Refugee-focused start-up vies for $1 million

Student entrepreneurs seek to double the income of 10 million refugees by 2022

From left: Rakan Al-Shawaf, Sara Huh, Christine Tan and Yusef Ahmed.
Credit: 
Supplied by Ben Simons

This weekend, four Queen’s students will be competing in London, England, to win a million dollars for their refugee-focused online business.

The Hult Prize Foundation, a start-up accelerator for university-level entrepreneurs, addresses a different social problem each year. The 2015 winners, Playcares, addressed early childhood education in urban slums.

The challenge issued to competing teams this year was to create a sustainable business that doubles the income of 10 million people living in crowded urban spaces by 2022.

The Queen’s team in London will pitch an online web platform — called Medina — which they say will allow refugees to create handmade goods and ship them across the world. There are three teams from Queen’s competing, although Medina is the only undergraduate team.

Winners are awarded $1 million in capital funding and mentorship in business development. This weekend will see the regional competitions held in Boston, San Francisco, London, Dubai and Shanghai, with Medina competing in London.

Although three teams from Queen’s are in the competition, they won’t be competing against each other: they’ve been divided between Boston, San Francisco and London.

For Rakan Al-Shawaf, one of the team members, an interest in refugees was piqued by his own Syrian roots. He first saw a refugee camp in 2013 between Turkey and Syria.

“I went to Turkey in the summer of 2013, to film a video with my brother,” Al-Shawaf, Sci ’18, said, adding that the two had hoped to shed light on the reality of the Free Syrian Army. 

The two brothers snuck across the Turkish border and into Syria, driving from there to the city of Kafr Nabl. At the Syrian border, Al-Shawaf caught his first glimpse of a refugee camp.

Yusef Ahmed, Sci ’18, approached Al-Shawaf earlier this year, and the two found they had a mutual interest in the Middle East — Ahmed had grown up in Saudi Arabia.

Ahmed discovered the Hult competition via a Facebook post from a friend in Malaysia, and put together a team at Queen’s. He first recruited Al-Shawaf, and the two then sought the help of Sara Huh and Christine Tan, both Comm ’18.

Together, they began planning their enterprise, which they called Medina. The concept is a web-platform that will allow refugees to create handmade goods within refugee camps and sell them online.

The business model would provide much-needed income to help refugees and their families re-establish themselves in new countries.

“They’ll be able to sell whatever items they make on the website,” Ahmed said. He said profiles on each individual be prominent on the website.

“To begin with, we’re going to start with three products: bracelets, necklaces and scarves. We will scale it from the ground up.”

Ahmed and Al-Shawaf say that after establishing a customer base and a steady flow of income into the camps, individuals in the camps will obtain control over what they create.

Over the past few months, the team has been researching the market validation of their product and speaking to potential customer bases about price ranges and design. They’ve also consulted with the potential creators and refugees within Jordanian camps to gauge whether the idea is of interest.

“It’s not easy,” Ahmed said. “We’ve both been talking to various people in the camp. For me, it’s my friend’s friend’s cousin’s cousin who works [there].”

So far, feedback has been positive, he added.

 Al-Shawaf said friends of his in Jordan with cousins or uncles in the camps have helped them connect with people far away.

“We try to get both ends, the consumer end and the creator end, to validate that this is something people want,” he said.

The team plans to start in Jordan and slowly move into Turkish camps and cities in Lebanon and Turkey with high refugee populations.

The team flew to London on Thursday morning and competes on Friday. At the competition, they’ll be given six minutes to make their pitch followed by four minutes of questions and answers.

“My parents are proud,” Al-Shawaf said.

Ahmed laughed in response.

“Mine think I should be studying more,” he said.

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