GW student start-ups connect with the international community

It’s no surprise that the startup craze has expanded from the Silicon Valley.

According to a 2017 report by the Kauffman Foundation, an education and entrepreneurship nonprofit, the startup activity index hit a low in 2013 due to the recession, but today it has bounced back. This is mainly due to more people pursuing entrepreneurship and increased opportunity share (more people doing it out of choice, versus necessity.)

Despite the fact that millennials - those under 30 - are the least likely to start their own businesses (due to their increased debt and adversity to risk-taking), there is a lot of promise, as outlined by senior editor at The Atlantic Derek Thompson.

The recovering economy, the 20 percent increase in the number of entrepreneurial classes, and the fact that many founders started as humble employees could result in, what Thompson called, “a dormant volcano of entrepreneurship that will erupt in about a decade” for the millennial generation.

At The George Washington University, this eruption has begun.

GW Startups partnered with WeMENA to host the first Women on Board conference July 25-29. WeMENA is a business model challenge for female entrepreneurs with a focus in the Middle East and North Africa. Represently, a digital tool for political activism that was founded by several GW students, was also involved in the conference.

Sarah Shavin, president of GW Startups, stated “[Women on Board] took the top 12 finalists from the WeMENA challenge and invited them to D.C. for a series of meetings, workshops and events around innovation and entrepreneurship.” She said this conference is representative of what they aim to do for GW's Innovation Center.

Two-hundred women were selected to pitch their models and only the top four contenders won monetary prizes for the WeMENA business model competition. This is a challenge for female entrepreneurs from around the world to present their business proposal to a panel of judges who evaluate their propositions based on their ability to be sustainable, create a profit, and enhance the resilience of at least one of seven cities (Alexandria, Amman, Beirut, Byblos, Cairo, Casablanca, Ramallah, or Tunis) in the Middle East and North Africa region.

The business pitches ranged from alternative ways to provide energy to an environmentally-friendly backpack company to a platform connecting native Arabic speakers with students learning the language. These projects filled in the gaps in communities and benefit cities and countries in the long run. Many women saw a need in their home cities and turned to entrepreneurship to devise a solution.

The final 14 women were invited to attend the WeMENA conference in July. All but two came.

The top four winners who received monetary prizes and a trip to the U.S. are:

● Yara Yassin & Rania Rafie ($50,000): Up Fuse, an eco-conscious lifestyle brand

● Angela Solomon ($40,000): Jaleesa, network that connects families with babysitters

● Aline Sara ($40,000): Natakallam, connects native Arabic speakers, mostly Syrian refugees with students of the Arab language

● Selma Ben’akcha & Meriem Nadi ($20,000): Alternative Solutions, social enterprise that creates jobs in the region of Daraa Tafilalt to reduce deforestation and impact of greenhouse gases

The following are the other top finalists who were also awarded a trip to the U.S. to attend the conference were:

● Amira Alaa: Leadership Factory, offers online and inperson programs to empower youth and help them seize opportunities

● Rosemary Romanos: Sunray Energy, make solar energy more accessible and affordable for the more rural parts of Lebanon

● Nada Hamada: El Dactara, allows users to make informed decisions regarding their healthcare by providing doctor information

● Camelia Drissi: Skillsmotion, supports youth employment and connects them recruiters to teach soft skills and do training

● Hedaya Sellah: E-Com Connect, an e-commerce platform that provides an array of services

● Yasmeen Elbakry: Partimer, a digital platform for freelancing

Shavin said, “[GW Start Ups] spent this past summer partnering with The World Bank and the founder of Voyaj, Yasmine El Bagarri, on a program called Women on Board.” Voyaj is a platform that facilitates cultural exchanges between homestay hosts and travelers.

Over the course of five days in D.C. these women met with business leaders and presidents of start-ups as well as got to experience the city. The finalists met with World Bank employees, Halcyon fellows and employees, and AT&T.

Founder of Novos Consulting Frieda K. Edgette of GW led a leadership workshop. According to their site, Novos Consulting is, "A civic-minded organizational strategy and coaching consultancy operating at the intersection of politics and innovation." The women gained experience practicing their pitches and received insightful information from startups and entrepreneurs in D.C. with a global impact.

Another event included a dinner for WeMENA, GW Start-Ups and Represently. This was for the women to meet and interact with entrepreneurs from GW. At the dinner prepared by Michael Gasparovic, Represently software engineer, the women, Represently leadership, and GW startups members spoke about entrepreneurship, global innovation, and social justice. They compared and contrasted the domestic and international businesses present.

As they talked and ate, everyone went around and reflected on their thoughts of the conference so far. “When women gather, their intent is to create a product for all,” said Ray Boyle (Partimer) about the strengths of female entrepreneurship. She said that their hearts are aligned.

“The focus of the women’s conference in D.C. is to introduce them to the start-up entrepreneur scene in the area and allow them to develop connections in the US but also with the other women. The goal is to develop these women as individuals and provide them with the resources they need rather than focusing on the individual company,” explained Sebastian Wood, a member of the board of Women on Board.

Many startups fail, but the capabilities of these women live on and the aim of this conference is to provide these women with the resources they need so that their ideas can manifest and they can have a lasting impact on their communities and their world. These women came to D.C. so that they could build resilience in their homes however, the political climate has affected efforts such as these.

The WeMENA conference is just one of the many ventures GW startups, Women on Board, Represently, and the GW Innovation Center are working on. As the semester starts look out for more of their projects and how you can get involved.

Originally published by Courtney Buble on on 8.28.17.

CampusBrandon Bish