I can still remember the cold crisp winter breeze of that Tuesday morning as I debarked the bus. Clenching onto my backpack strap in anticipation, I could already feel myself settling in as my sneakers slightly sunk into the damp mountain soil of Bkassine. After a three and a half hour drive, I guess you begin to appreciate even the littlest of things. Looking around at this place, I was captivated by its beauty. All I saw were acres and acres of trees and all I heard was the soothing sound of silence. They had brought us into the heart of nature for the sole purpose of seclusion. This was a place of focus and inspiration where you could escape and leave your worldly troubles behind. Nudged back to reality by the line of eager participants behind me, I was reminded of the purpose of my stay here. So, I pulled up my camera and began to capture the first moment of this 5-day journey ahead.
With little to no time to settle in, we were told to leave our bags in the receptions office and were quickly escorted to the conference building. Walking under the dripping rain along with the participants, I tried to look like I knew what was going on but as this was my first bootcamp as well, confidence was my only way of doing so. Entering the building, I sought comfort in the welcoming faces of the rest of my team that had stayed here the night before to set up. While all the participants were eagerly entering the conference room, seeing the grouped-up tables, the business model booklets, and the PowerPoint presentation projected onto the wall, they began to anticipate what was in store for them in the days to come.
Getting to Know the Entrepreneurs:
One of my major responsibilities was to try and project the experience of the bootcamp to the outside world. So, I figured the best way to understand the experience is by asking the participants themselves about it. Every day, after taking pictures of the trainings and capacity building exercises, I would come up to a group of the participants and ask them about their experience here so far. And every time, I would get answers like “great, amazing, inspiring, and life changing” which were great answers, but they weren’t enough. So, I decided to dig a little deeper by interviewing each one separately and asking them why they registered for this program in the first place. Little did I know, their answers would blow me away.
One of the entrepreneurs there named Sirene, told me about how her fondest memory as a child, was visiting her grandma’s house in the reef and helping her prepare the Lebanese delicacy “Kichik”. Unfortunately, one day her grandma passed away and this tore her world apart, leaving her with nothing more than the faded memories of her past. As a tribute to her grandmother’s passing, she decided to launch a business around the idea of affordable kichik with an innovative twist to fit today’s modern lifestyle.
Another Story that deeply moved me was that of another Participant named Mohammad Obeid. Mohammad is a husband and has been recently blessed with two children. He confessed that one of the greatest heartbreaks a father can experience is not being able to afford food for his children. Although this is something that Mohammad did not struggle with, he knew many fathers that did because of the ongoing economic crisis. For that reason, Mohammad decided to launch a business that makes locally produces baby food at affordable prices.
After which came Bassem, also a father and one of the older participants at the bootcamp. Bassem’s idea focused on providing an accessible form of transportation for the physically disabled and those suffering from old age. He mentioned that the reason for him leaving his wife and children for 5 days to pursue this business venture, was his belief that he was responsible for granting the disabled the freedom, mobility, and dignity they deserved.
Mohammad Kanj is another participant with the idea of creating an online platform that sells upcycled secondhand clothes. Mohammad stated that because of today’s financial downturn, many can no longer afford the luxury of new clothes. He hopes that this initiative can help tackle the issue and provide inexpensive attire to those who need it.
After interviewing them all and hearing their inspiring stories, it became clear to me. Their motives for starting a business was not based on personal gain as much as wanting to solve problems that people were genuinely struggling with.
Another thing that was strongly noticeable among the participants was the remarkable transformation they had made in developing their business models.
- Sirene started out with a vague idea of producing a kishik based product but at the end of the Bootcamp, she had completely defined her product concept as a kishik based prepackaged soup sachet.
- Bassem had come with the idea to purchase and equip a fleet of vehicles for his transportation service. After the proper guidance and training, he discovered that it would be more convenient to shift his business model into an online platform that connects drivers with the elderly and the disabled in return for a commission fee.
- Mohammad Kanj was struggling to define his market segments. Through the proper training and guidance, he was able to precisely define his customer segments and develop the tailored marketing strategy to target them.
There is a saying that reads “There is no stronger influence than that of a good teacher, because the influence of a good teacher can never be erased”. It was uplifting to see how the trainers managed to stir and shape the minds of the entrepreneurs there. Throughout their 5-day journey the participants were inspired and given intensive back-to-back training sessions by accomplished industry experts and successful entrepreneurs.
Here were some of the key leanings throughout the Bootcamp:
- Sales, Product Validation & Customer discovery by Jay Sankari, the Founder of Eveliution.
- Sales & Marketing Strategy by Yusr Sabra, the Founder of Wakilni.
- Fundamentals of content creation & storytelling by Abdallah Elchami, Editor at Large & Content Creation Expert.
- Technical Prototyping with Abdallah Bakhach, the CTO of Toters Delivery.
- Market Assessment & Business Development with Hill Skaff, A business development consultant.
- Introduction to data science with Ghida Ibrahim, Senior Quantitative Engineer at Facebook and Founder of award-winning platform Rafiqi.
- Pitch Training with Andre Abi Awad, Founder of Entrepreneurgy & Digital Smarter
During the third day, one participant, Abdellatif, stated that unlike at university, the learning experience here provided him with the right tools and practical knowledge needed to deal with the real-world challenges. He also mentioned that the words of wisdom that were passed on by the experienced entrepreneurs that were training them, will save them a lifetime of mistakes in their journey ahead.
As the Bootcamp progressed, I started to notice how the participants came to see the trainers as more than just instructors, they viewed them as mentors who pushed them beyond their boundaries, reshaped their perspective, and helped bring their ideas to life.
What Made This Bootcamp So Special?
As the final pitch of day 5 was only 16 hours away, I decided to head to bed early and call it a night. Walking towards my cabin I noticed that the conference building was still lit so I figured it would be a good idea to stop by and take some shots of the participants preparing for tomorrow’s big day. Entering the room my eyes lit up and I was in awe of what I saw before me. Over two dozen people and 17 startups from 7 different industries in the same room working together in complete harmony. Like pieces of a well-oiled mechanical clock, they were pushing each other forward with the shared drive to make change. What I was looking at, was synergy. I don’t think they realized it at the time, but they had created their very own startup ecosystem. It was a small-scale economy at work, and it was beautiful. I couldn’t believe that these were the very same people, who 4 days ago, didn’t even know each other’s names. It was truly a sight to behold.
After the sleepless night of day 4, the moment of truth was here. It was time for the startup-seeders to take everything they had learned in the past 5 days and compress them into this 2-minute pitch. As the first participant took the floor and drew her first breath, time began to slow down for everyone in the room. It was during this 2-second window that everyone realized, it wasn’t just one person up on that stage, it was all of us. We had all invested a great deal in this, and deep down, we all knew it. After that moment, time sped back up and we kept hearing applause thunder through the room as the 24 participants pitched their hearts out in the next 2 hours.
After receiving their certificates and sharing their heart felt goodbyes, they all got back on the bus knowing very well that while they did come here as participants, they were leaving as entrepreneurs.
So to answer my own question, what made the 2020 bootcamp so special was… 2020. By going through with this bootcamp during one of Lebanon’s most difficult years, we were teaching the participants not to succumb to problematic situations, but instead to seek out the opportunities that the crisis has created. As an example, notice the shift in lifestyle that the financial crisis and the COVID pandemic have created. This has led to the recent rise of innovative industries such as E-learning, E-commerce, Virtual Healthcare, Logistics, Remote working software, etc..
By nurturing the entrepreneurial mindset during such times, we are preserving the ecosystem of changemakers, providing quality job opportunities in the area, and paving the way for innovative industries that offer profitable solutions to these problems.
Interested in taking part in this life-changing experience? join the next cohort of changemakers by applying for our Startup Seeds program.