Female Founder

Meet the Founder: Znara Ahmed

The final member of our Female Founders Fellowship to be featured on our blog is Syrian artist Znara Ahmed, the founder of Sêv Gallery, an art gallery and center for art education. Learn more on Sêv Gallery’s Facebook page!


Can you give a brief introduction about yourself?

My name is Znara Ahmed. I graduated from an art institute in Syria with a major in ceramics. I like all art, especially, of course, ceramics, but also painting, photography and art management.

In the past, I worked as part of the faculty at the Art Institute in Damascus. I have also participated in six  art shows between Erbil and Sulaimani, including one in partnership with Five One Labs. I have also worked as an executive manager at Kurdistan Little Village, a children’s learning center, where I supervised an art program.

My work in photography has included being a trainer in Terre des Hommes Italia, an NGO, and Goethe institute Germany. I have also worked with Save the Children. I also implemented a children’s TV program with ZaraTV, focused on claywork.‏ Last year I was part of the jury at the Rwanga Foundation.

‏Currently I work with freelance organizations as a ceramic and photography trainer, and I am currently working on opening my own gallery, called Sêv Gallery.

Can you tell us about your business? What inspired you to start it?

‏When I came to Erbil, I had a problem finding a place where I would enjoy my hobbies and my development. Additionally I observed the following:

  • There are very few cultural spaces in Erbil.

  • There are no galleries and only limited places for adults and children to learn creative arts, practice their hobbies, or appreciate art.

  • People seek out activities for their children, signing them up for summer school or sports activities. However, there are very few cultural activities for children.

  • Young adults do not have places to go after work to practice their hobbies and enjoy their time.

What are some of the challenges your business has faced and how have you addressed them?

My main challenges include obtaining legal support and funding. I hope that the more I work on my business, the more people I will meet who are interested in my business and in potentially funding it.

What is your proudest moment/biggest achievement when it comes to your business?

The place, the vision of people they love and come as customers, the success of work and the most important team successful, because I believe the idea of the team .

Can you tell us about your experience starting your business in Kurdistan?

It was a difficult experience because I came from Syria, so there were more challenges. I worked in teaching and administration, and then I moved to work with organizations as a trainer for ceramics and photography. I have clients and I have many paintings. I have also worked on the issue of logo and social  media for my business. I have some challenges in terms of licensing and financing. I am trying to solve them constantly. I try what benefited from the existing experiences around me.

How have you supported other women in your community?

I have trained many women in photography and ceramics to take a career in the future. Recently I have actively participated in the International Women's Day and I was invited three other women to participate. I have faith in the idea of women supporting other women.

What advice do you have for someone trying to start their own project/business?

For anyone who is planning to start their own business or project, they must first identify the following: the plan, the location, the target and beneficiaries. They must also evaluate and research similar projects and identify any weak point so they can overcome these in their own work. Do lots of research to identify the cost of starting a new project. Be sure to market and advertise your product. Finally, pay attention to the importance of leadership and be prepared to be flexible when managing staff.

Why did you join the Five One Labs Female Founders Fellowship?

I joined the program to gain experience from the trainers and the other women in the program, and to expand my network of relationships with people interested in this project. I wanted to understand how to solve the problems I face in my work and find solutions to them. Additionally, I wanted to meet with people who care about the implementation of this idea and receive their support.

Meet the Founder: Randi Barznji

Next up in our Meet the Founder series is Randi Barzinji, an entrepreneur who is making a big impact in the e-commerce world in the Kurdistan Region. Read about her journey and her business, shopyobrand, below!

Randi Image.jpg

Can you give a brief introduction about yourself?

My name is Randi, I am an AUI-S business & MBA graduate originally from the city of Koya. Right now, I am also pursuing my Doctorate at Paris School of Business. This is my last year of research, and I can tell you it has been one eye-opening journey. I love the business world clearly, and I’d like to pass on my knowledge and experience to young people and my community in the future.

I have mostly worked in marketing and commercial with successful startups. First at X-FM radio station where they first started out, and later with Asia-Hawala, the first mobile money payment provider, for three years. Pretty soon after I wanted to pursue a DBA and do research on Kurdistan’s economy and where it can lead to, and I figured there is a lot of interest in the e-commerce world. So doing research and using so many platforms on a daily basis myself led me to this new path I am on today.

Can you tell us about your business? What inspired you to start it?

In February 2018 I started my own e-commerce website www.shopyobrand.com with little technical knowledge. But that didn’t matter as I had a precise idea in mind for a fun and easy online shopping experience for people in Kurdistan. I wanted to be professional enough to not only use social media platforms for an online business but also to have a creative platform. So since I love shopping myself, and I saw in Europe the excitement of receiving parcels and packages from these diverse online stores, I made shopyobrand.com. On my website, customers can order items and products from their favorite beauty, fashion, kids, home décor worldwide brands including Amazon! Soon local brands too. These orders can be made by just sending the link of the items from the original websites listed on shopyobrand.com already where they can click on the brand and get redirected to the brand’s original online store.

Payments are done from their home, and we have drivers in Erbil and Sulaymani to pick up their payments and hand them an invoice. Once they have signed, we make the orders and deliver it to their home in 2-3 weeks time.

What are some of the challenges your business has faced and how have you addressed them?

Now, there are many challenges with having an online shopping site. Since my target is regular people who love shopping, there is not much familiarity with how online stores are used since it is done with a credit card. Besides reaching and gaining customers as a huge part of my daily activities in the business, I had to make sure people understand how this is done, and how to use the website. Therefore, educating and guiding customers was a big challenge. I had to make sure they find it easy and understand that this is a very easy tool for them to do their shopping from home, and have access to so many items that they can not find in the market at the moment.

So therefore, to address this challenge I made educational videos, and now I do daily updates on our social media platforms to communicate with our customers on how they can order online without a credit card.

What is your proudest moment/biggest achievement when it comes to your business?

My proudest moment was when people, especially my lady customers, fell in love with it and came back over and over again for more orders. Those customers have a special place. It is amazing to see them be so excited about their next purchase, and they make me be more ambitious about shopyobrand.com. It makes me think of the next idea and how I can provide them with more services and offers to add more value and importantly more excitement. It makes me proud to know that I started with no investment, no place but a passion. The proud moment was when we celebrated our one year anniversary. I realized they are part of the shopyobrand family, and feeling their support and presence makes me work harder to make this platform bigger and reach many others to be a huge success. I know now that it doesn’t matter where you start as long as you believe in it.

Can you tell us about your experience starting your business in Kurdistan?

Starting a business in Kurdistan is not easy. It usually need a lot of money, investment and risk. Especially for a woman, since we are usually on our own and it needs time for others to believe our idea in a male-dominated community. However, my experience of starting shopyobrand.com in Kurdistan was not very difficult as I had and still have a vision for it, and I’m confident to where this can lead. It is a matter of knowing what your good at, to be willing to face the challenges with it. The difficult part for me is the regulations to having your own business here especially an online one. Since registering your company is a long process plus very costly. There is not a specific law for online businesses.

How have you supported other women in your community?

After I established this platform, I felt like many others felt like it is okay even if you have the highest degree to do something simple as long as you have the passion and love for it. It is great to do work and be an employee or do something because it pays a lot or it has a high value in the community. But on the other side, if you are not happy or satisfied, you can go for your business; this is what I like to encourage my women community for.

What advice do you have for someone trying to start their own project/business?

My advice will be to sit down for it. If you have a passion or a great idea that you have been having in mind for years. You can still be an employee but fulfill that dream or plan too. It is possible to start with less than 1000$. It is possible to start from scratch, and once you take these steps, there will be many other ways to add on to it slowly but progressively.

Why did you join the Five One Labs Female Founders Fellowship?

Last but not least, I joined the Female Founders Fellowship at Five One Labs because I wanted to meet people who could give me feedback, provide me tools of expanding my business and pass me knowledge to grow my business. I knew I needed help in terms of mentoring, a second and third eye to lay out my business strategies, challenges, activities and so many other things that I needed to keep this platform. I am still at an early stage of my business, but since I have joined Five one labs, I have my own co-working space, a mentor that I can communicate with and a lot of new visions that has added on to my idea. This is only the start, but my direction is heading towards a very fulfilling journey that I can later advice, lecture on to other woman starting their businesses.

Meet the Founder: Shadia Babakr Rasul

Now that Ramadan has started, Shadia Rasul, the next entrepreneur featured in our Meet the Founder series, is hard at work preparing sweets from her shop in Ranya. Shadia is a member of our first cohort of women in our Female Founders Fellowship, where she is working to grow her business so that she can support more women in her home city by providing jobs in her shop.


Can you give a brief introduction about yourself?

My name is Shadia Babakr Rasul, and I am 31 years old. I graduated in 2012 as a mechanical engineer, and I am married and have one girl. I like teaching and have always wanted to  be a business trainer for girls and women, especially in my city, Ranya. I want be a businesswoman and have a big training center.

Can you tell us about your business? What inspired you to start it?

My business is producing sweets in a good and healthy way, namely making all types of cakes, including cake art, birthday cakes, party cakes and specialty cake. These cakes are unique and different than those in other bakeries. I now run a sweets factory in Ranya which sells and distributes sweets.

What are some of the challenges your business has faced and how have you addressed them?

At first, my challenges were that I didn’t have a place to work and didn’t have enough money to start. I always wanted to have a special place where women could make sweets and have a job because in Ranya, there weren’t many places to work. I started to think about how I could make a sweet factory. And while I liked my job, I didn’t have enough money to start, so I began my business at home. But now I have a shop that makes and sells sweets and thanks for God, I would now like to grow my business.

Why did you join the Five One Labs Female Founders Fellowship program?

Work and family and children are not barriers for learning. I have always loved both learning and teaching, and I participated in many courses about business and marketing. When I saw the Five One Labs Female Founders Fellowship, I applied, and when they called me I was happy and very interested in participating.

I thought that this would be the right place for me to grow my business, and in fact now I am growing with Five One Labs. They are helping, teaching, and supporting all the women and found us great mentorship.

What advice do you have for someone trying to start their own project/business?

When you have any idea you should have a plan in order to reach your objectives. The most important things are to believe in your idea and yourself and to do research before starting.

Images courtesy of Yalla Iraq.

Meet the Founder: Sawsan Malla

In this week’s Meet the Founder post, we are introducing you to Syrian artist Sawsan Malla, the first featured entrepreneur from our Female Founders Fellowship, a program geared towards growth-stage women entrepreneurs.

Stay tuned over the coming weeks to meet other member’s from Sawsan’s cohort!


Can you give a brief introduction about yourself?

I'm Sawsan Malla. I’m 26 years old and from Syria and currently live in Erbil. I studied at Al-Furat University in the College of Education, and I am an artist and founder of Ora Studio.

Can you tell us about your business? What inspired you to start it?

My business is about designing characters and creating illustrations, for example bookmarks, stickers and portraits. I also can create specific art based on people’s needs.

I was inspired to start this business because I am passionate about art, and my goal is to spread my artwork as much as possible so I can share it with others.

What are some of the challenges your business has faced and how have you addressed them?

My biggest challenge as a new person in this business is to prove myself because I don't have a strong network that could help me to become better known and have the opportunity to know more about art-related events. Funding for my business is also a challenge as I currently don't have enough financial support .

Can you tell us about your experience starting your business in Kurdistan?

It's something really great that I'm getting a new experience  with Five One Labs. I'm learning new things that could help me in my path way, and I'm finding it very exciting as I'm working on things that I'm really interested in. In addition, all the materials that I need for my art are available at Kurdistan.

How have you supported other women in your community ?

I do believe that women have their own existence in each community, and they can make a difference with their unlimited power. So, I would like to support all women to be independent, to follow their own dreams and to achieve their goals.

For me, I've helped my younger sister to improve herself in art and create her own crafts to start her own business when she get older.

What advice do you have for someone trying to start their own project or business?

My advice is :

  • you have to believe in yourself and your abilities.

  • read more about your business idea.

  • work on your weaknesses to improve it.

  • be positive.

  • get the inspiration from people who already have experience .

Why did you join the Female Founders Fellowship?

During my research on internet, I found Five One Labs and went through their website to find out more. My friends have given me great recommends about them, so I felt that it would be a great chance to join them and to be a part of their team. I'm thankful for this experience and all the knowledge that Five One Labs is giving me.

A selection of Sawsan’s most recent work.

Meet the Founder: Sozan Khalil

This week’s featured entrepreneur, Sozan, is passionate about engineering and agriculture and has combined these two interests to launch Sarbany Sawz, Sulaimani’s first green roofing company!


Can you give a brief introduction about yourself?

My name is Sozan. I was born and live in Sulaimani. I am a civil engineer, and I have four years experience in the field of construction.

What is your business idea?

I have experience in construction and my business idea, which is “living roof” or green roofing, is also related to that field. I want to encourage and help people to use the extra area in their houses and buildings, which is their roof, and make it green to have their own green area and plant vegetables. We are using a system which consists of many layers to protect the roof and plants, and this is an engineering system used by many countries in the world.

What challenges is your business addressing?

There are many challenges can be addressed for living roof. First, as land continues to be replaced with impervious surface due to population growth and urbanization, air pollution and temperature increase in cities, so the necessity to recover green space is becoming increasingly critical. Additionally, lack of green space affects people mentally and physically. According to the World Health Organization, nine out of ten people breathe polluted air in the world, and this kills seven million people every year.

Second, the lack of green space and soil cause stormwater runoff (flooding) during heavy raining, which results in water pollution in the cities because  a large amount of rain water goes to sewer system.

Third, people in the Kurdistan Region don't have access to organic vegetables, and they don't have enough space in their houses to grow them even though many people are passionate about having the ability to grow their own produce.

Finally, the roofs of most houses in the Kurdistan Region are not insulated well, and people spend a lot of money on electricity and fuel to keep their homes warm in winter and cold in summer.

All these problems and more can be solved by having a living roof.

Can you tell us about your experience starting your business?

Starting anything in life is kind of difficult, and if it's a business it is much more difficult. Starting a business is full of responsibility, but it's not impossible if you have passion about what you are doing. I faced many challenges and problems, some of which I could handle easily but others were not easy, and I still face obstacles.

Despite these difficulties, launching my own business has given me a lot of enjoyment because I have been working on something I truly believe in and am passionate about. It taught me many things that I could never get if I wasn't in a business. It made me stronger knowing all those wonderful friends who supported each other all the time.

What advice do you have for someone trying to start their own business?

If you have an idea that you truly believe in and are passionate about, and you know it can solve people's problems, then you have enough reason to start your own business.

Do not only work for money or think that there is someone who needs your product or service. Do not expect that it will be easy. While some things are uphill, they are worthwhile. Your passion and enthusiasm will push you to overcome any obstacle and difficulty that comes to you.

Why did you join the Five One Labs startup incubator?

I always had the dream to not work for others but to instead work for myself, as we already used our roofs for planting vegetables, and I saw that other people did the same but not in a professional engineering way. Because of this, I thought that it would be great if I could help people use their roofs for green area, but I didn't know how to do it.

When my friend told me about Five One Labs, and I looked at their Facebook page and website, I saw how they are doing their job in a very professional way and helped many other people. I thought it would be great opportunity if I could participate in this program, so directly I applied, hoping I would be accepted. And here I am, about to start my own business.

What progress have you made on your business since joining the incubator?

Before I joined the incubator, I didn't know anything about business, how to start, and what processes I should follow for starting a business. Five One Labs taught us everything necessary related to business and introduced us many business owners so that we could get benefit from their experience. I learned everything necessary to start my business, and I worked on my business a lot, l did market research, finished my business model, finished my prototype and my financial plan for the next three years, among other things.