In the city of Erbil, Iraq, Sarwar and Hlin, along with a small group of other college students, are making a difference in their local community. Inspired by their accomplishment of placing as finalists in the Global Solutions Sustainability Challenge’s Virtual Global Business Expo, Sarwar and Hlin successfully led their team as they further developed their business concept and were selected to join Orange Corners, a start-up six-month incubator program that supports entrepreneurs in Kurdistan with launching small businesses. Overall, their virtual exchange experience offered a window into design thinking, cross-cultural collaboration, and entrepreneurship, and became a stepping stone of professional growth for these young changemakers.
In spring 2020, 27 binational teams from Iraq, Jordan, and the United States competed in the Global Solutions Sustainability Challenge, a virtual exchange initiative implemented by IREX that supports workforce development for postsecondary students. Students engage in design thinking through asynchronous and synchronous activities in teams, taking on global challenges inspired by the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Sarwar and Hlin, students at Erbil Polytechnic University in Kurdistan, were part of Team Lighters, led by facilitator Abdullah Yassin. Over the course of ten weeks, the binational team collaborated with students from Fullerton College in the United States to address the need for free public access to electronic charging stations in both rural and urban settings.
For Sarwar, participating in the virtual exchange allowed for effective collaboration across cultures while developing a better understanding of entrepreneurship. “Global Solutions was truly an eye opening experience and my gateway to a whole new perspective of the world. My participation in virtual exchange allowed me to communicate and make connections with people abroad and see their way of working and thinking. We were able to work together even though we are from different continents, collaborating as a team on an international level,” expressed Sarwar. “I learned about entrepreneurship and how to work together as a team with like-minded people on solving a global problem. I was able to apply concepts of business planning, develop a pitch, and practice my public speaking skills in English. The skills we gained during this experience enabled our concept to be selected into the Orange Corner program.”
Both Sarwar and Hlin are currently studying marketing in college. The virtual exchange and incubator program directly equipped them with the necessary skills to develop their professional careers through an authentic experience that modeled the modern virtual workplace. Hlin expressed how she has seen an increase in her confidence, communication, and leadership skills. “The Orange Corner program taught us all about being an entrepreneur and how to seek opportunities. It has been an amazing experience that gave us a new perspective and understanding of the startup business world. We now have a long-term plan for our startup, and in time we will be founders of an outstanding agency,” said Sarwar. Through the incubator program, which started in June 2021 and concluded in December 2021, they developed their concept, Marketing Intelligence Agency (MIA), to address a gap in their community for market research and analysis where businesses face the challenge of reaching their target audience.
“The Global Solutions virtual exchange provided the foundation for Sarwar, Hlin, and the team to develop a successful concept. Orange Corners was impressed with the level of knowledge on design thinking the team had already developed through virtual exchange,” said Abdullah Yassen, who was incredibly proud of his students.
Programs like Global Solutions require creativity and the ability to work together with individuals who have different world perspectives – just like the workplace today. Students like Sarwar and Hlin learn to manage themselves, work as a team, negotiate and communicate with one another in different domains, and gain cultural awareness. Sarwar, Hlin, and their team walked away from this virtual exchange having developed the essential interpersonal and leadership skills that will allow them to actively work towards making a difference in their communities.
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Global Solutions Sustainability Challenge is implemented by IREX and is supported by the J. Christopher Stevens Virtual Exchange Initiative (JCSVEI). JCSVEI is a U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs program administered by the Aspen Institute.