In September 2012 my world turned upside down. The echoes of war had reached my doorstep and, in a frustrating phone call, my father delivered a chilling message: “Son, don’t come back today. We have lost everything, we are homeless.” Thus began a harrowing journey that would see my family and me face the turbulent circumstances of war-torn Aleppo, Syria.
During the relentless battles, our city transformed into one of the most dangerous places in the world, where even basic necessities became elusive luxuries. Yet in the midst of this chaos, I turned from a powerless refugee into an Arab World Hope Maker, recognized by Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s Global Initiatives, through the creation of four purpose-driven businesses.
While these enterprises have not achieved unicorn status, their impact during trying times was profound. They taught invaluable lessons in resilience and adaptability, lessons that I truly believe hold unwavering relevance in today’s ever-changing business landscape. Therefore, I now share these experiences, hoping to provide insights for fellow business leaders seeking to navigate uncertainty, ignite positive change and nurture resilience within their organizations.
Lesson 1: Adopt a Savior Mindset
Fashion Business, Aleppo 2013
In the face of adversity, people’s desperation can be exploited, and basic necessities are often sold at excessive prices. Faced with this situation, I decided to take up the challenge and create a solution that could help both my community and me survive.
I set up a street-side table, bought high-quality clothes from a supplier outside Aleppo and sold them at affordable prices, ensuring a fair profit for our family and the families we served. Later, we established a successful small factory, creating a purpose-driven local brand that served thousands of families across the country with our wide range of clothing collections.
This business had a profound social impact, as it not only provided affordable clothing, but also generated job opportunities and offered dignity and hope to countless families in our community who were struggling to access clothing during those difficult times. In the beginning, we did not have all the answers, but our determination to overcome challenges from within was our guiding force.
Key Takeaway: In the face of uncertainty, our adaptability and agile actions define our destiny.
Lesson 2: Be a Co-Creator
Stationery Business, Aleppo 2015
In May 2015, amid the chaos of war and scarcity of resources, my friends and I embarked on a bold mission: to create unique notebooks and diaries. Our goal was not only to provide essential products, but also to empower students striving for higher education in a city cut off from the world by the revenue generated from the sale of these items.
Facing hard challenges, we harnessed the power of collaboration and partnerships. We reached out to the entire community, from NGOs to the private sector, from competitors to scouts, from churches to volunteer groups and students. The city rallied to our cause and together we defied the odds. In just two months, we brought our vision to life, producing high-quality notebooks that not only succeeded in Aleppo but also attracted international attention. Demand soared and prompted us to set up centers in other cities.
Our income has become a force for good, enabling us to provide generous support to hundreds of financially disadvantaged students pursuing higher education at Aleppo University in various fields. Many of these students have become doctors, engineers, economists, and professionals, contributing significantly to the improvement of the entire city. The impact has extended beyond our initial activity, as these people have played a key role in improving the well-being of our community and the city at large.
Key Takeaway: Collaborating with a diverse group of stockholders brings fresh perspectives and enhances problem-solving abilities.
Lesson 3: Unlock Your Creativity
Recycling Business, Aleppo 2016
When NGOs started providing meals to the needy, the massive use of canned food created an environmental problem with waste ending up on the streets. My co-founder and I had a seemingly crazy idea, “How can we turn this trash into cash and create a positive impact in our community?” This determined pursuit led to the birth of a recycling startup.
Our venture transformed ten tons of waste into beautiful handmade gifts, which we not only sold in Aleppo but also beyond its borders. With just an initial investment of $2,000, our venture grew to a value of $300,000, offering job opportunities to over 40 struggling families who crafted these products.
Our venture had a triple impact: environmental, social and economic. It made the environment cleaner, helped families be more financially secure, and brought our community closer together. It also gave a boost to the local economy, especially when other businesses were struggling due to the
Key Takeaway: The more you exercise your creative muscles, the better equipped you become to tackle unprecedented challenges.
Lesson 4: Lead by Purpose
Cleaning Business, Aleppo 2018
In 2017, my family and I returned to our home in war-torn Aleppo, welcomed by the devastation of years of conflict. Amid the rubble, my parents asked a crucial question, “How can we bring cleanliness and hope back to this place?”
This question sparked an idea that would become Syria’s leading cleanup startup, driven by a clear purpose: to transform war-torn areas into havens of hope and cleanliness. Our purpose became our north star, influencing every decision, from building the team to defining operations and marketing. And this has paid off.
In just two years, we have revitalized hundreds of homes, enabling families to reclaim their living spaces. Our services have expanded to serve over 1,000 clients, achieving a robust 35 percent gross margin and an impressive 10 percent annual sales growth.
However, our impact has gone beyond simple numbers: we have created more than 30 job opportunities, revitalized communal spaces, and contributed positively to our community through our giving program.
Key Takeaway: Even in the bleakest of circumstances, let your purpose be your compass, and witness your business thrive.
Lesson 5: Keep Close to People & Planet
In all our businesses, we cared deeply about people, society, and the environment. It was a natural response to the suffering we witnessed. Back then, we didn’t know it was called ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance).
Our top priority was always the well-being of people. We offered unwavering support and empowerment to our employees, both financially and through continuous learning opportunities. Similarly, we engaged our customers actively, seeking to understand their needs and aspirations.
Moreover, we joined forces with the UN to support women and children in society, advocating for their rights and well-being. This partnership underscored our commitment to making a positive impact on the community we served.
As for the environment, despite the immense pollution from battles, we did our best to practice sustainability. For example, in our cleaning startup, we imported sustainable cleaning materials from Lebanon, even though it cost us twice as much.
Key Takeaway: Embracing ESG isn’t a profit sacrifice; it’s an essential driver for sustainable growth and profitability.
Thank you for reading. I hope you found it valuable, and I would love to hear your thoughts and what you have taken away from it.
*Photo Credit: Clarity