Baghdad, Iraq June 2013 Murtadha Al-Tameemi
Posing to represent the collaboration between FikraSpace and Startup Weekend Baghdad!

Posing to represent the collaboration between FikraSpace and Startup Weekend Baghdad!

It all started with a Skype call that happened during my visit to Baghdad in February. The three boys of Fikra Space (Ali, Mujtaba and Salih) as well as Sheikh, the Regional Operations Manager at Startup Weekend HQ in Seattle, were on that call. Sheikh had initiated this meeting after learning about Fikra Space, the first hackerspace in Baghdad. He was impressed by the stories he heard and wanted to meet the group of young men running the space. I only joined the meeting by coincidence as I happened to be at the space for a screen printing workshop. During the meeting, we learned more about Startup Weekend. We discussed what it would take to have one in Baghdad. Sheikh told us about a woman from Sully named Laylan who had already expressed interest in planning this event, and suggested that we work with her. We ended the call feeling really excited about this new project. My visit to Baghdad was coming to an end, so I was uncertain of how much I could participate in the planning process, but I continued to join meetings and contribute from abroad. We met Laylan soon after the initial Skype call, and three more people from Baghdad joined the team, growing it to be an eight person crew. We created a Facebook group and a mailing list, and had lots of Skype calls and Google Hangouts, which were our primary way to meet and communicate. The weeks that followed involved back and forth conversations about the event's details; the “where” and “when” were our biggest questions. We decided on a time after Ramadan (some time in the fall, that is) as it seemed like June or July wouldn't work. After this decision, we stopped meeting as regularly since we were projecting for an event that was at least five months away.
Participants going around the hall to vote on ideas using yellow post-its.

Participants going around the hall to discuss and vote on ideas using yellow post-its.

Then, a sudden change of pace happened at the end of May! USAID offered to pay for everything, provided that the first Startup Weekend in Baghdad is held before the end of June. At this point, we only had four weeks to get everything together, but we couldn't say no to such a generous sponsorship. We agreed to keep low expectations for the event, and take the risk of a potential last-minute cancellation, as the Iraqi situation became more and more fragile. Despite its intensity, the planning process felt pretty miraculous. All of the things we were nervous about not being able to accomplish in the previous time span of months fell into place in a matter of weeks. Naturally, this wouldn't have been possible without our friends and partnering organizations coming together to help. The event received unbelievable interest, especially considering the minimal advertising and seriously short notice. The weekend was attended by more people than we had chairs for, which was pretty incredible since we expected only a fifth of those chairs to be filled. We were mind-blown and felt like the event couldn't have been more successful.
A team of 17-year olds working on developing an iOS and Android app!

A team of 17-year olds working on developing an iOS and Android app!

But this journey of success wasn’t too unfamiliar. Through GEMSI's previous efforts to establish hackerspaces and collaborative communities in Baghdad and other places around MENA, we noticed a similar trend in that not much effort was needed to get folks excited about these projects. Bilal once said, "it's like we just needed to raise a flag and then people took leadership as soon as they saw the opportunity." The story of Fikra Space follows a path that’s similar to the success of Startup Weekend. Planting the seed for the first hackerspace in Iraq happened during a week-long trip Bilal had made to Baghdad. In that week, so many were inspired that they continued to hold meetings and eventually started Fikra Space. A similar thing happened with Startup Weekend as we promoted the idea only over social media, and then people brought their own energy and creativity and made something awesome happen. I hadn't realized how much the success of Fikra Space had set the stage for our event to succeed. This became very clear to me during the closing remarks of the weekend when David Harden from USAID spoke about how within the very first minute of meeting the three boys from Fikra Space back in March, he felt confident that investing in their projects would be rewarded with great success. When the opportunity came, he didn't hesitate to approve more than $25,000 worth of funds to be allocated for hosting Startup Weekend in Baghdad.
SWB - Saad Almoomen

Saad Almoomen, an instructor at the University of Baghdad, presenting the work his team did over the weekend

All of these stories of success are a great reminder for us of the demand and need that exists within these communities for opportunities to collaborate and work together on shaping the future. One thing to take away from these journeys is that entrepreneurship and maker culture has a great potential in MENA; within less than a year we have witnessed the impressive development of the first hackerspace in Iraq, and a highly successful first Startup Weekend in Baghdad. One thing we can count on is that these initiatives and movements will continue to spur amazing work and that we can all look forward to hearing more stories of success from the wonderful people who have risen to these opportunities and taken it upon themselves to do beautiful things. The first Startup Weekend in Baghdad is now over and has achieved more success than we anticipated. Throughout the weekend 44 ideas were pitched, and 13 teams were formed to work on those ideas. More important than these numbers and the thing that was most inspiring is the immeasurable amount of energy and dedication participants expressed as they worked with people they had just met, on ideas that were just presented to them, and in an environment that was completely new to them. Perhaps the best indicator of the event’s success is hearing the stories of those that were there. A college professor in his 40's wrote, "best weekend" in a comment he posted on Facebook about the event. Mohanad, another participant and a member of the team that came 2nd, wrote a post describing his feelings and experience from the weekend, in which he said, "it has been a while since I felt that much ALIVE!!!" and concluded it with, "You gave us hope!" Reading these words is the most rewarding part of the process of working on this event as they're a great reflection of the impact those 54 hours have made among participants and in the community!
Attendees gathering for a photo before announcing the winners!

Attendees gathering for a photo before announcing the winners!

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