06 September 2012
Entrepreneurship, youth, and the Middle East—these ideas have bumbled together in global media since the Arab Spring, when the world took note of the region’s 25 percent youth unemployment rate. But where does entrepreneurship start? One community in Palestine says it starts with the children.
Nehaya grew up in Nablus, Palestine. Sixty percent of her community is under 24 years old, and job prospects are bleak: the city faces a 60 percent unemployment rate, and in the nearby Balata Refugee Camp, 80 percent are unemployed. As a young woman in the area, Nehaya understood that if she wanted a job, she would likely have to make one for herself.
Today she is the owner of a home-cooked cuisine restaurant at An-Najah University in Nablus, and her business is doing well, having passed the precarious start-up period of any small enterprise.
For Nehaya, entrepreneurship has worked, but according to the Harvard Business School, failure is the norm for start-ups. Even in the United States, where property laws are firm and markets are established, rates are daunting. The failure rate for start-ups is 30 to 40 percent, if “failure” is defined as liquidating all assets. The rate jumps to 95 percent if failure means declaring a projection and then falling short.
Despite such a low probability of success, entrepreneurship is being pitched to communities in the Middle East as a solution to high unemployment rates, especially for youth, whose regional unemployment average is 25 percent. But where should communities start when—for distressed places, like Nablus—there is minimal capital, market access, and market research? What should they do when these problems are compounded by corruption and weak property laws? And how should they overcome cultural and religious expectations that may be in conflict with some business practices?
One possibility: start over with the children.
Tomorrow’s Youth Organization (TYO) is doing just that, on the ground in the town of Nehaya’s hometown, Nablus. Its mission makes the connection between an individual's development and the broader community and economy: "youth populations are one of the greatest risks and opportunities in the Middle East. TYO facilitates young people’s development as engaged citizens and professionals to favor positive outcomes for these individuals and society more broadly."
Instead of starting with entrepreneurs, TYO’s focus is on early childhood development.
Humaira Wakili is TYO's Nablus Center Director and explains that TYO does host entrepreneurship and women's programs, "but these other programs exist because they support early childhood.” She notes Nahaya's restaurant, which was boosted by working with TYO, in partnership with the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women.
“We take a multi-generational approach to development,” says Wakili, adding that TYO’s programs start at age four but service people of all ages. “It’s not enough to provide early childhood education. You have to pay attention to the whole family, to older siblings and parents.”
Founded in 2007, the center first offered IT and English classes for mothers of the children they served, but TYO soon realized the women were also interested in learning about how to stabilize their personal lives and families.
That holistic approach to childhood development is how TYO started supporting entrepreneurs: many of the mothers and older siblings started asking about ways to make income for themselves.
Wakili admits there are huge structural problems to starting a business in Nablus, including a lack of market data. Still, the women working with TYO have opened dozens of businesses, from a graphic design shop to an organic sheep farm.
Many have been able to register their businesses at TYO’s hillside center in Nablus, which has 14 classrooms, offices, a conference room, dormitory accommodation for up to 20, and generous indoor and outdoor open spaces.
All of these contributions to Nablus are important, but TYO is looking beyond today's unemployment figures and is looking, really, to remedy the future.
Even when Wakili discusses entrepreneurship, she emphasizes the importance of education: “A huge, massive overhaul of education is needed in the Middle East," she says. "This is the genesis of all these other issues: it always comes back to education.”
The founder of TYO agrees. Hani Masri is the Nablus-born American businessman who started the organization with an emphasis on education via personal relationships. Barriers to market entry are often structural, he understands, but other barriers are personal—and personal development must start young, he insists.
“We have a problem of youth in the Middle East,” Masri says. “We have a lost generation." He notes the Arab Spring, the rise of fundamentalism, and unemployment among youth in the region.
"I can see how the kids get pulled into extremism," Masri says. "They want to accomplish things like kids everywhere. They want to have their name known in their community. Instead of giving them sports or productive activities, some communities show them hate and tell them there are rewards in heaven for attacking people. We have to teach them that life is good, that there are better things to work for.”
One of the ways Masri is enriching his hometown is by bringing foreigners, including many Americans, to the place through internships at TYO that demand personal interaction.
“In the 1950s, there were American libraries and cultural centers," Masri said as he talked about the importance of frequent cultural exchanges. "And then the U.S. invaded Iraq, and that's how people started to see America—that’s not America, really, that’s not the American people.
“With our internship program, we brought Americans to Nablus and we brought Palestinians to Americans, in a real way, people-to-people.”
Besides the 60 American interns that have worked at TYO so far, TYO’s flagship community center in Nablus has directly reached 1,620 children; 2,810 youth; 600 local volunteers; and 400 women. Indirectly, they have reached more than 15,000 community members. The center services about 500 people each week.
The people who come through TYO are of diverse religious and political backgrounds, but there are rules in the center.
Masri explains, “We do not talk politics. Why? I don’t want to be a base for political discussions. No religious discussions in the place either. It’s not about being pro-this or pro-that,” he said. “It’s about people."
The lessons TYO’s community teaches, he argues, will develop people who have the social skills and gumption to build a stronger economy. By reinforcing personal development, leaders and entrepreneurs will emerge, despite the structural barriers, which Masri is not shy about pointing out.
“Systems in the Middle East have manipulated wealth,” he says. “The region is rich, but it takes security to invest in most places. You can’t invest unless you feel secure and your capital. So even when Middle Easterners make money, they invest it outside, in the U.S., in Europe. More flow of capital is out.”
In the Middle East, societies are divided in a class structure, he adds. “That’s why moderate forces never win elections there.” It’s also why so many young people don’t seem to have a chance to be productive members of society, he says.
Masri notes that he wants to expand TYO to Egypt, Hebron, and villages throughout the Middle East, and says young people throughout the region need more community centers as a place to start doing.
Many of the young people in TYOs programs in Nablus or elsewhere may someday become entrepreneurs, but in the end, that’s not necessarily the goal. Instead, Masri says, the point is to have them see the world in a new way, to see a world that is good. The kids, he says, will take it from there.
Photo courtesy of TYO. Caption: Nehaya was a young entrepreneur with a dream. With TYO, she’s been able to make her dream a reality, becoming a leader in her community and owner of a home-cooked cuisine restaurant at An-Najah University.