In the first episode of the podcast, we speak to Ahmad Sufian Bayram, a Syrian entrepreneur and the Regional Manager of Techstars, as he unveils the 5 crucial keys to working on an entrepreneurial mindset.
By Rana Hafez
Our first guest at the Startups Without Borders podcast is a social entrepreneur, an author, and strategy leader in technology. Ahmad Sufian Bayram is the Regional Manager for the Middle East and Africa at Techstars, and has been supporting hundreds of Syrians to gain access to entrepreneurship opportunities through Startup Syria. He is also Jusoor’s entrepreneurship program manager, and advisor in the Board of Techfugees.
Ahmad began his entrepreneurial journey in 2010, when he and a group of his friends started a company for customizing gifts in Syria, called “Joy Makers”. But as the country plunged into armed conflict, they had to shut down the business.
“When we started, we started with few products that went very well in the market, we were able to raise a pre-seed fund; the investors were very excited and wanted to do a follow-up on the investment. But when things started in 2011, everything around us shifted; there was no joy to be made in the country,” says Ahmad.
But the situation didn’t stop the ambitious Syrian entrepreneur from pursuing his passion, and he started to think of ways that can help create a supportive ecosystem for Syrian entrepreneurs during this very difficult time. That’s when he found out about Techstars’ Startup Weekend, and decided to do the first Startup Weekend in Damascus in 2013.
After seeing the success and the impact of his first and second edition of Startup Weekend in Syria, Ahmad took on a bigger mission to help the Syrian entrepreneurial community on a larger scale throughout the MENA region, so he decided to volunteer full time with Startup Weekend.
“After the first event in a year, I began reaching out to everyone who had participated in the Startup Weekend, to see what they were up to. Shockingly to me at that time, more than 95% of the people were either working on the same startup that they came to the startup weekend to create; or they had found a job, or they were still going to university. So 85% of those people were employed, or working on pursuing their own dreams and never gave up.”
Within two months, Techstars had offered Ahmad a full time job as the Regional Manager for the Middle East. That’s when he had to leave his family, his friends and the community he helped build back in Damascus, to embark on a mission to help and support hundreds of dreamers who had left everything behind to start over in a new country, not only through Techstars but also Jusoor – a non-profit organization which supports Syrian refugees through entrepreneurship programs – and creating Startup Syria. So far, 185 startups have been helped in the MENA region through Jusoor’s programs.
But as he got in touch with hundreds of Syrian entrepreneurs, his insights into the challenges of refugee entrepreneurs led him to author two books: Entrepreneurship in Conflict Zones, which examines the state of entrepreneurship in the war-torn country; and Entrepreneurship in Exile, which sheds light on the trends, the industries, and the challenges that Syrian entrepreneurs in exile face.
Looking back at his incredible journey, Ahmad shares his story and gives us insights on the top 5 lessons he learned across his experience, from one of the world’s top accelerators, to mentoring and training entrepreneurs amid hardship, war and displacement.
1. Stop talking and start doing
Ahmad learned this right after he had to shut down his business in Damascus. “When I lost my investment back in Syria, I was only talking about how hard it is to build a business without any support or ecosystem for startups; how the market is quickly collapsing, and how hard it is to find another investor. I was only talking without actually doing something about it, and I kept putting obstacles in front of myself instead of finding a solution. Until I finally realized I have to stop complaining and start doing something to change that reality,” said the perseverant entrepreneur recalling his journey with Joy Makers.
2. Take risks
Typically, moving to a completely new country is very risky because you’re leaving everything that is familiar to you behind and starting in a place where you probably don’t speak the same language, have no money, family or friends; it’s the biggest risk any one can take.
Therefore, refugees are more entrepreneurial than locals, they are already way out of their comfort zone and they want to start fresh, learn more, and change their reality. Refugees do not create businesses for the sole purpose of making money, but they also see it as a second chance to take control of their own lives. “It’s like when you’re playing basketball and you have one second left what would you do? You’ll just throw the ball, you’re not going to calculate the chances, you’ll take the risk,” says Ahmad.
Every decision we make is a conscious one, so don’t overthink and just be open to learn, to grow, and make mistakes. Don’t be afraid of failure, and take it as a lesson learned and a step closer to your success.
3. Learn something new everyday
If you’re not willing to invest in yourself, why should anybody be willing to invest anything in you? That’s the question you should ask yourself every single day, says Ahmad. People usually invest in people, not in ideas. So you have to keep learning, keep growing, and keep working on your mindset. Attend online courses, peer to peer learning groups, learn from your friends, share knowledge. Education can be hard to access for refugees.
“When it comes to mindset, you don’t just have the mindset, but you work on your mindset all the time. And that’s what successful entrepreneurs, work hard, learn, support others, ask for help, question everything.”
4. Give First
One of the fundamental values of Techstars is “Give first”. A lot of people ask to take something first in order to give. But would you really rather be helpful or indebted?
In order to give before you get, you have to adopt a philosophy of helping others without an expectation of what you are going to get back. It’s not altruistic – you do expect to get things in return – but you don’t set up the relationship as a transactional one.
“With time, you’ll start to see and realize the real impact of giving first. For me, I wanted to give first to the community of entrepreneurs across the MENA region, when I started volunteering full time with Techstars to do startup weekend. And shortly after that, Techstars offered me a full-time job doing what I truly love.”
5. Work hard, not smart
You probably have heard people saying “Work smart, not hard” before, but Ahmad has a different opinion on this: “I think people should work hard not smart, because smart is very subjective. I mean what is considered smart by me might not be so smart by someone else who is going through a very different experience. There isn’t one ‘smart’ common way that people can follow, otherwise everyone will become successful. What really helps people become successful is hard work and failing more often so they can learn from their mistakes.”
Hard work means more experience, and smart work could sometimes mean taking a shortcut to success. Therefore when you work hard on something, you will be able to make better decisions based on your experience and what you’ve learned, rather than making decisions based on your own biased opinion. “Hard work allows you to fail more often and learn more and therefore you’ll make smarter decisions based on your own hard work.”
“Accepting failure is part of acquiring the growth mindset. It’s such a big challenge for all of us. How can you take it as a lesson learned instead of a personal failure and a statement that your capabilities do not reach that far?”
Although he admits that “you will never be completely fine with failure especially if you worked really hard,” the key lies in understanding what this will open to you. “I know it’s disappointing, but you have to value the lesson learned and avoid that mistake next time. This will definitely open new opportunities for you. And it’s not really a failure if you don’t give up. Learn from your mistakes, do it again in a better way. You have to fight that feeling of self-doubt after a failure, and with time it will become much easier, as you will make fewer mistakes along the way. You become smarter by working harder.”
Want to learn more about Ahmad’s amazing story? Listen to the Startups Without Borders podcast on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, iHeart Radio or Castbox. You can also download Ahmed’s book “Entrepreneurship in Exile,” for free here.