Name: Hana Ali
Fellowship: UNITAR COVID-19 Response & Recovery Programme: Mobilizing Resilient Social Entrepreneurs to Address Food Insecurity and Unemployment for Youth in Iraq
“I once heard a really fantastic quote. It goes a little something like this: ‘take one small step every day, and at the end of the year you will have taken 365 steps”, says Hana Ali with smiley eyes. Based on her experience, consistency is the best advice she can give to anyone willing to join the entrepreneurial world. “A lot of people feel discouraged when they think about long-term goals. Many stop even before they start, but it takes tiny little steps every day to achieve something big.” An entrepreneur herself, Hana understands the paralyzing fear that comes upon those who dare to build a business from the ground. In her case, not just any ordinary business but one that aims at bringing mental health support to Iraqis.
Hana’s launch into entrepreneurship was rather an unforeseen event than a deliberate move. After graduating from the University of Liverpool’s school of medicine, Hana was uncertain about what move to make next in her career. “I wasn't sure if I wanted to be a regular clinical doctor, so I decided to take a year to clear my mind. At that time, I was working remotely for a digital health startup based in Germany and an opportunity came to move to Berlin to work with them – and I’ve been living here ever since.”
Hana ended up staying for about two years with that startup before deciding to leave to take a user experience course that opened her mind to the possibility of becoming a business owner.
It was during that time that I came up with the idea of ‘Gaia Medical’, a website with information on health education where Iraqis could have access to easy and trustworthy health-related information. As time went on and I spoke to more people, I noticed a huge lack of mental health resources, especially professional mental health support for the Iraqi community. Consequently, the purpose of the website shifted to become a mental health platform that provides online therapy in Arabic and English.
The struggles that the Iraqi people endure speak to Hana’s heart. When she was just two years old, Hana and her family flew from Iraq and spent about three years moving from one country to another seeking refuge until they were finally able to settle down in the United Kingdom. “95% of my family remains in Iraq. After we settled, we would go back every year to visit our relatives. Finally, roughly 15 years ago, my parents were able to move back to Iraq. People in Iraq face many adversities, so I wanted to increase access to mental health care within that region”, she explains.
Despite not having a traditional business training background, Hana shook off the fear and started her social entrepreneurial endeavour by doing the exact thing any new entrepreneur should do: study, which proved to be trickier than she thought. “I had to teach myself how to run a business, so I tried to do a few courses, but I never felt they added much value.” After seeing information on UNITAR’s fellowship programme targeted at young Iraqi entrepreneurs on a social media group a few times, Hana decided to give it a chance and apply for the year-long programme.
Hana felt positively surprised by it, particularly with phase one. “I started phase one as we were shifting from being just a website with general information on mental health to testing our online therapy service. I had a lot of reservations. I didn't feel like I knew what I was doing. But that initial phase of the programme taught me fundamental concepts that I should have known but didn't - for instance, how to create a marketing strategy. The content was so concise and easy to understand. It gave me just the right amount of information needed for kicking off our new service. It really helped fill in some big gaps in my knowledge about business launching – particularly of startups.”
More importantly, the programme turned out to be very hands-on. "Not only it was helpful because I learned the theory, but every time I had to do an assignment, I was doing it for my company. So, I would build a business model for the assignment knowing that I would use it and apply it in my company and also would benefit from the revisions and feedback.” Through her platform and a team of five therapists, Gaia Medical has provided over 200 hours of online therapy!
Now, however, Hana has taken a step back to evaluate the future of Gaia Medical due to financial constraints. “We are now at a place where we aren’t sure if we can continue because financial grants are really competitive and venture capital funding doesn't feel like the right way to go for a social enterprise.” Nonetheless, Hana knows that try and error is part of any business journey, and the heartwarming messages from thankful beneficiaries of Gaia Medical’s services she receives help keep her eager to continue on the entrepreneurial path.
I have learned so much from building up this business that I know for sure that whatever I do next, I can approach it more sustainably from a financial point of view and have better chances of making it succeed.
We have no doubt she will indeed!