Istanbul, with nearly 18 million inhabitants, is Turkey’s economic, cultural and media hub, not to mention one of the world’s largest cities. In recent years, Istanbul has also become home to an increasingly vibrant start-up scene. Links between Silicon Valley and Istanbul are stronger than ever and a growing number of young, enterprising entrepreneurs are starting businesses that are engines of innovation, jobs, and economic growth.
Against this vibrant background, another story has unfolded. Istanbul is now also home to nearly a half million Syrian refugees — -a significant proportion of the three million Syrians who live in Turkey.
At the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul, we asked ourselves, “How can we help harness the innovative ecosystem of startups to improve the lives of refugees?” To answer that challenge, we teamed with some of Istanbul’s best and brightest entrepreneurs to organize a 48-hour hackathon we called “Borderless Hack.” The idea was straightforward: 35 leading designers, coders, and social entrepreneurs worked around the clock in teams to design apps, websites, and other tech tools to help address refugee needs. Over the course of the weekend, teams generated ideas, worked with mentors, and designed prototypes.
At the end of the hackathon, the five final teams presented to a panel of judges that included prominent angel investors, venture capitalists, and me. Finalist projects included ‘SMS4JOB,’ an app developed to create a low-tech way for Syrians to receive job listings through text message, and ‘Hope&Chance,’ a web platform for Turkish companies to hire Syrian freelancers focused on engineering, as well as Arabic translation and marketing.
Family photo of all the final participants and organizers after the finals of the BorderlessHack. [State Department photo]
The winning team amazed the panel with their energy, creativity and project potential. Their idea is a website called “Hand2Heart.” This site combines storytelling with an online platform where Syrian women can sell their handicrafts to western markets.
Leveraging their network and their storytelling abilities, they are making an emotional connection between maker and buyer. Ninety percent of the revenue goes directly to the Syrian craft makers themselves.
The team behind Hand2Heart is also inspirational. They are eight university students and young professionals who met through a storytelling collective in Istanbul called Istanbul&I. They themselves -- an Egyptian, a Tunisian, a Saudi-born Kenyan, a Palestinian, a Syrian, a Turk, a Chinese-born Australian, and an Iranian-American -- embody intercultural integration.
Several members of the ‘Hand2Heart’ team just returned from the United States on a State Department-sponsored study tour. They attended the Collision Tech conference in New Orleans and visited a variety of NGOs, universities, and social entrepreneurship centers in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Fort Wayne, and Indianapolis.
Our hope is that with the new contacts and partnerships they formed in the United States, they can help make ‘Hand2Heart’ a successful venture. I encourage you to bookmark www.handtoheart.co as the team gets ready to fully launch the new website in the coming months. I also hope you will help spread the word among your family and friends and help inspire others to do their part to alleviate the hardship that so many refugees face daily.
About the Author: Charles Hunter serves as the Consul General at the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul.