Meet Maryam. She's a 24-year-old Iraqi woman, a college graduate with an IT degree, and has been actively searching for employment for almost two years. Right now, she's presenting Cartoon, a digital animation business idea that she's spent the past 54 hours crafting and building. There are more than 200 people in the audience, each watching her every move, analyzing each statistic she shares, and dissecting her market research. This is her first time speaking in front of an audience this big. You can see a hint of sweat on her brow, peeking through her lavender colored headscarf. She softly giggles, and moves onto her demo.
She doesn't know it yet, but in two hours, her team will be announced as the winner of the first Startup Weekend in Baghdad.
Another fact that she isn't aware of is that while she is pitching her idea, a novel idea to use cartoon videos to address sensitive social issues, six people were killed when a bomb exploded in a market a few kilometers away from the event venue. Over the past month, over 400 people have been killed in similar instances.
It's impossible to enter a place without stereotypes, and few places have as much baggage as Baghdad. On my first trip to Iraq in January 2013, this is something the border security at King Sheikh Hussein Bridge Border Crossing in Jordan would not let me forget.
"Why do you want to go to Iraq? Don't you know...boom, boom, boom!" chuckled the guard as he pointed his fingers at me imitating a semi-automatic rifle. I wish the guard could have been at Startup Weekend Baghdad.
He would have seen 124 people - all strangers to each other - come together on Thursday evening, some traveling more than 3 hours, each navigating dozens of security check points that hunt for car bombs, verify identities, and turn traffic into chilled molasses.
He would have heard 44 people pitch ideas for new businesses that could potentially generate revenue and create jobs in Baghdad.
He would have felt the electric energy of 11 teams working tirelessly over the course of three days, several stumbling along on only a handful of hours of sleep.
More importantly, he would have had the chance to have tea with 17-year-old Mustafa Ahmed Abdulabeer, a soft-spoken high school student with a bushy mustache and a six-inch coif of hair that beats Elvis. If Mustafa lived in the Bay Area, he would likely get paid more than you for his software wizardry. Along with a team of four, he spent the weekend building a mobile application to help consumers choose the best Internet provider, based on speed, cost, and availability. His creation of a functional application landed his team a prize for "Best Technical Execution."
Or, the border guard could have dined with Katral-Nada Hassan, a native Iraqi who is a managing partner at In2Consulting. She flew from Dubai - urged by a sense of patriotism and desire to give back - to mentor all of the attendees on the principles of user experience design for digital products. Given the polish of many of the ideas, her time paid off well.
One local blogger observed a shift in the mentalities of the attendees throughout the event, describing a transformation in all the attendees as "they start living in each other worlds sharing their own fantasies dropping behind the infamous Iraqi egotistic, arrogant and pompous spirit, they just simply translocated from Baghdad to another planet, from shattered dreams to the land of dream's merit."
The effects of war and sectarian violence are a wound to a city, but wounds do heal. Indeed, a deep respect and appreciation for the history and culture of Baghdad was a common theme that weaved its way into conversations and business strategies.
"I'm not proud of what my people have done since Saddam left. I'm not proud that six of my uncles died during the war. I'm not proud that I come home angry after four hours spent in traffic," said Sarmand, a 31-year-old project manager at Mercy Corps, "but I am proud of the two rivers of Iraq. I'm proud that Iraq created the world's first constitution. I'm proud that Iraq created algebra."
Some of the other popular ideas at the event included Baghdad Life, an online portal that informs locals of upcoming events and festivals and serves as a guide for tourists to showcase Baghdadi culture. The team of Bil Weekend embraced the history of Baghdad, as well, building a service to identify, report, and publicize points of archaeological interest throughout Iraq.
Hopefully, Iraqi entrepreneurship is something Sarmand can be proud of, too.
Breaking Down Barriers
Of course, real barriers exist in Baghdad that few other entrepreneurs around the world face. Yet, this event was a simple, but powerful validation of both the depth of talent within Baghdad and the huge, untapped demand from the community for opportunities to unleash creative energies. To keep this fire blazing and transform the World's narrow and incomplete image of Baghdad, Startup Weekend events can be a beginning, but more is needed.
Firstly, more money needs to be invested in concepts like Fikra Space, a hackerspace in downtown Baghdad that hosts workshops, build nights, and creates a space for like-minded individuals to come together and share ideas.
Secondly, more energy needs to be spent highlighting local success stories like Mohammad Al-Samurai, a mentor at Startup Weekend Baghdad and the co-founder of EasyBites, a mobile application to facilitate restaurant food delivery. While a seemingly basic concept, delivery is made a challenge by the lack and unreliability of addresses in Iraq. Instead of relying on addresses, Mohammad and his team created a crowdsourced bank of landmarks and geotags, which once overlaid on a map, restaurants were able to pinpoint exact delivery spots. Currently, EasyBites is in talks to franchise their software to companies in three other countries that face similar mapping problems.
Lastly, more time needs to be spent painting entrepreneurship as an alternate career choice. Deeply talented, high potential individuals like Maryam shouldn't need to spend month and years looking for employment. She should be empowered at every point to create her own opportunities.
In fact, after her team's glowing performance during the weekend, she is currently in talks with USAID to work on developing an initial pilot for her series of animated cartoons.
This is a lesson to not just read between the lines of violence and danger in Baghdad, but rather to look beyond them and smile together with Maryam.