In a world that often looks for inspiration and change-makers, Basima Abdulrahman, a Baghdad-born Kurd, has emerged as a beacon of success. Her recent inclusion in the BBC’s prestigious 100 Women list for 2023 tells us about not only her significant individual accomplishments but also the transformative power she holds in pressing for environmental solutions.
A visionary entrepreneur
At the helm of KESK, an environmental solutions company that specializes in green building design and renewable energy, Abdulrahman is more than a mere businesswoman – she is a visionary. Founded in the aftermath of the advent of ISIS in 2014, KESK became Iraq’s first initiative dedicated to green building, demonstrating Abdulrahman’s commitment to rebuilding her homeland sustainably.
“Our mission is to make smart green solutions trustable, accessible, and profitable. And our vision is to make the green way, the easy way,” Abdulrahman told Kurdistan Chronicle during an interview. “We aim to increase energy efficiency, reduce carbon emissions, and create opportunities for economic development through our projects. Empowering communities by providing clean energy access while simultaneously fostering environmental sustainability lies at the heart of our vision.”
A seat at the global table
The BBC’s 100 Women list, established in 2013, has been a platform for recognizing women who have played pivotal roles in shaping the 21st century. Abdulrahman now joins the ranks of past luminaries like Michelle Obama, Amal Clooney, and Huda Kattan. Her selection reflects a global acknowledgment of her efforts to ensure that current building practices do not compromise the well-being of future generations.
“Discovering that I was selected for BBC's 100 Women list was incredibly humbling and thrilling. It was a moment of validation for the hard work and dedication we’ve put into promoting renewable energy and advocating for greater inclusivity in a male-dominated industry. More importantly, it reinforced the significance of our mission and the need to continue pushing boundaries and effecting positive change,” Abdulrahman said.
Asked about the factors that she thinks that contributed to this remarkable recognition, Abdulrahman named various factors, including her team’s unwavering dedication to fostering sustainable solutions in the renewable energy sector, and their initiatives focused not only on innovation but also on creating meaningful impact within their communities.
“Our efforts to empower women in STEM fields and promote gender diversity within the industry were also a crucial aspect that garnered attention,” she added.
From conflict to creation
Abdulrahman's journey is rooted in a deep concern for the environment and a desire to mitigate the impact of climate change. Her commitment to green building centers on creating structures that consume less energy, produce less waste, and provide a healthy indoor environment.
Born in Baghdad and raised in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), Abdulrahman’s path to entrepreneurship was unconventional. The turmoil of the Iraqi conflict drove her family to the KRI in 2006, where she discovered her Kurdish heritage and developed a passion for mathematics and physics, diverging from her family’s initial push towards a medical career.
“Growing up in Iraq, I witnessed the challenges posed by traditional energy sources and their impact on the environment. I was determined to be part of the solution, despite the struggles and societal norms that often discourage women from pursuing careers in STEM fields,” Abdulrahman explained.
Abdulrahman’s global outlook is evident in her educational journey. A recipient of a Fulbright scholarship, she pursued a master’s degree in structural and civil engineering at Auburn University in the United States. Her exposure to green building concepts during her time in the United States laid the foundation for what would become KESK upon her return to Iraq.
Returning to Iraq in 2015, Abdulrahman worked as a structural engineer for the UN before embarking on her entrepreneurial path. KESK, founded in 2017, is both a consultancy and a commitment to sustainable architecture that combines modern technologies with traditional building methods.
Asked about any events or experiences that led her to her current direction in her personal and professional lives, Abdulrahman said that witnessing firsthand the environmental challenges faced by her community in the KRI and Iraq was pivotal. These challenges ranged from air and water pollution to the detrimental effects of unsustainable energy practices. These experiences instilled in her an early awareness of the interconnectedness between human actions and environmental consequences.
Furthermore, learning about the impact of climate change and its potential long-term consequences on both the environment and society profoundly transformed her perspective.
“It became evident that addressing these issues wasn’t just a choice but a responsibility – one that required immediate action,” she added.
Recognition and awards
Abdulrahman’s inspiring mission has not gone unnoticed. In 2021, she was recognized as the Cartier Women’s Initiative laureate in the Middle East, receiving $100,000 in prize money. In 2023 her company won the ExpoLive Global Innovation award, a $50,000 prize. This acknowledgment, coupled with her recent inclusion in the BBC’s 100 Women list, underscores the international impact of her work.
A woman leading change
As a woman operating in the male-dominated fields of tech-enabled businesses and green energy, Abdulrahman faces challenges. However, her approach is rooted in resilience and preparedness. She emphasizes the importance of being qualified and prepared to shatter prejudices and misconceptions.
“I have encountered several challenges, both unique to my gender and inherent in driving transformative initiatives,” Abdulrahman pointed out.
As for gender bias, she explained that in a predominantly male-dominated industry, facing gender bias and stereotypes can be a significant struggle. From subtle discrimination to overt challenges in accessing resources, funding, and networking opportunities, according to Abdulrahman, overcoming these biases requires resilience and continuous effort.
“In our region, there is a lack of trust in female entrepreneurs,” she pointed out.
The Kurdish entrepreneur identified resistance towards change in established industries as the second challenge that she has had to overcome. Advocating for renewable energy and sustainable practices might encounter pushback from those who favor conventional energy sources due to financial interests or a lack of awareness, she explained.
Empowering future generations
Abdulrahman’s success extends beyond her individual achievements. She actively engages in discussions about sustainability, advocates for green solutions, and emphasizes the economic benefits of embracing environmentally friendly practices. She has also dedicated herself to mentoring and encouraging more women to break through barriers in markets where men are traditionally dominant.
One of the examples of how she contributes to women’s empowerment is through creating employment opportunities. Within her company, she prioritizes hiring and empowering women by providing equal employment opportunities. She also actively seeks to recruit and train women in various roles, from technical positions to leadership roles, fostering an inclusive work environment.
Additionally, Abdulrahman participates in talks and sessions dedicated to emerging woman entrepreneurs to share knowledge and experiences of how to navigate through the entrepreneurship journey as women, especially in STEM fields.
Last but not least, she leads one-on-one mentorships for women professionals to guide them through specific career choices and ventures.
The future looks green
As KESK expands its operations, Abdulrahman envisions a future where the company is at the forefront of sustainable development not just in the KRI but throughout Iraq. Her focus is on innovative solutions and staying relevant in an ever-changing landscape.
“In the green energy sector, my company and I look forward to growing, innovating, and advocating for positive change. We’re committed to leading renewable energy projects, promoting sustainability, and shaping a greener future for Iraq and Kurdistan. We are in the process of building a complete ecosystem for renewable energy in Iraq, including providing solar energy hardware and software solutions as well as a carbon offset monetization facility to help our clients make additional revenues from investing in solar energy through trading carbon credits,” she explained before concluding the interview.
Amid the present global challenges, Basima Abdulrahman stands as a testament to the power of vision, determination, and a commitment to create positive change. Marked with recognition at international forums, her journey is an inspiration to aspiring entrepreneurs, especially women, to carve their own path and contribute to a greener and more sustainable future.
Sardar Sattar is a translator and journalist based in the Kurdistan Region. He has an MA in English Studies from the University of Lodz, Poland. He has translated several books and political literature into Kurdish and English. He writes regularly for local and international newspapers and journals.