To read this interview in Arabic, click here / اضغط هنا للنسخة العربية
Countries in the Middle East and North Africa, especially those currently or historically wracked by conflict and displacement, have generated waves of immigration and refugees across the world. For places like Lebanon and Palestine, this has led to a larger population living outside the historical borders of the country than inside them. Syria may see a similar phenomenon over the course of the next generation. Millions more from the Middle East and North Africa have simply left the region in search of better economic and educational opportunities. As the world has grown more connected, and capital, knowledge, and people can traverse the globe quicker than ever before, some have begun to wonder whether these tragic outcomes can transform into assets for economic development.
Marwan Abdelhamid, a Palestinian living, working, and studying in the U.S. right now, is working on an answer to that question. GrowHome is a startup that he co-founded to build connections between the diaspora and entrepreneurs in their home countries. Growing up in a Palestinian diaspora family here in the U.S., I know firsthand the desire amongst Palestinians, even generations removed from a life in Palestine, to help and support Palestinians in Palestine, and in refugee camps in the surrounding countries. The biggest hurdle, however, especially for those of us who no longer have familial connections in Palestine, is finding the right initiatives through which we can make an impact. Marwan, as someone who has lived inside and outside historic Palestine, and as a leading content creator in the worldwide Palestinian community, recognized this hurdle, and, along with his co-founder and best friend Tim Motte, started working on a solution.
This topic holds close personal meaning to me, and so it’s been such a pleasure to get to know Marwan and GrowHome in the past few months. I had the chance to interview him in March to learn more about his personal story, his growth as a content creator and music artist, and of course, his work on GrowHome. Read on to learn more!
Can you start by introducing yourself?
I’m Marwan Abdelhamid. I’m a Palestinian living in America right now. My mother is half Algerian, half French and my father is half Palestinian, half Serbian. So, technically I’m only ¼ Palestinian genetically, but I was born in Jerusalem and raised in Gaza and Jordan. I moved to the States in 2018 to pursue higher education.
I’m a 20 year old content creator, musical artist and founder of the startup GrowHome
GrowHome is a movement to unite diaspora communities worldwide with entrepreneurs from their home countries.
Before learning more about GrowHome, can you share more about those other activities that you listed?
I started making Tik Toks in March 2020, with just silly content in Arabic and English. I saw people liking and commenting, and my followers grew, first to 2,000, then 3,000, nothing insane, but for me that was huge because I’d never experienced anything like it before. I started to realize the potential of social media platforms for information dissemination.
I used that opportunity to start talking about feminism in the Arab world. I think it’s a topic that males don’t talk about, and I wanted to shed light on it. I also started talking about Palestine. Initially, it was more catered towards an Arab audience, but then I realized that I needed to speak to the international, and American community in particular, because they’re the ones in power. Once one of my videos hit a million views, I had the thought, “what if Nelson Mandela had Tiktok?” You can just imagine during his ANC days, if he was able to disseminate information to millions of people in less than 24 hours, how would that have changed history?
These thoughts led me to take my content a bit more seriously. I made more informative Tiktoks, which I translated to Instagram too. I began promoting Palestinian stories of history and identities and replying to common Zionist narratives that people weren’t combatting effectivly. In my opinion, a good argument is always key. You have to know your shit if you’re going to talk about this kind of stuff, and unfortunately, we’re not taught our history well in schools.
In addition to that, I’ve been making music as a hobby for about three years years. I dropped a song called Jerusalem Freestyle this past October, and it did super well. Mohamed Hadid liked my post. I started doing some covers, and I dropped my second song Nirvana in Gaza, which also did really well. Now I have over 200,000 streams on spotify for those two songs. In 2021, I’m going to go HAM. My goal is to become an established independent artist and to represent Palestine at the same time.
How has your identity and childhood journey influenced you and the projects you’re working on?
Growing up, I always felt like I could do more for Palestine. The posts on Instagram, the petitions, etc. weren’t really doing it for me. My mother actually worked at UNRWA and I saw firsthand the inefficiency in bureaucracies like that. I thought it was a shame, and I always thought we could do more.
As a Palestinian living outside of Palestine, I also struggled with my role in helping Palestine. In places like India or Nigeria, the diaspora are considered to be national assets. I did more research into our history, the PLO, etc. and I realized the power that the Palestinian diaspora holds. Palestine isn’t just a geographical entity like this (shows his tattoo of Palestine) … it’s a kingdom and empire of 11 million people spread out across the world. When you start to think of it like that, and you start to take into consideration digital states – the future of the concept of “country” – you realize — damn, we do have some power, but it’s not being mobilized effectively.
The power of diaspora communities and seeing how much love people outside of their countries have for their countries inspired GrowHome. You see it through the activism – Palestinians love Palestine – but sometimes that love is not being translated into real change. We’re trying to tap into that.
How did you go from that realization and decide to start a business around it?
My cofounder Tim and I are still both young and very new to the business world. We had tried to start a business though, before we started GrowHome. It was the best experience of my life. Some people would say we wasted four months of our lives, spending just about every waking hour on this crazy idea, not just making things like a business plan or identifying our target market, but actually learning what those terms meant in the first place. We had zero experience, so we had to learn from scratch. The business didn’t take off, but we realized that entrepreneurship is solving a problem to make people’s lives better, and earning money from that solution.
As I’ve learned more about the nascent Palestinian entrepreneurship ecosystem, I appreciated more and more the empowerment that can come from breeding entrepreneurs in the region. Palestinian entrepreneurs are solving local problems and creating jobs for themselves. That’s called necessity entrepreneurship – it’s not that you necessarily want to be an entrepreneur, but you have to be. There are no jobs, so you create your own opportunities. On top of that, the Palestinian market inside Palestine itself is so small that these entrepreneurs have to build scalable business to eventually address markets outside of PalestineWe saw the fact that there’s the huge diaspora community begging to help Palestine, and then there’s this nascent entrepreneurship ecosystem in Palestine that needs nurturing, and we put them together.
Tell me a bit around the team that you have building GrowHome
Tim, my co-founder, is my best friend. We spend way too much time together. We always say that I’m the front-end and he’s the back-end. He learned finance and accounting in two months through LinkedIn Learning and other online materials to do our taxes and bookkeeping. He also learned some coding so he could build out our tech. I do marketing, sales and act as the “evangelical founder.” We’ve also experimented with different freelance developers, but for now, we’ve decided to whitelabel our tech to reduce cost and hassle.
Coronavirus has accelerated the process of creating relationships with people you’ve never met in person. Our whole goal with GrowHome is to create sustainable relationships between someone in the diaspora and an entrepreneur living in Gaza. They probably won’t meet in real life for a while, but really potent human capital that can be unleashed from that connection is. When someone believes in you, it unlocks a part of your brain. We want to start unlocking human capital and human potential to create more startups, solve more problems, and improve standard of living in the region.
What do you think GrowHome is adding to previous efforts to engage the Palestinian diaspora? Why do you think GrowHome can succeed where some of those efforts have failed?
First of all, we’re not political in any way. We’re purely economic development. Also, GrowHome is based on very specific tasks. I think that’s important – to give people something concrete to work and collaborate on.
Another important point is the origin of these “opportunities.” In the past, many diaspora initiatives held meetings, brainstormed, and acted, but didn’t take the needs of the local population into consideration. GrowHome has the locals asking very specific things from the diaspora community.
At the end of the day, there’s no commitment, beyond each person’s willingness to engage with this community. If people in the diaspora have the desire to give back and use their skills and talents to help their brother or sister in Gaza to start their business, then they’ll do it. We give them a way to help based on their specific expertise.
What are some GrowHome’s early achievements that you’re proud of?
Tim and I are college students, which means that we don’t have that much money, and launching our platform takes time. That said, I’m actually glad that it’s taken a long time, because it’s given us time to build up our reputation within the community. We have the World Bank sending us emails asking for meetings. People are starting to know us as the company focused on the diaspora.
One thing that I’m really proud of actually happened this past Sunday (at the time of the interview). We hosted our first “Palestinian Shark Tank” event. We had four investors from the Palestinian diaspora, and three Palestinian startups from Palestine, come together for a pitch event. One of the companies actually received a nonbinding agreement to fund their seed round. That’s exactly the type of thing we’re looking to do.
GrowHome is scalable to every country in the world that has a diaspora community and an entrepreneurship ecosystem. We’re working on another Shark Tank season with Egyptians in collaboration with Cairo Angels. Our platform will eventually be open to every country – Nigeria, Somalia, India, Ireland, etc. – these countries have huge diaspora communities that could really benefit the entrepreneurs back home.
Are there diaspora stories, or countries that you look to for inspiration?
India, Ireland, and China are great examples. They’ve mobilized their diaspora in such a way where it doesn’t even think twice before going and helping. Scotland and Albania are some other interesting ones.
All that said, you have to give credit where credit is due – Israel is the leader in this field. They have a huge diaspora force. American Jews just write checks to the Israeli government. They have one mission and they’ve done a great job mobilizing the Jewish diaspora. A Jewish-American opened up Intel in Tel Aviv, which set the ball rolling for the whole “Startup Nation” concept. The way that they’re able to use their diaspora is something that we, as Palestinians, need to learn from.
The love and the passion is there on the Palestinian side. It just needs to be channeled in the right direction. One thing that many people don’t understand is that sometimes donations are not always the right way to solve a problem. Inadvertently, if you donate a free meal to someone in Gaza, you’re taking business away from the local food producers. I’ve heard this from people in Gaza – when these charities give out food, they suffocate industries that employ people on the ground.
Diaspora engagement needs to be very aware of the local population’s needs, and we’ve purposely built this into GrowHome. The locals make the ask, it’s not the diaspora imposing themselves onto the population.
Are there any startups that you’re especially excited about having on GrowHome?
We had GIL – Growth in Learning on our pitch competition last week. Sami Abu Hayba, the founder, is building basically immersive VR Arabic language training. Immersive learning is the best way to learn a language. They have built an app on your phone that students can use to learn via different, real-world scenarios. In order to move on to the next level, you have to pass scenarios like buying falafel in the Old City, or ordering a taxi in Ramallah.
Eventually, they hope to expand to other dialects, and even languages. We’re helping them raise their seed round, and we’ve connected them with networks and mentors. I’m so excited about their potential, and Sami himself is the man. In general, we have some inspiring and talented founders in Palestine and we love to show them off. Shoutout to Rowan Alawi from Amal, Ameen Taha from Tollabco, Kareem Kort from Byrdbyte, Lina Zahayka from Greeners, and Mohammad Abu Matar from Tashkeel3D!
How do you plan on measuring GrowHome’s success?
I think our KPIs will evolve throughout the growth of the company. Impact can be a difficult thing to quantify. We’re not measuring simple metrics, like how much money has been raised on our platform. We’re measuring how many successful relationships we’re able to create.
For me though, success is when GrowHome facilitates a diaspora-homeland connection over an opportunity. Just connecting Palestinians in Palestine to the networks, skills, and capital of Palestinians in the diaspora, and connecting the diaspora to tangible opportunities to help Palestinian startups, these are invaluable. Sami Abu Hayba who told me yesterday, that even if he doesn’t end up getting funded, the fact that he spoke to Ahmed Ashkar and Fares Ghandour is amazing. At this point, I’m not going to say we’re looking at this many deals, or create this many jobs. I’m not the World Bank, Maybe that will be something in the future once we’re bigger, but for now, really what I’m trying to do is create relationships.
What do you think 2021 has in store for GrowHome?
We’re launching a free alpha with ten entrepreneurs and a group of diaspora. Once that goes well, we will open it up to different incubators and expand our outreach to the diaspora. In the future, we hope to launch GrowHome in different countries. We don’t know how long it will take to get things up and running, so first and foremost, we just want to prove the concept and reach product market fit.
Assuming we achieve that, we’d hope to raise our first seed round as well in 2021. We’d also like to keep growing the GrowHome podcast and potentially monetize that as well. I see huge potential in an “audio Shark Tank” for the Middle East with diaspora investors.
What are some of the obstacles that you’ll have to overcome to accomplish those things?
I think one of the biggest challenges that we’ll face is engagement on the diaspora side – that they don’t end up following up on their connections. For Palestinians in Palestine, it’s within their interest to use GrowHome and I think we’ll be fine on that. My concern is about the Palestinians in the diaspora, who could use the platform once, and maybe never use it again.
This is why I’m also excited for millennials to use it. Honestly, I’m not hoping for 70-year old business executives in the UAE, I’m looking for people of our generation. I think that’s where there’s more of a willingness to be involved in this kind of platform, and where there’s more ROI for diasporas who get involved. I’m excited to see how this challenge of engagement plays out. We’re going to learn what works, what doesn’t work, and keep trying. The idea is there, and it’s not a shitty idea. People want this. What we’re doing now is just figuring out the best model to make this happen.
How can people get involved? For someone who reads this, and likes the mission, what should they do?
By the time you post this, the platform will be open for beta. The way that we’re thinking about going about it is that it will be invite-only on the diaspora side. Trying to keep it a bit exclusive and vet the people that are using it. Go to the website and follow the directions there for signing up.
What keeps you motivated to work so hard day in and day out?
I don’t think about it too much. I think being raised in Gaza does something to you. When you see injustice first hand, you want to make a change. I have a very limited time on this Earth, and I don’t want to make it boring. I want to make it exciting and I want to change people’s lives in the process.
I also have to shout out to my mom. She’s the reason that I’m doing all these things.
What are your personal near term goals and projects?
In 2021, I want to blow up as a musical artist. I need to, no, I’m going to hit a million streams this year. Music gives me a huge outreach and a huge platform. Even through my music, I do activism, but I want to be able to do music and business full time. I want to be the first social impact entrepreneur rapper. That doesn’t exist. I want to do it right and I want to be a Palestinian representative.
If you look 10-15 years from now, what is it that you want to have accomplished?
In 15 years, I want to have my own university called the Palesitnian Leadership University. I think that one of the biggest problems that we have in the region is our leadership. I want to tackle that firsthand.
I want as many people as possible to know me – not for a personal or selfish reason – but I want a platform through which I can lead to a better understanding of stories and narratives that matter to me, like the liberation of Palestine. In 15 years, I hope to be living in a free Palestine.
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