Syrian entrepreneur Manar came to Turkey from Homs four years ago. An avid student, she studied Arabic Literature at Damascus University, and she is currently studying Sharia in Mersin. Since coming to Mersin, Manar has supported her family by manufacturing dairy products in her home kitchen.
Originally from Palmyra, Syria, 28-year-old Ahmad graduated with a degree in economics from the University of Hama. When he came to Turkey, he looked for employment first in Istanbul and then in Mersin, but found few opportunities in either city. Instead he turned his focus toward his dream of starting a new business.
Born and raised in Mersin, Turkish entrepreneur Emel initially started her business journey studying Business Management, but was unable to complete her degree. Instead, she started working for a logistics company where she worked long, consuming hours. The idea of running her own business was becoming more attractive by the day, and after losing her job because of the Gulf crisis in the 90s, she decided to pursue that goal.
When LIFE Entrepreneurs graduate from the intensive Food Entrepreneurship Incubator, they have the opportunity to share their business ideas with industry experts and compete for seed funding during a Business Pitch Competition. While competitions are usually held at the LIFE Project’s Food Enterprise Centers in Istanbul and Mersin, safety measures from COVID-19 prevented the usual in-person competitions from taking place.
Instead, the LIFE Project hosted the first-ever Virtual Business Pitch Competition. Members received video production and business pitch training before recording their pitches and sharing them with a panel of expert judges. The panel selected 16 entrepreneurs from the cohorts in Istanbul and Mersin as finalists, and three businesses from each cohort received seed funding to start or scale their venture.
Interested in learning more about the winning businesses or connecting with the entrepreneurs behind them? Contact us at [email protected].
Virtual Pitch Competition Winners
Istanbul Cohort Winners
Aya Anani: “Crave Home”
Aya, a Lebanese entrepreneur, plans to expand her food delivery platform that connects customers with home cooks.
Nevra Aslantürk and Kenan Kahya: “Mahalleden”
Turkish entrepreneurs Nevra and Kenan launched a community-based food sharing platform focused on strengthening social ties while increasing access to healthy food.
Selin Ergene and Emine Sibel Sakarya: “Real food”
After seeing how office workers’ diets of unhealthy comfort foods can lead to negative health effects, Turkish entrepreneurs Selin and Emine decided to create a food truck that offers healthy fast food options to office employees.
Mersin Cohort Winners
Ahmad Kashaam: date syrup production
Originally from Palmyra, Syria, Ahmad pitched his idea to market date syrup - which his home city is famous for - as an affordable alternative to sugar for people with restricted diets including diabetics and athletes.
Emel Sanli: fresh baby food
Turkish entrepreneur Emel plans to build on her experience in food production by starting a new business focused on fresh, nutritional baby food and family staples.
Manar Al-Salam: fresh dairy products
Syrian entrepreneur Manar will use the seed funding she received to open a shop for her home-based business producing additive-free dairy products.
Ayşegül Erdoğan and Özlem Aydalga (Istanbul): “Anne Eli”
Serpil Demir (Mersin): Kaynar Cafe
Fatime Yaruk (Mersin): “Şam Şifa”
Nour Eddin Zalamtani (Istanbul): “Our World Project”
Name: Zeinab Wazzan
Business: Cosmetic and Food-Enhancing Plant Extract
LIFE Cohort: 1st Cohort, Mersin
Home Country: Syria
Originally from Latakia, Syria, Zeinab studied fine arts and taught painting. Her father and uncle were well known Attars, people who extract natural essence from flowers and plants for health benefits. As a child, she was fascinated by how her father extracted flower essence: “We had a garden with lemon trees and we would gather the flowers of the lemon tree together to extract the essence [...] After he passed away, I carried on and started first distributing bottles of plant extracts in his honor, as he would have done if he was alive. I then started selling them and generating revenue.” Identifying a lucrative business venture, Zeinab started producing flower essence to sell for health benefits and food flavoring and sold bottles in her uncle’s shop in Latakia’s Hanano street.
When the war broke out in Syria, Zeinab moved first to Antakya and then to Mersin. She was immediately attracted to the flowers there. “After some doing market research, I learned that in Mersin, and Turkey in general, the essence of flowers is not extracted in a natural way- it is just for commercial use and it is not natural at all.” Realizing that there was an opportunity in the Turkish market for natural flower extracts, Zeinab coordinated the retrieval of the machine she used in Latakia to extract the essence of plants. With the machine and flowers imported from Syria, she began her business and is doing well, “A month ago, a merchant from Latakia bought all my flower essence bottles to export them to the Netherlands.”
After graduating from the first cohort in Mersin, Zeinab reflected on her experience in the LIFE Project incubation program: “My experience in [the LIFE Project] was very positive. I was introduced to many people and specifically benefited from the training related to the techniques for pitching my business.” As one of the winner’s of the first business competition in Mersin, Zeinab plans to use the seed funding she received to buy two more machines to increase production. She is planning to partner with fellow LIFE members to develop her business and offer them income generating opportunities. “I dream of having my product with my own name,” she says.
UPDATE June 2020: After sharing her product with “Tea’n Cake,” a cafe located in one of Mersin’s largest shopping centers, Zeinab now supplies her rose water and other extracts to the cafe.
When the Food Enterprise Centers (FECs) closed in March due to COVID-19 safety measures, the LIFE Project had to reimagine what successful entrepreneurship incubation and building social cohesion should look like in this new environment. Over the last few weeks, the LIFE Project made substantial adjustments to support members virtually and provide timely resources to meet new and ongoing challenges.
With COVID-19 creating unprecedented challenges for the food industry, LIFE entrepreneurs from refugee and host communities alike face a daunting question: how can they pivot their business plans to overcome these challenges and find success in this new environment? With the support of LIFE Project virtual programs, members quickly adapted to these new circumstances.
Five years ago, when Hamdo moved to Turkey from his home country of Syria, he started several business ventures in both food and coal, all of which faced challenges due the economic and security situations in the area. Hamdo was convinced that working alone would not allow him to reach his goal of launching a successful food business so he joined the LIFE Project in Mersin to connect with other entrepreneurs in the area.
Marya had a background as a physical fitness trainer when the war in Syria forced her to relocate and find a job in a restaurant in Raqqa. After the conflict spread to Raqqa, Marya fled Syria altogether with her two children and resettled in Mersin, Turkey. In Mersin, Marya connected to the LIFE Project after having an idea to start a business that sells peanut butter and jams that she would prepare in her home.
Growing up in Diyarbakır, Turkey, Umut Öcal studied mathematics in Ankara before discovering his real passion in organic farming and climate change. Umut moved to the Caribbean for a six month training program in organic farming and then, upon returning to Turkey, launched his own farming business with a team of three employees.
Meysa Umayir left Syria for Turkey with her family four years ago. She was intrigued by the food sector and was looking to start a business venture, which led her to join the LIFE Project. The LIFE Project allowed Meysa to take her idea – developing healthy versions of traditional Syrian dishes – and build a business model around it.
In July, WDI’s Amy Gillett, vice president of Education, and Kristin Babbie Kelterborn, senior project manager, along with Eric Fretz, a WDI faculty affiliate and professor at the University of Michigan, traveled to Istanbul and Mersin to lead workshops on entrepreneurship curriculum development, participate in a business pitch competition for Mersin’s second cohort of entrepreneurs and interview program graduates.
At the first Mersin Demo Day, business leaders and community members joined LIFE Entrepreneurs at the new Food Enterprise Center in Mersin as they shared their products and pitched their businesses to potential investors and customers.
It was a passion for food that drove Hussein to make a career change from hospitality to starting his own business in Syria as a dessert chef. He quickly found success as an entrepreneur and turned one dessert shop into four. However, after the conflict in Syria began, Hussein was forced to migrate to Mersin and leave his booming businesses behind.
After migrating to Turkey, Mahmoud was determined to take on a new challenge: he bought several plots of land to grow lemon trees and began harvesting and selling lemons both domestically and regionally. When the business took off, Mahmoud started his own restaurant, but this time focused on his true passion – pizza and pastries.
Before the conflict began in Syria, Meyas Saati had established a successful home-based business in her hometown of Homs producing a traditional regional dish called ‘Makdous’, pickled and stuffed eggplants, and selling to customers within Syria and in the Arab Gulf states. However, after the Islamic State (ISIS) occupied her neighborhood four years ago, Meyas was forced to flee with her four children to Mersin, a southern port city of Turkey.