Lockdown in an Ecosystem Builder with Valentina Primo

The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Jenna Gyorfi

The Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.

How do you connect people all around the world, challenge the perceptions of certain groups of individuals, help other people build businesses, and create revenue? Valentina Primo is doing all that through her company Startups Without Borders. Startups Without Borders is an ecosystem builder working with migrant and refugee entrepreneurs all over the world. Valentina believes that the world needs to be exposed to the incredible businesses migrants and refugees are building and at the same time connect these entrepreneurs with resources. Through an annual summit, training, and other events, Startups Without Borders has been achieving this goal for several years — until, like all businesses, the lockdown tested its way of doing things. Read the interview below or watch the video to see how Valentina met the challenges of COVID-19 head-on.

Today our guest is Valentina Primo founder of Startups Without Borders. Valentina where are you located?

I am joining from Rome today, which is where I am based. Although, our team is basically all over the place. We have people in Cairo and Beirut. We have people in different countries in the Middle East and Europe.

What is Startups Without Borders?

Startups Without Borders is an ecosystem builder. We are building an ecosystem for entrepreneurs that are refugees and migrants. We believe there is a new world that is taking shape and it is an exciting new world. So we are here to gather these brave and ferocious entrepreneurs with the resources, with the local entrepreneurs, and with opportunities and investors. We do that through events, training programs, and media platforms.

That’s definitely in a nutshell. Let’s find out more details. Tell me what events do you do? What did you do before the lockdown?

We are a young company. We started in 2018 when I was in Cairo as a journalist. I am originally a journalist. I come from Argentina. I spent six years living in Egypt and covering stories of entrepreneurs in the Middle East. This experience was incredibly inspiring. I was very inspired to see these entrepreneurs that were driven to create an impact in their nation, in their country, in their region. I then started interviewing entrepreneurs from countries that were undergoing conflict — Syrian entrepreneurs, Iraqi entrepreneurs. I started realizing that there are many refugee entrepreneurs that are creating incredible businesses that not only have an impact but also have great business models and great revenue models. This is how the idea started taking shape of creating an ecosystem. It started with storytelling — bringing those stories closer to the public and it was driven by the intention to change perceptions. We really wanted to show the world that refugee entrepreneurs are not the exception to the norm. There are so many around Europe and the Middle East, and places as far as Indonesian and Latin America. There is a very exciting and thriving reality out there and we want to bring it to light. But what happened through bringing those stories to life, we started understanding there are so many actors such as, incubators for migrants and refugees. So we started bringing everyone together in the media platform.

This is where the idea of having events started. We hosted a number of events in Egypt and events in Italy. We had some training activities in Jordan and Lebanon. We came to the realization that a summit was needed. A summit where we could discuss all the issues that are important to any entrepreneur not just refugee entrepreneurs. We don’t believe in training them separately or offering services or events for them separately. We believe in gathering the ecosystem and linking them to those resources.

Last year in November, we had the Startups Without Borders Summit. It was an incredible event. There were over 600 entrepreneurs attending in a beautiful place — it use to be a Sultan’s palace, now its the American University in Cairo, which has its own v-lab incubator. We had incredible partners at the Summit and speakers coming from all over the world. We had twenty different workshops running in parallel. There were people coming from Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Gaza, and South Sudan — just so many places. We were in awe of the magic that happens when people come together and share ideas, their dreams, and their passions. We also had a startup competition. So Pre-Covid, this is where we stopped last year. This is how we left 2019 — with a beautiful summit. I would encourage you to visit Startups Without Borders on Facebook. You will see videos and activities. So yes, let’s say last year ended with a boom!

You sound very passionate and the story is incredible. Tell me, after the lockdown what happened to your business, your company?

I found myself in Italy. In March, we started the lockdown and we were in a phase of planning training activities and the different events we were organizing. What we did was very simple. We talked to our community. We have a community of over 2000 entrepreneurs. We reached out to them through social media, using our channels to ask them, “What should we do? We find ourselves at home with no contact to other people, and no possibility to meet at events. What should we do?” The entrepreneurs themselves started giving us clues to what they were looking for. They were looking for videos online where we could explain the different aspects and lessons related to building a business. So without taking much time to plan it, the week after we launched the Quarantine Sessions.

The Quarantine Sessions are a series of interviews that we did, just like this, on Facebook Live and webinars. Through these interviews, we uncovered issues like how do you build a digital marketing campaign, how do you do growth hacking — so very different aspects. We partnered with entities like Cairo Angels, so we had investors coming in as well.

Yet, the biggest challenge in this phase is what do we do about the events, what do we do about the Summit and we were also in the planning phase of launching chapters, which are events that take place in different parts of the world. We thought this means there will be no events happening in 2020. Should we have online events? We had different brainstorming sessions. We invited our community partners; we invited our team members, and our volunteers to this brainstorming session. We decided on this hybrid format that we are super excited about. Basically, we are going to have the summit online but in a hybrid model. Where there will be stages in different countries. The main stage will be in the Netherlands, another stage in San Francisco, USA, and another one in Cairo. We will be partnering with different accelerators and universities where these studios will host the speakers, the workshops, the talks, and then we will have online networking activities and mentorship. It will be online but we will still have the vibe and feeling of an action packed experience of a summit.

That sounds very brave and I hope everything will go fine! Tell me, how does your company in terms of revenue? Is it a for-profit or a non-profit? What was the status before the lockdown and then after how did it change?

The model didn’t change. We are a social enterprise, which means we focus a lot on social impact but we are a business at the end of the day. We don’t believe in telling entrepreneurs, refugees, migrants, and local entrepreneurs to go out and start a business and then for us not to launch a business. We also believe in creating a strategy. We have a vision that we really know we want to change the world and change the perception of refugees and migrants around the world. To take that vision to fruition, it really requires investment and for us to have a sustainable model. Working on a non-profit model would mean working on a project-by-project basis and this would not enable us to work towards the vision we know we are going to make happen. To be honest, what changed is we had to level our efforts. We have a brilliant business developer on the team, and we are doubling our efforts in terms of business development and approaching different partners that want to be apart of the Summit. We are working on our own offerings as well. As I said before, our plan for 2020 was to launch chapters in different countries in Africa, Latin America, North America, and Asia. Of course, that had to be postponed a little bit because now the launch is going to take place online, but we are still going to do it! We are changing the ways. Something that I like to remind myself of and remind every entrepreneur is that you can’t fall in love with a solution. It’s a quote that goes around in the start-up scene a lot. You can’t fall in love with a solution you really have to fall in love with the problem. What you are offering your customer, what you are offering your community, is much more than one service, or one product, or one format. When you really focus on the value that you are offering, everything changes because you just find a way to offer that value with the existing circumstances. I think if we keep that in mind, we can find the way.

You have to know what value you bring to people and to be proud to come out and say this is what I can do for you. You’ve been in touch with your community, do you have any competition?

Yes, we collaborate with our competitors. I think that’s the beauty of the start-up world. People are really open to collaborating. There are several entities that work with refugees and migrants on the non-profit side. There are other entities that work with entrepreneurs in the Middle East, where we work a lot, or in different regions where we work. And they organize events just like the ones we organize. We partner with each other. We admire each other.

For the future, you told me a lot about the chapters and the events, could you invite people to partner with you or to participate in it or something to share?

One very exciting thing is going to be the launch of the Start-Ups Without Borders Chapters. This is a great opportunity for everyone that wants to lead change in their own country, in their own city, in their own community. We are very excited. We are looking for chapter leaders who are role models and are very active in the start-up scene in their city. We have received so many applications after launching the call for applications last year. We received so many requests from people that wanted to open their own chapters. We are super excited to be having these conversations in India, Ireland, and South Africa. I want to invite everyone who is looking for an opportunity to build community and to build change. We also have the Start-ups Without Borders Summit. We are having the Summit across three continents. It’s going to be online so everyone will be able to access it and participate and network. So I want to invite every entrepreneur building a business, following his or her passions and dreams to join the Summit in November.

Thank you very much and I think a lot of people will take you up on your invitation. Thank you to everyone who joined us today. For more information about Start-ups Without Borders see the details in the description below the video.

The UN-registered nonprofit social initiative that helps small businesses and self-employed professionals to overcome the challenges of the pandemic.