GeoSilica founder Fida Abu Libdeh on paving the way and shattering ceilings
Slowly but surely, Reykjavík is evolving into a melting pot — from the diverse language options at your supermarket checkout to an array of businesses run by “new Icelanders.” Meet Fida Abu Libdeh, founder and CEO of GeoSilica, who moved to Iceland from Palestine at the age of 16. From navigating the nuances of the Nordic mentality and culture to establishing an international food supplement company powered by an all-women team, Fida opens up about her victories and the challenges she faced along the way.
GV: How difficult was it to adjust to the new life in Iceland when you moved here as a teenager?
Very difficult, I’m still adjusting. It is a different culture and language. When I came, there were not many immigrants in Iceland, so there was no system. Up until today, the system is not perfect for immigrants at the critical age of 16-18. You are mostly on your own. You can apply for school, but you have to learn everything in Icelandic. You can do whatever you want, but you have to do it as Icelanders. There is no help to integrate at that age. I had a hard time because I was at the age of going to college and having to study everything in Icelandic. It’s a four-year college, but it took me 11 years to finish.
GV: How did you get the idea to start GeoSilica?
The idea for GeoSilica originated when I was working on my final thesis in energy engineering at Háskóli Íslands. We were extensively studying geothermal energy and exploring ways to utilise it more efficiently. Iceland has been generating electricity from geothermal power for 50 years, but we always faced the scaling problem. The minerals extracted from deep within the earth cause problems as they cool down, particularly clogging the heat exchanger. In my thesis, I aimed to find a solution to the silica scaling problem by extracting silica straight from geothermal water.
We could produce around 80,000 pounds of silica yearly from the high-temperature geothermal power plants here in Iceland. If the idea was a success, I needed to find a way to utilise the silica, or I would be causing another environmental problem by extracting 80,000 tonnes of minerals and just dumping it. So I started researching what silica is and what it’s used for, and found out that it’s one of the most abundant minerals in the world.
I started researching the effects of silica on the human body and whether we can use it as a supplement. I learned it’s a known food supplement, but not from geothermal sources. After graduation, my co-founder Burkni Pálsson and I decided to apply for a grant to see if we could finance our research on ways to extract silica from geothermal power plants or fluids and produce health products from it. We received a grant for three years of support from the Technology Development Fund in 2012. It took us around four years to develop the GeoStep method, which is the groundbreaking method for extracting or mining minerals from geothermal fluids.
GV: Are there any cultural differences when it comes to running a business in Iceland compared to your home country?
I don’t have any experience working back in Palestine, but I learned a lot about business by starting my own. Here in Iceland, there are many win-win situations. It’s not about who gets the most out of each other. It’s always about trying to create a win-win so that both companies or both partners win. I don’t see that culture back home. It’s always about how you can get the most from your partners. The culture here is much more mature.
GV: Have you ever faced bias or discrimination based on the fact that you are not from Iceland originally?
Yes, of course.
Nobody will tell you to your face that they will not invest in you because they don’t know who you are and don’t trust you. But we don’t see any foreign names on the boards of companies, we don’t see investment in projects run by foreign women. It’s not a personal thing. It’s just that you invest in what you trust and you do not trust in what you do not know. Nothing ever happens face-to-face. But you can see it in the numbers, you can see it in names, you can see it in role models. Where are the women of foreign origin? Why are they not ranking high in business?
What was most difficult for me was being a woman in the geothermal industry, not in business per se. Entering a new, mainly male-dominated industry was challenging. You always have to start by proving yourself again and again until people start listening to you. The research shows that there is bias against women in business, especially in investment. In the last two years, women received only 2% of all money invested in startups, with the rest going to mixed or male teams.
GV: Is there any support available for women of foreign origin starting a business in Iceland?
We are trying to help other women of foreign origin through seminars, the W.O.M.E.N. Association, the Academy for Women Entrepreneurs, etc. The latter is a cooperation between the University of Iceland and the U.S. Embassy, where we help women develop their ideas. We are moving in the right direction. It’s not as bad as it was. The older generation, or the women of foreign origin who have been here for a while, we are trying to help the new generation and give them the chance that we never got.
I spend a lot of time supporting women of foreign origin. I even give them a chance to evaluate their education at my company by gaining experience. Because if you have a degree, let’s say from a university in Poland, it’s not evaluated unless you have been working in Iceland for a while.
We’re a small startup, but I think we have one woman of foreign origin here at GeoSilica gaining experience every year. You don’t have to be a huge company to have this social responsibility and effect on the community. You can do whatever you can. And my focus is on women, especially young women and women of foreign origin.
GV: What advice would you give other immigrants starting business in Iceland?
Believe in yourself and carry on with whatever you believe. Extend your network as much as you can. That’s how you gain trust. When 10 women know who Fida is, they will recommend her. So extend your network through the W.O.M.E.N. Association because, in my experience, they are always willing to help. And just follow your dreams. Of course, people will doubt you. Not just because you are of foreign origin, but also because you are a woman. Don’t give up on yourself.
GV: Looking at the current situation in Palestine, do you think Iceland is doing enough?
No, not at all. I think at least they could allow these kids that are already in Iceland to stay. As a Nordic country, a peaceful country, Iceland could lead the change — send the Israeli ambassador back home or take a more aggressive action. We can see that the Icelandic population does not like how the government is acting. The government was elected thanks to their peaceful stance; they recognised Palestine as a state in 2011, so they should act accordingly.
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