How To Launch A Social Impact Incubator in Iraq. Interview with Alice Bosley, 51Labs [EP20]
In this episode, I talked to Alice Bosley, the executive director and co-founder of the social impact incubator 51 labs. Alice and her co-founder moved to Iraq in their twenties to launch 51 Labs. They saw an opportunity where others saw a war-torn country. (This episode has been edited for the purpose of this article)
Can you tell us who you are?
I am the co-founder of 51 Labs a social impact incubator based in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. We support young people from all of the diverse communities in the Kurdistan region to launch scalable and innovative businesses.
Why did you launch a social impact incubator in Iraq?
The interesting thing about the Kurdistan region of Iraq if you’re looking at it on a map, it’s in between Iran and Syria. It’s kind of in-between Kirkuk and Mosul. It’s a place surrounded by conflict but it is a relatively safe and secure region.
About a million and a half Iraqis and about 250,000 Syrians have been displaced.
Unfortunately, that number will probably be growing soon just because of what’s happening in Syria.
Juliette Roy: Syria has been undergoing tremendous disruption over the last 9 years. The war is currently the second deadliest of the 21st century.
In March 2020, the estimate of the total number of deaths in the Syrian Civil War varies between 384,000 and about 586,100.
Alice Bosley: These are incredible people, right? these are people with college educations and professional experiences and hopes and dreams and talents.
And, when we think about displacement, we think about these people as either kind of poor and helpless or as burdens on society. And 51 labs wanted to flip that on its head, right?
These are assets. This is human capital that has been displaced into a place. Often entrepreneurship is an incredible way for people to overcome some of the challenges in accessing jobs at their level. You may not have connections, you might not have kind the opportunities to break into the job space, but if you have these skills, then you’re able to launch a business. And so we provide training and office space and mentorship and connections, to help these amazing people to launch amazing businesses.
How did you come up with the idea of creating a social impact incubator?
Alice Bosley: I think it’s two things. The first thing is that I first moved to the Kurdistan region of Iraq in 2012, which was a very hopeful time. It was before ISIS, before the drop in oil prices, things were really blooming there. And I had this amazing opportunity to work at a university and universities are full of these like awesome young people right there. They’re full of hopes and dreams and just really excited about life. I made friends with many of these incredible students that over the next couple of years saw those hopes and dreams kind of shattered because of ISIS, because of the kind of conflicts between Baghdad and Erbil and, and any number of things.
A first experience running a social impact incubator
The first thing was a deep understanding that there’s this amazing human talent not utilized well. And secondly, I worked at the UN refugee agency in their innovation office and ran an internal social impact incubator for the United Nations. It was incredible. Seeing how going through an incubation program, getting the support, the training and some seed funding to launch innovative solutions to solve problems can be extremely effective in all different sectors.
Working there really sparked for me the kind of the question, how can we do this for refugees? People had great ideas internally, but they already have a lot of support. If you’re working in the United Nations, you’re pretty good and.
And I thought this is wonderful, but there’s this large part of the population that is getting absolutely no opportunities to do this.
A desire to help a community in need
Alice Bosley: How can we serve people affected by conflict to solve the problems that they see in their communities. And so this kind of knowing that the human capital exists, seeing it, being friends with those people. And then, on the other hand, seeing kind of how startup incubation and, idea incubation can be so effective bring those two things together. I decided that I had to launch something like 51 labs. I found an incredible co-founder. She had personally been affected by the conflict in the past. She had family in Syria. The two of us together, this was something that we were really passionate about,
How did you get funding to launch the social impact incubator?
Alice Bosley: We launched 51 labs during grad school actually. I had left the United Nations and decided I wanted to study entrepreneurship in conflict-affected areas. I met my cofounder at grad school and we started, started 51 Labs in our second year. We wrote our dissertation on basically incubation models in different contexts. I interviewed everyone from the African entrepreneur collective based in Rwanda to Y Combinator in the Bay area to understand what were the different models.
We also ran our pilot in grad school supported by our university. We managed to win our first $15,000 from Columbia University. And that how we were able to start.
Then, we launched a crowdfunding campaign. We were supported by the Tent foundation with a grant of $50,000. We had close to $80,000 in total when we moved to Iraq. And we started on our social impact incubator program.
Can you talk about your impact on the community you empower?
We started so small. It was a team of three of us. We ran our first startup incubator in Erbil, which is the capital of that region with seven startups. So you can imagine three people working with seven startups.
From there today we have a team of 16 people in two different offices. We run a coworking space in Soleimani, which is over 8,000 square feet.
We host yearly investor trips where we bring investors from around the region and around the world to come and see the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
We’ve worked with I would say 46 founders intensively through our social impact incubator programs. And then we’ve reached over 1,800 aspiring entrepreneurs through boot camps and workshops and things that universities.
We have a smaller group of founders that we work with very intensively for a three-month full-time incubation program.
Did you learn Arabic?
We operate in the Kurdistan region. The most spoken language there is Kurdish. Because the mission of the social impact incubator is to focus on supporting people who had been displaced and affected by conflict. We actually started in English. A lot of the majority of universities, they actually teach in English. Many people have a great working level in English.
Each of our startup cohorts for the three-month incubation program was 50% of people displaced and 50% locals. That means that half our cohort speaks Kurdish and the other half Arabic. It’s pretty political.
Instead of choosing one language or the other, which would mean that we were choosing one population or the other, we started in English.
That has worked really well. We’re also very aware of the fact that the people who speak English are also those who are highly educated and pretty elite. And this year, we launched our first Arabic language incubation. It is much more focused on IDPs, people who have been internally displaced as well as refugees. And that has been going really well. And this year, we’re going to start our first Kurdish language program. And so we’re running our social impact incubator in all three languages, basically, English, Kurdish, and Arabic.
What is your business model?
We’re actually a nonprofit because we work with early entrepreneurs. We struggled with it at the beginning. We wanted to be a social impact incubator for-profit because it’s much more sustainable. But because we work with idea-stage entrepreneurs, there’s not a lot of profit in that. I think a lot of people are seeing that private sector development is the key right now in Iraq. The majority of our donors have been governments or multilateral donors. We are funded by the German government, GI Zed and the German development agency and the US Consulate in Erbil. We are doing research funded by the Dutch government.
Other revenue streams, we
- have a coworking space and membership.
- run master level classes that people have to pay to get into.
- start to move more into the investment space and we’re trying to figure out what that means for us. We’ve been speaking to a couple of partners about potentially launching a seed-stage fund ourselves and that would mean that we have a for-profit arm or whether we get a finder’s fee and we just help connect investors with startups.
What made you move to a country so culturally different from yours?
Alice Bosley: My family moved to Saudi Arabia when I was eight years old. My dad is a doctor. Whether it was a midlife crisis or he just wanted an adventure, who knows. I spent a lot of time growing up in Saudi Arabia. I fell in love with the Middle East in a lot of ways. It kind of feels like home. So I went to university in the Bay area. After I graduated, I was trying to figure it out what would be next. I applied to Peace Corps. It was like, you can be an English language teacher. It didn’t seem super impactful or life-changing.
I remember I was looking at a job board and there was a listing that said, are you young and motivated and interested in moving to Iraq? Email me. I swear I am the only person that responded to it. I was like I am young and motivated. And I do. When I moved to Iraq, around the world, but especially in the United States, there is a very specific view of what Iraq means.
As someone who absolutely did not support the war, did not. I mean, I just feel like the U.S has done so much wrong in Iraq. My first thought was like, I don’t want to be another American messing up that country.
I ended up talking to this person and learning about more and the region where I am is semi-autonomous and so it even has basically its own visa system.
I have a residency card for the Kurdistan region, but I am legally not allowed into Baghdad. So that’s like how separated these two regions are. I walk around on the streets by myself. I take taxis at night. It is very stable. My parents come to visit me and hang out. And so I just moved there and realized how different it was. Not just that region. I know so many entrepreneurs from Baghdad. There’s amazing stuff happening in Mosul. There’s amazing stuff happening in Basra.
We are a part of this basically Renaissance in Iraq focused on innovation and entrepreneurship and technology.
Are investors interested in learning about Iraq’s business opportunities?
We just hosted an investor trip.
An investor from Bahrain called us and he was like, you’ve gotta be kidding me. Right? Like Iraq. There’s no entrepreneurship in Iraq.
And so I think it’s so challenging and no one believes it. And yet, despite all of that, the evidence is that there are incredible young people that are doing this without any support.
In the Bay area, there are tons of entrepreneurs, but it’s also a lot easier to be an entrepreneur. There are role models. There are people saying you can do this. And in Iraq, literally, everything is against you but still successful people are doing it. And that is pretty addictive. So part of it might be the adventure that it was just a fun place to go to at the beginning.
But then I think once you get there and, and just see the people who are doing such badass things while the whole world is discounting this whole country, I mean that that to me is what’s really amazing.
Can you share an example of one of these people who I’ve really impressed you?
One of the entrepreneurs won in our demo day. We provide seed funding to three of our entrepreneurs. She won the largest amount of seed funding from our last startup cohort. This woman is just amazing. She is originally from Baghdad. And moved up to the Kurdistan region when things started getting pretty unsafe in Baghdad. I mean there were kinds of bombs going off on her street and her family. Eventually, it was like, this is crazy. She went to university up in Kurdistan. She used to play women’s basketball in one of the first women’s basketball teams in the country.
Then she got pregnant and realized that there was no good babysitting service in Iraq. People leave their kids with grandparents or relatives or whatever. She basically thought that’s great, except my parents have a very different mindset than I do. They’re much more traditional. They have a very specific view of what babies should be doing. I am much more modern. And she saw that all of her friends felt the same way. And so she launched a babysitting app called dada, which is the first in all of Iraq. It connects young parents with trained babysitters. They understand how to play with babies, how to stimulate them and how to teach them things even at a young age.
Fatima is a kind of an example of the just amazing resilience of people. Originally from Fallujah, she was displaced many different times. She was displaced from Fallujah to Kuwait, from Kuwait back to the bus route, and then finally to Erbil. She was in our first cohort. Fatima was a pharmacist. She owned her own pharmacy. This is a woman who was highly professional, highly skilled, and when she was displaced, she was not allowed into the local pharmacist syndicate.
Alice Bosley — And so she wasn’t able to have the same job that she had before. So she decided that the future of the world is coding. She taught herself how to code. She has two like fairly grown kids. This is like an older woman who was like, I’m going to teach myself how to code. This is the key to unlocking kind of the future. And from there she decided to teach kids how to code. And so she launched a business called tech teams, which teaches young, young kids and teenagers how to code with the goal of getting them good enough that by the time they graduate from university or decide to start working if they don’t go to college and t they can be kind of competitive on an international scale.
She now operates in a number of different schools and summer camps and has training programs all around the country. She’s planning on expanding to different cities and she just has this great model. She’s just a natural entrepreneur. She was forced into being an entrepreneur by the fact that she couldn’t follow the career path that she had before. She rocks it.
Her goal is to change the future of Iraq by teaching young Iraqis how to have the skills necessary for the future.
Women entrepreneurs usually have a critical impact on their community. It seems women are playing a large role in Iraq as well.
Part of it is because of the social impact incubator, Five One Labs was founded by two female founders. I’m sure that that has something to do with it.
From the very beginning, we decided that in each of our startup cohorts, 50% of the startups would be female-led. And it wasn’t hard to do.
I actually feel like there is less of a challenge in Iraq than there is in the United States and getting women into tech and into entrepreneurship.
We spent a lot of times supporting incredible women entrepreneurs and we actually launched a program called the female founders’ fellowship for growth-stage women enterprises because one saying one thing, even if just as many women as men come into entrepreneurship, it definitely is challenging to be a female entrepreneur in Iraq.
The challenges of being a woman entrepreneur in Iraq
There is a reputational barrier. So if you were a man and you were a supplier of my company and we went out to have a business meeting and someone saw you and me sitting together, that is just not appropriate. Our families would find out and people would think of like a date or something. If I have to go buy things in the bazaar or the older part of town, it’s not appropriate for me as a woman to do that alone. Face to face marketing, handing out flyers or talking to people. All of these things are less appropriate for men to do as women. And if you’re from a very conservative family, then just the idea of going out on your own is challenging.
We actually have put in a lot of additional things for women to help them overcome these additional barriers that they face. Because it’s just important to talk about it. I mean, there are differences. And so how do we make sure that those differences don’t stop people from starting businesses?
Because like you said, a woman who starts a business, she’s taking care of her community; she’s taking care of her parents; she’s taking care of her kids. There’s this outsized impact when it comes to supporting amazing women leaders.
What did you put in place to help women in the social impact incubator?
We have three main ways.
- We created the incubate women’s initiative to bring in women leaders from the community every other week to talk to our women entrepreneurs. They have very intimate conversations where they share tips and challenges. They create this supportive community, which is really important because often their families are saying like, you are crazy. Please go get a job. This is not a job.
- We have started linking our female entrepreneurs with interns who can, as silly as this sounds, just go with them to meetings or to do marketing or to go into the bizarre, just literally having an additional person so that you are not alone doing these things. It changed the whole story before, we would have our female entrepreneurs asking our male entrepreneurs to accompany them to do things for them. It gives you a lack of freedom and a lack of being able to do things on your own. And so we just link everybody with an intern who will basically follow them around, go do the marketing that they can’t do these sorts of things.
- We also are putting our female entrepreneurs as long as they are willing, out there as role models. We get them on the radio, on TV shows, in local newspapers. So that more and more there’s this idea that women are business leaders and are going to change the economy in a lot of ways.
And then just little things like making sure that our women entrepreneurs have women mentors who understand what they’re going through and can really kind of work with them to overcome it.
How is it for an American woman with so much freedom in the U.S, to get your head around the tradition?
I grew up in Saudi Arabia, which is much worse. Or at least it was. Things are changing in Saudi Arabia now, but when I was there, there was a lot of getting used to. Where I live in Iraq is not as conservative as many other places in the Middle East. Having a female-founded social impact incubator is actually not that strange. People in general though, not all the time respect us. We have meetings with the government. I would say it’s not at all as bad as you would imagine it to be in, in general.
Where do you get your drive?
I have no idea. I think that’s a great question and I should think about it more. It’s just, it seems to me obvious that you only have one life, you know and I don’t want to waste any time because who knows?
Because I’m impatient. I know people who have had accidents. I think everybody, the older you get, the more, you know that life is a very special thing.
And so I think at an early age, I just knew I didn’t want to waste what I had and working for a company where I didn’t feel drawn to the mission just didn’t seem worth it.
It’s not like doing social impact work generally pays, but in terms of feeling fulfilled and excited and challenged every single day, I think that is something that social impact work gives you. Right? You’re working on the hardest problems sometimes in the hardest places and it is a constant headache and a constant kind of knots that you’re trying to entangle.
The most exciting thing is waking up every day and being like, wow, how on earth are we going to do these 19 things that we have to do? And having no idea and still trying to do it. The other thing is that I just love working with badass people.
I really care about other people and supporting them to reach their goals, which is why I’ve always been drawn to entrepreneurship because it’s not about you, right? It’s about the success of the people, your customers. It’s about the success of your entrepreneurs.
And so I think I would be just as happy serving entrepreneurs in like New York city as I would in Iraq, but in Iraq, they don’t have any support. And so it just seems like that is the right place to be.
I’m not pretending to be doing something insanely amazing, but I think to work with young people and to tell them every day like, you can do this you’re just as smart as that person in the Silicon Valley. You are just as motivated. You have just as much grit, just as much determination. It’s going to be harder for you because you’re trying to launch a business in Iraq and because there isn’t as much support in Iraq, but if you really want to do this and you can do it. And I think getting to be the cheerleader for these amazing young people that are trying to change the world. That’s pretty awesome.
One of our entrepreneurs had a baby and then had all of these family issues. And as a woman there, you’re expected to take care of your family. And so, you’re leaving your job or you’re leaving your business to do all of these things. Then you come back and you keep working on your business. They’re just so many additional hurdles that you wouldn’t see from people working in the U S. I mean not across the board, but I think there are just like a lot of additional things you have to deal with. And for us, when we’re talking with investors or other people, it’s really important to share the context so that you look at this entrepreneur and you’re like, Oh well they haven’t made as much progress as we would expect from a similar entrepreneur in another place.
And we’re like, yeah, that’s great.
But also like their business has survived ISIS, like their business has survived the whole economy of this region crashing their business has survived the Iraqi government shutting down all of the airports for six months. And the internet. I mean, just last week the internet across Iraq was shut down for a full week because of protest. These things happen all the time.
And so one thing we try to do is just let people understand that they may not be as far as what you would expect from someone in New York City, but if you consider everything that they have that their business has survived through like this is pretty damn impressive.
Do you have any insight to share on how to follow one’s drive?
I think the one thing I would say, and I’m sure that everyone listening to this has heard this before. I think especially in the United States, amongst young people now and by young people, I mean anyone under the age of 45 years old, there is a drive to be perfect at things, to be really good at things and when you are trying to start something new or, or whether you’re trying to have a social impact. There are all of these reasons why you don’t feel like you’re necessarily going to be the right person to do it or that your, that you have all of the expertise necessary or that you can be perfect at this thing.
And I think what I would say is just stop waiting for that moment to come because it will, it will literally never come and as long as you are not harming people, I think you will always have a good impact.
So I would say like just start doing whatever it is that you want to do. Even if it’s a part-time thing, even if it’s three hours on the weekend. There’s never going to be some magical moment in your life where you’re like, Oh yeah, like now I can do it.
In the first six months, we started the social impact incubator, the only reason we kept going is that my cofounder and I kept convincing ourselves that we weren’t actually going to do it. It was like we’re just going to test it out one more time. We’ll just run one more pilot. And at one point I remember just staring at her and saying like. This is actually a thing. Like we’re actually going to do this.
And I remember we were both terrified because how can you ever be ready to move to Iraq and launch a startup incubator, the first startup incubator in Iraq?
Like there’s never going to be a point where you’re like, yes, I am fully ready to do this. It doesn’t change the fact that, first of all, you’re probably more ready than anybody else’s. And second of all, your mediocre attempt is still better than nothing happening and you will learn and you will get better. So just do it. Whatever it is.