Tunisian entrepreneurs get powerful ally in D.C. startup

Using technology to overcome political and geographic obstacles is more important now than ever.

That’s the idea fueling Shahed Amanullah, a serial entrepreneur and a Muslim American who has been vocal about Trump’s immigration policies.

When President Trump issued the refugee and travel ban last month, Amanullah and his cofounders at Affinis Labs felt a new sense of urgency to scale Minbar. Minbar is a platform aimed at helping entrepreneurs in underserved markets with everything from formulating startup ideas to raising capital.

Affinis Labs, based in Washington, D.C., launched Minbar in Tunisia in December. And so far, it has been a success, with more than 1,200 users. They’re also able to connect with entrepreneurs in the U.S. who speak Arabic or French for feedback and advice.

“There are still great divides between the developed and developing world, and we’re trying to bridge those through technology,” said Amanullah, who previously served as senior adviser for technology at the State Department. “We know that we have to create frameworks that rise above the drama and allow people to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams.”

 In addition to the networking aspect, Minbar is running a competition for Tunisian startups. 30 companies are vying for $20,000 in funding that will be split among the winners.

The startups are tackling issues that range from online education to 3D printed hand prostheses to an Airbnb-type service for sharing farm animals.

“We are allowing entrepreneurs overseas to benefit from productive interactions with American business communities,” Amanullah said, while noting that virtual interactions can’t completely replace real world ones.

That’s why Affinis Labs is also doing some on the ground work. Last weekend, it hosted an Entrepreneurship Boot Camp in Tunis. Organizations like TechWadi, a nonprofit that seeks to connect Silicon Valley and the Arab world, and VC firm 500 Startups were also in attendance.

Dave McClure, cofounder of 500 Startups, told CNNTech last month that venture capital is “one of the friendliest ways we can engage with other countries.” 500 Startups has made roughly 35 investments in Arabic speaking markets, according to McClure, who said he’s raising a new fund to invest specifically in the Middle East.

While Trump’s original immigration order was blocked, some version of it is expected to be reissued imminently. Amanullah and McClure both say that the current political climate has created a heightened need to embrace entrepreneurs around the globe.

Affinis Labs is eying Somalia, Libya and Iraq — all countries included on Trump’s original executive order — as potential markets to launch Minbar. Morocco, Malaysia, Egypt and Jordan are also under consideration.

“If we can create a space where refugees are connected to support groups in America, they don’t have to come [to the U.S.] to make a living,” Amanullah added.

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