Pioneering University Roles: AUIS Leads the Charge for University Engagement in Iraq's Entrepreneurial Evolution

Dr. Hemin Latif

Director, AUIS Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center (AEIC)

In an age of rapid technological advancement and global interconnectivity, the term 'entrepreneurship' is often heard echoing through business halls. This buzzword, promising innovation, progress, and economic prosperity, has become the talk of the town, yet it seems to be conspicuously absent from the very place it should be fostered most: our universities. The question naturally arises: where does this hype around entrepreneurship stem from, if not from our educational institutions? How did all the skills, talents, and knowledge that are shaping the entrepreneurship ecosystem develop if not from education? The answer lies in the thriving ecosystem of youth seeking more adventurous paths than usual employment, from young founders with or without any knowledge about starting businesses, and from international key players who have embraced the entrepreneurial spirit wholeheartedly. They drive the entrepreneurial revolution, while universities seem to lag, held back by a myriad of challenges. The roadblocks are manifold. A tedious process for curriculum changes stands at the forefront, making it difficult to integrate new concepts and practical experiences related to entrepreneurship into our academic institutions. This is exacerbated by a widespread lack of understanding or appreciation for entrepreneurship among faculty members. Even more detrimental is the absence of agile systems within universities that can adapt and respond to global changes swiftly. Given these challenges, one term has recently emerged as a potential solution: entrepreneurial universities. However, this term might sound nebulous to many, making it essential to delve deeper into the concept and potential of entrepreneurial universities.

An entrepreneurial university can be defined as an academic institution that, rather than solely focusing on traditional teaching and research activities, also embraces entrepreneurship in its strategies, operations, and organizational structure. This innovative approach strives to promote entrepreneurial mindsets, skills, and behavior among students, faculty, and staff, thus fostering a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem within the university. An entrepreneurial university is characterized by a shift from the traditional knowledge-dissemination model to a more comprehensive knowledge-exchange model. This involves not just the teaching of entrepreneurship theory, but also the provision of practical, hands-on entrepreneurial experiences and not only educating students on entrepreneurship but also staff and faculty alike. It encourages and supports the creation of startups and spin-offs, fosters industry collaboration, and promotes the commercialization of university research, among other strategies. Such universities also prioritize faculty and staff development in entrepreneurship, ensuring that they are not only educators and researchers but also enablers of entrepreneurship. This environment stimulates innovative thinking, cultivates risk-taking attitudes, and nurtures an entrepreneurial culture within the university.

Notably, the impact of entrepreneurial universities extends far beyond their own campuses. Entrepreneurial universities seek to instill an entrepreneurial mindset not only in their students, staff, and faculty, but also in the broader community. They work towards this by facilitating entrepreneurship education and training for local communities, engaging with industry and government bodies to influence policies and practices, and striving to play a transformative role in their local and national economies. Essentially, entrepreneurial universities are more than just education providers – they are powerful drivers of social and economic change. They strive to be key players in shaping a society that appreciates, understands, and practices entrepreneurship. Recognizing the transformative potential of entrepreneurship, the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS) is taking significant strides toward becoming an entrepreneurial university. Despite its relatively young age and smaller size compared to other universities in the country, AUIS is demonstrating an extraordinary commitment to this vision. The drive is not just internal; AUIS is committed to playing a significant role in advancing the national entrepreneurship ecosystem. By equipping students with entrepreneurial skills, facilitating the birth of startups, and engaging in impactful partnerships with industry and community, AUIS strives to contribute to the economic development and diversification of the country. AUIS's mission extends beyond the confines of its campus. It aims to make a positive and lasting impact on the broader community and the country as a whole. In this sense, AUIS is not just working towards becoming an entrepreneurial university - it is aspiring to be a key player in the entrepreneurial revolution in Iraq.

One notable initiative has been the establishment of dedicated teams and centers focused on entrepreneurship and innovation, such as the AUIS Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center (AEIC) and the Takween Accelerator. These units serve as the backbone of the entrepreneurial ecosystem at AUIS, facilitating the integration of entrepreneurship into academic programs, supporting the creation of startups, and fostering connections with industry and community partners. They are dedicated to nurturing an entrepreneurial culture on and off campus and promoting the principles of innovation, risk-taking, and problem-solving. Established in 2019, AEIC’s mission is to help develop entrepreneurship and innovation in Iraq by expanding opportunities for entrepreneurial education, developing and supporting early-stage entrepreneurs, and building a more vibrant community and supportive infrastructure for entrepreneurs, investors, and other stakeholders. In line with its mission, AEIC develops and provides programs and services to university students and community members. Two of the most sought-after activities of AEIC are the Takween Accelerator and the AUIS Innovation Awards (AIA2022). Funded by the European Union and implemented in partnership with Expertise France since June 2020, the Takween Accelerator is one of the first accelerators in Iraq, created to help growth-stage technology businesses go further faster. Aiming to be one of the leading actors in the national entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystem, Takween provides equity-free seed capital, intensive training programs, international mentorship, and access to an exclusive investor and ecosystem partner network. Takween has successfully developed and delivered a variety of programs, including multiple cohorts of its Accelerator program, Pre-Accelerator program, Digital Readiness Program, Business Registration Program, Investor Readiness Program, ToT Programs, and numerous webinars on topics related to entrepreneurship and innovation. The programs serve the Iraqi entrepreneurs and ecosystem, but the trainers and mentors are recruited from all around the world. 

AUIS Innovation Awards (AIA2022) was an AEIC initiative to promote and recognize innovations and innovators in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region. The inaugural AUIS Innovation Awards ceremony took place on January 13, 2022, and was attended by over 200 participants, including government officials, NGO representatives, and individual innovators and advocates from across the country. AIA2022 received a total of 74 applications from 14 different cities across the country and awarded five winners and five semi-finalists with innovation awards. AUIS also secured a two-and-half-year grant to train seven of its staff and faculty members on entrepreneurship coaching and education in partnership with two international universities. In addition to training and workshops on entrepreneurship for its staff and faculty, the program uses a modern self-assessment tool as well as creates dialogue among various stakeholders from all three countries on building entrepreneurial universities. This proactive approach has yielded remarkable results, with AUIS already making a substantial impact on its community and beyond. Its endeavors not only underscore the feasibility of the entrepreneurial university model but also set a promising example for other academic institutions. The success of AUIS serves as a testament to the transformative power of entrepreneurship in educational institutions.

As the narrative of entrepreneurial universities unfolds, it is clear that institutions like AUIS have both, an undeniable advantage and a responsibility to play a distinctive role in the Iraqi entrepreneurship ecosystem. Unlike many other players in the field, universities possess a unique combination of resources that position them as potential powerhouses of entrepreneurial development. Among these resources, the power of research stands at the forefront. Academic research is an engine of innovation, sparking new ideas and providing the knowledge foundation for entrepreneurial ventures. By emphasizing research in entrepreneurship, universities can contribute to the development of the ecosystem, producing knowledge that informs policy, improves practice, and inspires new business ideas. Universities also have access to a potent resource: a vast network of young, eager minds. These students represent the future of the workforce in the country. By fostering an entrepreneurial mindset in these young people, universities can cultivate a new generation of entrepreneurs who will drive economic development and social change. Moreover, being internationally connected offers universities a significant edge. Through international partnerships and collaborations, institutions can bring global best practices in entrepreneurship education to their campus and the wider community. These international connections can also provide opportunities for cross-border entrepreneurial activities, opening up new possibilities for students and faculty.

In essence, the unique position of universities provides an invaluable opportunity to make a distinctive contribution to the entrepreneurial ecosystem. By leveraging their strengths in research, access to youth, and international connections, universities can become not just participants but leaders in the entrepreneurial revolution. This is not just an opportunity but a responsibility. For those who are passionate about fostering entrepreneurship and shaping the future of our economy, AUIS invites you to join this exciting journey. Whether you are a budding entrepreneur, an established industry leader, a policy-maker, or an educator, we believe that collaboration is the key to nurturing a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem. There is a role for everyone in this entrepreneurial revolution. We urge all who share this vision to harness the power of entrepreneurship together, shaping a prosperous and innovative future for our country. We must all remember the journey to entrepreneurial universities is not a solitary one, but a shared endeavor. 

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Posted in on Tuesday, 13th February, 2024