I had the pleasure of getting to know Ambar Amleh from 2015 to 2016. If you don’t know Ambar already, I hope that by the end of the interview you’ll have at least a glimpse into the mind and heart of the sharp, genuine, compassionate, and driven individual that, along with her husband Salah, took me in as an adopted younger brother during my year in Palestine. Their kindness and mentorship played a huge role in making my year in Palestine as fulfilling as it was. I highly doubt I would have started this blog in the first place had I not been blessed to meet them!
Like most of the countries covered by this blog, Palestine has both its own set of unique obstacles to overcome and strengths to build on when it comes to entrepreneurship. Few are better equipped to present those challenges and opportunities, as well as the current efforts to address them than Ambar.
Through her work launching and operating Ibtikar, Palestine’s only active venture capital fund, Ambar has made great strides in advancing the Palestinian startup ecosystem at home, and its image abroad. Despite the serendipitous path that led her to Palestine, which started in Mexico and has passed through (among other places) Arizona, Jordan, and Capitol Hill, there’s no doubt of her current and future dedication to finding and supporting great Palestinian founders.
Read on to learn about Ibtikar’s founding, portfolio and future, understand the Palestinian startup ecosystem, and follow Ambar’s personal journey to becoming one of its most important players.
Could you start by introducing yourself and your work with Ibtikar?
I am a partner at Ibtikar, Palestine’s only active venture capital fund. We started five years ago, and at that time, Palestine did have one other venture capital fund called Sadara Ventures, but their investment period has since ended. We invest in startups from their earliest stages to slightly more developed companies. We invest from ideas to companies with a bit more traction and in need of money to expand.
We’re in the midst of raising our second fund, which will be $25-$30 million to build out the initial $10 million from the first fund. We want to make larger investments, invest in more companies, and also invest in more Palestinian diaspora companies. To this end, we’re relaxing a bit of our requirements of ownership. Before, 50% of the company had to be Palestinian-owned and a significant amount of money had to be spent in the West Bank, Gaza, or East Jerusalem. About 30% of the new fund will be reserved for companies that maybe have one Palestinian founder with significant ownership, but it doesn’t have to be 50%, as well as companies that can still spend a good deal of money in Palestine. There will always be Palestinian nexus certainly, but we’re able to be a bit more opportunistic and engage the diaspora.
What’s Ibtikar’s origin story?
I know it intimately (laughs)…
Before Ibtikar, I was managing an organization called Palestine for a New Beginning. This organization had all the major employers in Palestine on its board – the Bank of Palestine, Jawwal-PalTel, Oooredo, etc. As a group they came to the realization that the country needs to focus on creating new employment, because alone they couldn’t grow at the rate needed to create employment for the youth. They decided that entrepreneurship was the best way to do this.
We tried grants, we tried loans, we tried competitions, training, etc. Finally, we realized that where the private sector could play the best role was by investing capital. It took another two years to raise the fund before we actually launched. Hashim Shawa came on as Chairman, Zahi Khouri as an investor and board member, Marcelo Diaz (a Palestinian from Chile) as an advisor, and Habib Hazzan as our Managing Partner. Habib had previously managed a fund called al-Bawader, which invested in Palestinians in Israel.
I was seeing some really great startups at the idea stage that would go through accelerators and then they would die because there wasn’t early stage capital. You had Sadara that was investing $1 million and above, but there wasn’t anything in that middle. We launched Ibtikar to provide the capital to close that funding gap.
You’re raising Ibtikar’s next fund right now and it sounds like you’re going to expand your scope geographically. Do you see the fund expanding to later stages as well, or will it still be early stage?
We expect the stages to remain pretty similar. Basically, when we launched the fund, we thought we would close that funding gap, and there would be someone locally to start co-investing with us around $500,000. That hasn’t really happened. Right now, we’ll do a first check of $200,000 and then they’ll need more to reach the Series A. Maybe we’ll do a top up at that point, and then we do a note later on. We’re the only local VC that can take them to be Series A-ready.
We’re trying to shorten that cycle by giving more money up front. With more dry powder, they have the ability to really press the gas on marketing and sales in the hopes of attracting regional investors for the Series A.
We are seeing much more developed companies coming through the pipeline than there were when we launched our first fund. Even if we’re still targeting “early stage,” the goalposts have moved in a positive direction.
What’s Ibtikar’s mission statement? Is it to simply provide a return on investment? Is it to generate employment in Palestine?
Personally, I want to show that you can make money investing in Palestinian startups. I don’t want my fund to be a CSR fund. I want people to invest in it because they see the potential to make money. Along with that, I want to show that you can build great startups in Palestine. As a byproduct of all that, you’re inevitably creating employment and advancing the economy. You’re putting Palestine on the map as a place where startups can thrive.
We have to be part of this new wave of technology, otherwise what are we going to be? Are we going to continue to create agriculture and services only for Palestine? We need to generate female and youth employment if the next couple of decades are going to be better than the previous ones. I want Ibtikar to be part of that foundation. We’re next to the “Startup Nation,” there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be a startup nation ourselves.
Is financial return always the priority? How much do you think about social impact when making investments?
We are not an impact fund in the sense that we’re looking for social enterprises or anything like that. In the end, our fund is here to make money for our investors. However, I feel that just doing that has tremendous impact. We’ve already attracted investors to our fund who may have never looked at Palestine as a place to make money. Right now, for example, we have 23 international investors. Most of them are from the MENA region, but regardless, most of them are investing for the first time in Palestine through our companies. That’s an accomplishment in and of itself that boosts our economic future. Now, we have to deliver returns to keep them coming back.
At the end of the day though, we have to remain focused on making money because CSR, especially with the Palestinian diaspora, will always exist. There will always be someone that wants to donate or give, which certainly has its place, but I don’t believe that’s not what’s going to lead to sustainable growth in Palestine.
Any specific portfolio companies that you’d like to highlight?
Mashvisor is the first company we invested in. I like Mashvisor for so many reasons. I feel like they show the strength of our ecosystem.
Peter Abuzolof, the founder, is Palestinian-American. He grew up here in Palestine, but left when he was pretty young. He wanted to come back and start a business here. He participated in a Startup Weekend, competing with the idea for Mashvisor, for which they got second place. Months later, he realized that there were a bunch of hits on the website they had put together that weekend. People were finding this basic website and asking if they could pay for his service. He knew there was something there, so he found Jebrini, his co founder and CTO, and they started working on it. They came to us to hire their first employee.
Mashvisor’s trajectory up to this point has been tremendous. Their revenues are growing yearly, all of it in the United States, and everything is done in Palestine. I think that is just incredible. They’re a great example of what can be done here. Mashvisor will hopefully, fingers crossed, inshallah, be a big exit. They address the U.S. market, which garners much bigger valuations, etc.
Another example is RedCrow. They scan social media for security-related information, convert it to actionable alerts, which they sell to embassies, NGOs, and private sector companies operating in volatile areas of the region. They’re in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya, helping keep people safe. What’s really interesting is that they built a company out of a truly Palestinian context. The need for information is critical, and they put that critical, timely information together in a way that’s usable and efficient. I really have high hopes for them.
We recently invested in a company called Tawazon, which is like Calm, the meditation app. It’s super needed and relevant for the time in which we’re living. There’s really no market leader in the Middle East. There have been some small attempts, but Tawazon is the first major attempt at doing this in Arabic. It’s also a female founder, which I love.
Then there’s 360Moms, which is a portal for parents. We’re in dire need of reliable content in Arabic. They’ve put together a really impressive content website to help parents navigate those first years, which then they’re monetizing in all sorts of ways. They also have a female founder.
What do you see as the main strengths of the Palestinian startup ecosystem?
We have a well-educated population. You have thousands of university grads every year, including approximately 2,000 engineers, but about 50% are unemployed and many more underemployed. We need to create employment for them. The big question is how can we steer this knowledge into products and companies that serve markets greater than Palestine?
We’re starting to see that happen and working for a startup moves that along. A recent graduate can learn very quickly when they take on responsibility quickly as a part of a small team doing big things. Even if the startup eventually fails, those young people typically will go work for another startup, or start their own. We’re actually seeing some of the older startups “graduating” their employees, who then launch their own.
We also have to talk about Israel because it has affected our economy tremendously, and the tech sector in two specific ways.
For starters, I think 90% of our CTOs have worked at outsourcing companies that mostly serve the Israeli market. That tech transfer of skills and knowledge, has been very powerful. How do we build on that equitably? That is a question left for others, but in the end, what I’m getting is better skilled technical talent that can become CTOs of these startups.
The second part of this is the Palestinians within Israel. They go to the Israeli universities, like Technion, and they graduate with tremendous skills. They go work for Intel or Mellanox in Israel, but culturally, linguistically, etc. they are Palestinian. We need to take advantage of the power of that community to build projects for the region, and beyond.
More generally, the relative cost of labor remains cheap when compared to the Gulf. Coupled with the education and Arabic level, that is still attractive to companies looking to do business regionally.
The last, and perhaps most important thing about Palestinian entreprenuers is their grit. If you look at startups in Gaza, they work so hard under terrible circumstances. I remember working with Gazan startups during the last war and they would use their car battery to power charge their computers. It’s an incredible desire to work and succeed. That, I think is unique, at least to places living through difficult circumstances. I think it’s a strength. In a sense, these are all comparative advantages.
What are the main things that are holding potential back?
The Occupation. In so many ways, it’s closed Palestine off to the rest of the world. I mean that even in terms of knowledge. The engineering professors here are teaching things that are a bit outdated. They don’t even have the opportunity to bring in foriegn professors because they can’t offer extended stay permits without Israeli permission. This means that, for the most part, a professor is teaching their students information from when that professor graduated.
The Occupation also severely limits Palestinian abiity to travel out of the country. You don’t understand the needs of other markets that you haven’t seen. A majority of our portfolio companies have at least one founder who has lived or grown up outside Palestine, but so many Palestinians don’t have access to those kinds of experiences.
Travel restrictions also hamper Palestinian startups on a day-to-day level. If you’re an entrepreneur in Dubai or Jordan, you can easily hop on a plane and go meet an investor or buyer. If you’re located in Palestine, that is so much harder. Gaza is nearly impossible to leave, and even in the West Bank, you have to cross the land border with Jordan (controlled by the Israeli army) to fly out of Amman, and then do the same on the return trip to get back into Palestine. If you’re lucky, for a regional flight, you’ll “only” spend 2x or 3x more time getting to the airport than on the plane itself. In bad cases, you end up having to spend a night in Amman before moving on to the next part of your journey.
As a country, we also need to rethink how we support startups. It’s still difficult to open a new company in Palestine. It’s still expensive. We need to start looking at best practices around the world. We can’t continue to only pay lip service to entrepreneurs, we need to take real action to support them.
Let’s switch to personal background. Can you walk me through your journey to Ibtikar?
It’s a winding road! I guess the place to start is here: I’m Mexican-American. I was born in the United States but raised in Mexico until I was 11, when we moved back to the States. I lived in Arizona until I finished my MBA, then I moved to Jordan.
My MBA was focused on International Development. It was after 9/11 and they were looking for people that could go work in the Middle East. When I looked at this fellowship, they asked “what regions of the world do you want to focus our search on?” I said Latin America, Africa, and Asia (in that order). They came back and said “well, Jordan wants to interview you.” I was like “okay…. is there anywhere else??” There wasn’t (laughs).
At that point in time, I was a typical American when it came to the Middle East. I’d never been and I knew very little about it. I ended up in Jordan though, and met many Palestinians there. After I finished that fellowship, I moved back to the U.S. a bit shaken up – I started seeing the effects of my government’s foreign policy on other regions of the world, specifically to Palestine. The book “The Israel Lobby” had just been released. I went to my congressman, for whom I had worked as a page previously, and spoke with him about my time in Jordan and USAID, etc. He offered me the opportunity to come work for him and see how it all worked. I served as his legislative assistant on the Hill for a couple of years, focused on immigration and foreign policy.
After that, I went to work for an organization that promoted democratic governance in the world. Basically, we would help political parties and candidates get elected on a well-structured campaign. Once they were elected, we worked with them on good governance. I was sent back to Jordan, where we trained tons of women in Jordan and Palestine to run for office. Once those women got elected, we helped them hold their own in office. It was really interesting work.
I ended up leaving that organization, but I didn’t want to leave the region, so I put out feelers. The PLO negotiations team hired me. They were very interested in my experience on the Hill, as well as my Communications background from my undergrad. They wanted me to help them communicate better to American audiences and elected officials. That lasted a very short time due to a leak from the office. Finally, I was hired by Zahi, who wanted to start Palestine for a New Beginning, the organization that I mentioned earlier.
It’s all very serendipitous, and a story of taking advantage of really unique opportunities, and being open to the chances that came my way.
I want to explore the jump from Politics to Entrepreneurship. I’ve heard it come up in previous interviews, such as with Francesca of Seedstars, as well as my own background. What do you think the connection is there?
Honestly, I hadn’t thought about it much before, but what comes to mind is the hopelessness of politics in Palestine and the complete opposite level of hope working with entrepreneurs. It’s night and day.
When I was working for the negotiations team, it felt like two steps forward and five steps back. There was no progress and things have probably deteriorated since. Working with entrepreneurs is totally different, in a great way. These men and women just want to do something positive, and they work so hard at it, that it’s difficult not to support them.
I am so positive that change will not come from the generation of leaders that’s in power right now. It’s going to come from these young men and women that are showing a different side of Palestine. They’re going to be the next leaders anyway, so let’s help them make money first (laughs).
What is it like working in the Middle East without having grown up there, or being part of the region’s diaspora?
Palestine is very welcoming. I’ve never been attacked for U.S. foreign policy in the region. People can differentiate Americans from our government, and that’s pretty impressive. Palestine is home right now, I have a Palestinian husband and a Palestinian family.
I don’t think I will ever be seen (or see myself) as “Palestinian.” That said, I’m certainly part of this community. There’s a certain privilege to having a second passport and being able to leave, which comes with a unique mindset. Most Palestinians don’t have that privilege. When I’m being interviewed, or when I’m considered for things like Kauffman Fellows, I’m always thinking “am I taking somebody’s place?” Thankfully, most people remind me, “you have done so much for Palestine and our ecosystem, you’re Im Firas,” but I think as a foreigner, I will always feel that responsibility.
What’s your experience been as a female venture capitalist?
Being a woman in this industry carries a tremendous amount of responsibility. We have a responsibility to promote female founders and to ensure diversity. I also recognize that women come to me for advice much more because they feel they can relate to me. That also means helping these women prepare and succeed with their companies. This is global by the way – the experience of being a female VC isn’t more difficult in Palestine than other parts of the world. If I were to work as a Mexican-American woman venture capitalist in the States, it would be very similar.
When I first started Ibtikar, Salah (Ambar’s husband) was starting Bader at Rawabi, and I had just given birth. I was at home breastfeeding and he was out meeting companies– it was so difficult! The big question is – and this doesn’t just apply to VC, but to business in general – how do we make it more equitable for women to be able to have families and continue to work?
One way we do that is by promoting female founders. Males typically do not address female needs, and if you look at the research, women are much better managers of money. They calculate risk in a much different way, and they take care of their people. We have to think of women and women’s needs, especially in this region. I think that can only be done by having more women in venture capital and more female founders.
What do you think the future holds for you?
(Laughs and sighs) Right now, let’s just get Fund II underway! This goes back to what we were just talking about – promoting underserved founders. Palestinian founders are a part of that. I’m completely committed to that goal.
I think that I certainly could go work elsewhere in the region, but Palestine always tugs at your heart. Do I see myself being a VC in the U.S.? I don’t know. I think it’s so different, but maybe, I don’t know.
For now, it’s just about surviving COVID and getting Fund II underway 🙂