ERICA RUTH KELLY
“My mom is an east-African immigrant. She came from Eritrea. A lot of my family members were refugees,” explains Ashley Harrison, 23, who will be starting her second year of the Master of Global Affairs (MGA) program at the Munk School this fall. “That influenced me a lot in terms of being interested in what’s going on around the world and wanting to build a career around helping people who are disadvantaged…I’ve always been interested in human systems.”
Over the past summer, Harrison was an intern at the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Casablanca, Morocco. “At the very beginning, I was doing research for a report on the US cosmetics market to give to people who wanted to export to the U.S. I was translating texts from English to French, like newsletters to AmCham members,” Harrison describes.
Harrison often got through her assigned work quickly; “this gave me the space to create my own initiative,” she says. Inspired by her second-semester innovation courses which underscored that innovation drives economic expansion, Harrison looked into how this idea might apply to Morocco. “There’s undue regulatory burden on small businesses which is confusing and expensive and ends up being a deterrent from starting a business in the first place.”
Harrison focused on understanding the connection between innovation and unemployment in Morocco: “Throughout the summer, I started researching innovation policy, researching the Moroccan economy, unemployment trends, researching start-ups, interviewing start-up founders and planning a roundtable discussion,” she says. “Youth unemployment is high and there is a push for the government to create jobs, but, to an extent, people can create jobs for themselves and their communities through entrepreneurship.”
During the roundtable discussion that Harrison organized and moderated, she and a group of prominent start-up founders exchanged ideas on what they thought the biggest hindrances to entrepreneurship were in the country at every stage. “So, what the biggest obstacle is to people founding a start-up, and then what the biggest obstacles are to growing that start-up or getting funding or reaching the public,” she says. “Following the roundtable discussion, the plan is to join all of the participating start-ups, as well as the start-ups that I interviewed throughout the month leading up to the roundtable, and connect them as a ‘start-up alliance’.” This alliance, along with AmCham, are joining MSE: Moroccan Startup Ecosystem initiative, previously started by Moroccan NGO, StartUpYourLife, among other key ecosystem players. “This group will identify challenges, suggest a solution and lobby for a change toward the appropriate entities, and especially the government,” explains Kenza Lahlou, co-founder and managing director of StartUpYourLife. “One of the major things the alliance is campaigning for is special legal status for start-ups so that they don’t have to meet all the government requirements that cost time and money,” Harrison adds.
Now back on Canadian soil, Harrison will be returning to a similar spirit of collaboration in the MGA program as the one she helped facilitate in Morocco: “There’s an array of ideologies and perspectives which is good,” she says of her program at the Munk School. “We’re not in competition with each other to get the highest grade. We’re more trying to learn from each other and learn how to work with each other.”