The Syrian war, so far, has claimed the lives of 470,000 people and turned five million others into refugees. The country’s economy is in ruins, unemployment is skyrocketing and many are suffering. But one American believes that entrepreneurship can help turn things around there. And he’s just left for the region to prove it.
Chicagoan Steve Lehmann is no stranger to conflict. He’s the co-founder of Threadies, a company that sells and donates colorful teddy bears that are handmade by women living in the West Bank. Back in 2015 he traveled to the region to test the Threadies model with Syrian refugees in, what he called, the “nastiest, scariest, most hopeless” refugee camp in northern Jordan.” Now he’s heading back with the objective of installing “a sense of hope in entrepreneurial-minded teens,” according to this article in the Chicago Tribune.
Lehman is currently the assistant director of a $20 million fund at the University of Chicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (his trip is not affiliated with the center). Working with a local youth center, Lehman left recently to stay for two weeks in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli–a short bike ride from the Syrian border–to conduct an entrepreneurial boot camp for 15 previously selected teenagers who applied for the opportunity.
The teens will come ready with a business idea and will focus on customer engagement and prototyping products. The aim is to get them on the streets selling “within the first few hours,” so they can begin to shape their business.
Many Syrian refugees have already embraced entrepreneurship. One research group found that those who settled in Turkey have started more than 6,000 companies and invested more than $334 million in the local economy. But both current and prospective business owners there still have an enormous need for developing the necessary business know-how. “Often times, people have an idea or they have a skill, but they don’t necessarily know how to take that idea to market,” Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations that specializes in entrepreneurship in conflict zones told the Tribune. “An even small intervention by our standards can be a big difference.”
In the U.S., starting a business and becoming an entrepreneur is considered a dream for many. But for refugees of the Syrian conflict, it could be the only way to survive.