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Entrepreneurship is challenging in any context. But for Sami Ismail, it’s challenging in a way few others can understand: His company, Intellect Events, which puts on cultural, business and networking events for entrepreneurs, is based in Damascus, Syria. “We’re living in a war zone,” Ismail says.
Ismail, 27, is a veteran of the region’s startup scene, having launched his first company, Findbook, in 2010. He conceived of it as a sort of Amazon for Syria, but when a promotional book fair for the brand brought in more money and buzz than the actual brand did, Ismail realized the entrepreneur community was hungrier for intellectual events and safe spaces to gather and network. So he closed Findbook and launched Intellect Events with a partner in 2011.
“The fabric of our society has been hit hard by the war,” he says. “It has enlarged cultural and social gaps that already existed. People are eager for anything that gives them a chance to engage in conversation and mutual understanding.” He continues to provide this even as civil war ravages his country -- because, yes, Syria is a state in crisis, but it is also home to entrepreneurs who are trying to succeed despite extreme challenges, including a lack of financing or global mentorship. Ismail hosts quarterly conferences for entrepreneurs in tech, social media and public relations, which go on for two to five days and attract hundreds of attendees. He offers a mix of networking and programming, focusing on topics including global entrepreneurship, useful PR tactics and the challenges that come with growth and scale.
Ismail has attracted speakers from Microsoft and other major companies, as well as researchers and professors from academia, although booking foreign guests isn’t easy, especially American ones. It’s against the law for an American company to attend anything sponsored by the Syrian state, so Ismail has to be explicit that neither he nor his events have anything to do with the government. And even then, people get squeamish about the optics. Once, an investment firm sent a speaker to Ismail’s event, but when the connection received public scrutiny, the investment firm publicly denied any involvement. (Microsoft, on the other hand, has publicly supported Ismail.)
Of course, although Syrian entrepreneurs have much in common with global entrepreneurs, they also face unique problems. A range of hurdles -- simply attracting clients, having e-commerce reach outside the country, dealing with painfully slow internet connectivity and regular power outages -- means day-to-day operations can feel impossible. “Bandwidth is so bad,” Ismail says. “I’ll attend conferences in Lebanon and hear them talking about their bad internet, and I think, You haven’t seen Syrian internet!” Not to mention, he estimates that more than half the country’s skilled workforce has fled in just two years, leaving huge gaps in the economy and making hiring difficult.
Ismail insists that there are benefits to operating in Syria, however. Those gaps in the economy? He sees them as opportunities -- because although there’s no official tally of how many people are now living in Syria, it’s still a country with millions of residents and a lot must be done. “Entrepreneurs who have the ability to adapt and cope with change see the glass half full and make good out of bad,” he says. “Entrepreneurs in any country with internal conflicts can produce results with the right mindset.”
Still, it’s easy to wonder why Ismail hasn’t fled, both for safety and better business opportunities. “It’s the million-dollar question,” he admits. “Ninety percent of my college friends have relocated. If you’re one of the 10 percent left, you need to really know why you’re staying and what you’re going to do with your time.” His answer: He’s loyal to the local entrepreneurs who have come to rely on him, and he wants to find new ways to innovate under unimaginable circumstances. And leaving comes with no guarantees, either; he’s watched countless friends go to Europe, Asia and Silicon Valley, only to encounter new challenges and prejudices that make it difficult for them to raise money or attract clients. “We’re really afraid of the future,” he says. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. But that doesn’t stop us.”