One woman's story of building a new accelerator program from scratch during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic
One woman's story of building a new accelerator program from scratch during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic
by: Steve Hayton|
January 16, 2023|
The year 2020 will always be remembered as the year that Covid-19 rocked the entire planet. Imagine if you were tasked with building out an accelerator program during lockdown. On top of that, imagine if the program was on the other side of the world, in Iraq, a country that has never held an accelerator program before. That’s exactly what Eileen Brewer did. Now working as the Director of Partnerships at 757 CoLab, we sat down with Eileen to hear her incredible story that resulted in five successful cohorts and the support of 50 Iraqi founders.
I was working for tech companies in Silicon Valley for 20 years, and most recently, was with Symantec for nine years. I was responsible for the hardware manufacturing of our security products.
In 2011, Board members of Symantec sent a message out to announce the U.S. State Department had started a new program called TechWomen. It was an exchange program where they were going to bring women working in tech and STEM fields from different countries into Silicon Valley for mentorship.
I applied to the State Department to be a mentor and was accepted, and I fell in love with that program. I would volunteer 200 hours per year, on the selection committee, as a trainer, and a mentor, and also spent time taking the women around to ensure they got the introductions they needed. As I got to know them, I realized they had limited access to the entrepreneurial type of training materials and networks in their countries compared to what we freely had in Silicon Valley.
After the success of the program, we started making delegation trips where 20 mentors would go to a developing country for one week to deliver a bunch of training. During the training I started to wonder, what else can I provide? What else can I share with the students? I had access to lots of hardware from Symantec so I decided to start flying out with a suitcase full of server motherboards so that I could teach young girls about technology in a way that is reachable for them
These workshops helped to reduce fear, increase confidence, and show them that they could pursue a career in STEM. After my eighth delegation trip, I realized I needed to find a way to do it full-time and get paid.
The State Department would only choose two countries per year to host the official delegation trips, and some of us mentors wanted to do more. We started developing unofficial delegation trips where two or three of us would get together, and we would reach out to the TechWomen alumnae in a country we knew had not been selected for an official delegation trip. There was a point where I was doing four to six of these trips per year while still working for Symantec.
It became clear that every decision I made needed to be around how I could support transitioning my career from working in Silicon Valley to becoming a consultant traveling to these countries to deliver entrepreneurship training. I just started making myself available to make these trips as much as possible. And it started working.
By February 2020, I was booking trips almost every month to another country where I would get paid to deliver content. I thought this is awesome. I’ve done it; I’ve made that transition. It didn’t pay well, but it paid the bills, and that meant that I didn’t have to touch my retirement.
Of course, one month later in March 2020 Covid-19 hit. I was in Pakistan at the time and had to return to the US.
One by one, each future trip started to get canceled. April trips canceled, May trips canceled, June trips canceled. It became undeniable that I had no income and needed to figure something else out. I started searching around for more long-term contracts and then I came across an 18-month contract to build the first accelerator in Iraq with grant funding from the European Union given to the American University of Iraq, Sulaimania.
It’s funny because when I started interviewing for it, I told myself, I’m never going to take a job that lands me in Iraq. There’s just no way I’m going to Iraq. I need interviewing practice, so I am taking this call for the practice interview. As I got more information, it started becoming more attractive, and as I was getting close to getting an offer, I started searching for people who had spent time in Iraq so I could interview them about their experiences.
I talked to single women who have lived and worked in the same city where I was heading, on the same campus I was heading to. Everyone said it’s outstanding, safe, and worth it; go, don’t miss the opportunity.
I’m adventurous, and I tend to live by saying yes as often as possible and keeping my mind open to opportunities, so I just said I’m going for it. The job started in June 2020, and I worked remotely for about a month.
The Covid-19 cases in Iraq were very high, and I didn’t trust the hospital system. I needed to move and get close to Iraq but not go into Iraq. This is July 2020, when countries were shutting down, and governments were not allowing people in, especially US Citizens, because US cases were skyrocketing. There was a tiny window of opportunity. I just started hunting, checking all these countries over and over that were within a two-hour time zone of Iraq, and Croatia was still accepting the US. Citizens. Without much research, I booked it, and flew to Croatia. I flew witha couple of big, heavy suitcases, thinking I would only be there for one or two months and then fly to Iraq.
Covid cases just kept skyrocketing everywhere so I ended up staying in Croatia for three months and moving every week. I got to see a lot of Croatia. I would work a solid eight to 10 hours a day as we were building the first accelerator from scratch with myself traveling, a Jordanian living in the UK, and two Iraqis living in Iraq.
I learned after I got there and built a relationship with GAN, that the word ‘gan’ is offensive in Kurdish and Arabic, it’s like the F word. So I couldn’t say ‘GAN.’ We were trying to talk to our founders and tell them about all the perks GAN had to offer and I would have to spell it out and say G-A-N.
Our first cohort was due to start in September 2020; we opened up applications in July and closed them on August 15th. We thought, “nobody even knows who or what we are; we’re not going to get any applicants.” The Iraqi guy said, “oh no, believe me, we will be fine.” And just like that, we received 120 applications. We managed to get twelve strong candidates and put them in that first cohort. In those twelve weeks of the first cohort, we delivered 48 training sessions, four per week. It came to almost 100 hours of training, and we developed and delivered all of that content, just between the three of us staff members, still living across 3 countries.
By October I needed to leave Croatia as my visa was expiring, so I moved to Turkey for two months as my final stop before entering Iraq in December 2020.
Once I got into Iraq I discovered that I couldn’t do online banking. As soon as the US system recognized that my IP address was coming from Iraq, it kicked me out of my bank accounts and kicked me out of my credit card accounts. Even VPNs were little help. Up until around two years ago, Iraq was largely a cash-only country; if you wanted to order something online, the seller would package the item and give it to a delivery driver who would deliver it, and then the buyer would pay the driver cash. The technology was available, but there was no infrastructure to support it. We probably can’t imagine a life without digital currency in the developed world. I was interested when one of our applicants built a crypto exchange.
He had been out of the country going to university in the UK and spent a lot of time learning about crypto; by the time he returned to Iraq, he had full knowledge and understanding of what it was. He built a startup helping Iraqis engage in the world of cryptocurrency. He doesn’t sell his own coin; rather, he handles the exchanges for you. He’ll buy on your behalf, and then he’ll put the cryptocurrency in your wallet, and he’ll take a small percentage for that transaction. It’s been very successful.
We had another founder digitizing the medical system. Historically, everything was recorded using paper-based systems in Kurdish. The only software products available were based in English and the main issue was that many hospital workers could not speak English, only the doctors. This founder built a platform that would work in Kurdish and English and has been extremely successful in rolling it out across all medical facilities. Next, he will incorporate Arabic.
I was working twice as hard for one-third of the amount of money, but I was making a difference. The word I use the most is probably ‘joy’. After supporting the Takween Accelerator for 18 months I transitioned back to the US and now I am supporting the founders of 757 Accelerate in Virginia. Who knows what the next chapter will bring?
It’s about the people; the only thing I miss about Iraq is the people; the bureaucracy was horrendous, and the fights I had to have to spend the money the right way was ridiculous. I left because I was so angry about corruption and the number of third parties that were trying to use the grant money for all these other things instead of what it was intended for. I just really felt like I needed to move on. I told the government, you’re not ready for me yet; you don’t want to do what you’re supposed to be doing, and you’re not providing the resources that these citizens need.
What was interesting was that the European granters giving the money are much more numbers focused than depth-focused. They would much rather you give basic training to 1,000 people than train 50 people really well. My 18 months of cohorts and training 50 people well was not impressive to them at all because some other grant trained 2,500 people, but all they’ve done is a lean canvas for ideation, and that’s it, nothing else. From a granter’s perspective, it’s about how many people you impact.
Other accelerators came after us and just straight-up copied our content. By the time we had the second cohort, we were able to start hiring some trainers, and they would hire the same trainers as us. They would take our social media content, use the same template and post the same message but with their colors, it was wild to watch.
There’s a difference between copying as a compliment, the way we see it in the US, and copying when it’s done in really low-resource countries. Copying is done because they see somebody making money or getting money for doing it. “I need to do what they’re doing so I can get money.” It’s completely different.
If one guy makes a mobile app for food delivery, five people will make mobile apps to do food delivery because they see him making money at it, not because they’re trying to build it better or differently.
I would only go to a country that has already passed a Startup Act. The first one was in Tunisia around 2017. A Startup Act is the government saying, I recognize the value and the need for a startup ecosystem in our country; therefore, we’re willing to do the following things. Each Startup Act is slightly different based on which country, but it usually includes things like a fast path to get a business license, no taxes or low taxes for the first couple of years, or until you’re generating revenue, mentorship, and support.
Tunisia was very extensive, and it said if you qualify to be categorized as a startup by the government, we guarantee that you can leave your job and work on this startup, for one or two years, and if it fails, you are guaranteed your job back.
Imagine trying to help start-ups in a country where the government doesn’t want anything to do with it. What I explained to a lot of the granters in Iraq was that collectively dropping millions of dollars into Iraq every year for all the humanitarian aid and vocational training, is futile because you’re focussing on the citizen level.
It’s great to get the citizens trained but they can’t do anything with it when the government doesn’t care and isn’t supporting them. For example, they need to get a business license but in Iraq, it can take months, and they could submit 20 or 30 company names to find that they all get rejected because the guy behind the counter didn’t understand what the words meant. Now they have to spend three months of salary just to get a lawyer to bribe a clerk to register the name.
Until the government is ready to back accelerators, I wouldn’t bother going. The minute they set up a startup ecosystem through the official passing of a Startup Act, then I’d be more than happy to help out.
757 Collab, a vertically integrated continuum that together provides capital, acceleration, and incubation to early-stage, industry-agnostic founders. 757 Startup Studios is a selective non-profit incubator for growth-oriented startups in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia. 757 Startup Studios curates programming, mentorship, and community to reduce obstacles and barriers so founders can focus on validating and scaling their idea. 757 Accelerate is a selective startup accelerator program providing founders with capital, connections, and customers. Its mission is to provide startups with access to a customized network of mentors, investors, and support services, along with co-working space, and a lean startup education to do more, faster.
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