25 percent GDP contractions year-over-year in 2012 and 2013. The report also indicates that exports have lost 80 percent of their real value from 2010 to 2015. According to Syria’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the country has lost four fifths of its GDP between 2010 and 2016.
But Alswewid sees treasures amid despair, as the war has given Syrian youth an indelible resilient spirit that is particularly unmatched. “These years have given people additional skills, which no one would get in a normal situation. You are in the middle of a war, with no resources, with no skills, and you have to do something, you have to go on with your life. Youth and people who suffered from this have gained skills that make them good entrepreneurs, because entrepreneurship requires a high level of risk-taking.”
The event gathered 77 entrepreneurs throughout three days that kicked off on April 20th at the Jouri Hall in Al-Malaab Street, with an unprecedented ratio of female participation - a testament of the youth landscape in the Levantine country, void of men since the war began. “They have all left,” she says. “You can see this clearly walking the streets; there’s a huge gap between the percentage of men and women, especially those between 20 and 30 years old.”
“Everyone is afraid of the military service, because when you go to the military, you will be sent to war areas, and there’s a 90 percent chance you will lose your life. So nowadays, they travel abroad after they graduate to escape this,” she explains. The trend also poses a challenge for startup founders, as young men often refrain from embarking on an entrepreneurial venture in their home country, as they foresee a future most probably shaped by emigration.
“This made us focus on encouraging more women to be entrepreneurs,” says Alsewid, anticipating a changing landscape where female entrepreneurs could dominate the room. “Women are now leading the community, a lot of families financially depend on women now, so they should be the ones working on establishing businesses,” she asserts.
"When we do campaigns on social media platforms, we create them for female audiences, and give them examples of female entrepreneur worldwide. We hope we can create a change, because women are traditionally more afraid to start initiatives.”
Women are now leading the community, a lot of families financially depend on women now, so they should be the ones working on establishing businesses.
Throughout the three days, 14 teams created startup initiatives, including Smart Menu - a smartphone app for restaurants to display the menu to their customers using AR - Tamra, CommUni-T, ABOok - A smartphone app to communicate people in need of blood transfusions and others who can donate - FitKit, ByBicycle - a company to rent bicycles online - Bahbasha, ShareZ, Al-Daleel Al-Akari, Vicanvy, KMI, Manga Window, Wijha, and MedBrace. After an intensive bootcamp where enthusiastic men and women learned the principles of business administration, marketing, and the essential economic theories of establishing a startup, the startups pitched their ideas on stage.
MedBrace, a medical bracelet used to measure the bio indicators of patients to then send the data to an Android device or a cloud storage won the first place, and Tamra, a healthy, caffeine-free coffee, won the second place, whereas in the third place came ShareZ, a platform that enables customers to rent and lease goods they no longer need.
“We need more events like this one,” says Alsewid, stressing that non-profit and aid organisations on the ground would have greater impact by adding entrepreneurship-driven initiatives. “We are not focusing so much on the ideas they present, but rather on sending the message to community organisations and NGOs that there is something very important called entrepreneurship, and they need to start working on it,” she says.
When we are talking about rebuilding Syria, it’s not just about the buildings that were damaged, but also the possibility for people to have opportunities; we have to focus on the economic situation, and entrepreneurs are the ones who can create change.
The 23-year-old woman is not certain whether the ongoing conflict in Syria will come to an end soon, but her endeavours are driven by one unwavering certainty: that entrepreneurs are the agents that will restore Syria. “When we are talking about rebuilding Syria, it’s not just about the buildings that were damaged, but also the possibility for people to have opportunities; we have to focus on the economic situation, and entrepreneurs are the ones who can create change.”
“I want to change the wrong habits in our community,” she continues, eager to express her relentless desire to turn ashes into the foundations of a new reality. “I think combining media and communications with community service is the secret weapon to change our lives.”
Photography: Courtesy of Startup Weekend Homs.