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Iraq’s Entrepreneurial Awakening Needs Women

Building stronger nations through social entrepreneurship education.

A recent Economist article, “Start-up Spring,” positions the startup boom in the Middle East as a potential antidote to its employment woes: 25 percent of youth are unemployed and only about 21 percent of women participate in the workforce despite making up more than half of its university graduates. Interestingly, in Middle Eastern cities—particularly in Amman, Jordan—the share of women entrepreneurs, which is estimated at 35 percent of the total and expected to grow, is much larger than the global average of 10 percent. In this region and other transitional economies, entrepreneurship increases economic development. It also provides women greater flexibility to work from home, making it more culturally palatable in some areas and easier to raise children.

In many respects, Jordan’s successful bid in entrepreneurship—which includes ideological support and financial investments from the government, improvements in education and training, and opportunities for seeding accelerators—provides a roadmap for many other Middle Eastern nations, including my own.

In Iraq, where I was born and teach operational management at Babylon University, the climate for building a new generation of entrepreneurs does not exist, but it can and must as the nation rebuilds its economy and grows its private sector. The US Department of State, along with Rollins College and Tupperware Brands, recognized the importance of entrepreneurship to the Iraqi economy when it created the Global Links scholarship program and hosted me in the United States last year. As a professor and woman, this yearlong externship and academic year in residence was a life-changing experience and helped me form many of the recommendations I offer here.

Iraq, traditionally a top-down nation, is in transition. It is moving from a centrally run economy to a market-oriented one, and there is an immediate need for leaders skilled in methods, attitudes, and skills that will help them be successful in a competitive, decentralized, global marketplace. To fill this void, Iraq’s educational system must also adapt to changing economic times and modify its top-down approach to create a climate that enables entrepreneurship to thrive.

While Iraq’s Ministry of Higher Education has done much to improve classroom technology and advance teaching styles, the country requires further development of its educational infrastructure and faculty training, and it continues to use an outdated instructor-centered teaching style that is not conducive to encouraging the characteristics of entrepreneurship—particularly social entrepreneurship (a completely new concept for Iraq). Over time, the teaching of entrepreneurial education in Iraqi higher education institutions is likely to grow, which means that administrators and faculty must now develop both appropriate content and teaching methods to ensure that Iraq’s future workforce will develop fully.

I see several opportunities (all of which could elevate the status of women) to improve the educational and community relationships necessary for an effective entrepreneurial ecosystem in Iraq—opportunities that other nations can potentially replicate to build stronger, more self-sufficient economic systems.

  • Develop social entrepreneurship classes that will increase the entrepreneurial self-efficacy and eventual entrepreneurial action of students who participate in them.
  • Implement “learning by doing” pedagogies (including grounded learning, service learning, and experiential learning) to increase student engagement and retention of important concepts.
  • Create and deliver career development seminars to improve preparedness of students for creation and acceptance of jobs in the private sector.
  • Develop initiatives that will enable professors and students to partner with nonprofit organizations, with the specific goal of using education to improve the economic situations of female entrepreneurs and artisans.
  • Encourage private-public partnerships such as the one between Tupperware Brands, Rollins College, and the US State Department to cultivate an entrepreneurial environment and provide individuals the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to a real business setting.

Successful entrepreneurship education is about developing both mindsets and skill sets; it’s about evolving from a “take a job” to a “make a job” mentality. As Randa Ayoubi, a Jordanian entrepreneur, told the Economist: “We have no choice but to let people create their own jobs.” In Iraq, I look forward to seeing a new generation of entrepreneurs—men and women alike—creating their own jobs too.

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