By Taylor Smith
When Davey Gibian, a former investment banking analyst, was working on the Syrian-Turkish border in late 2014 during the Syrian Civil war, he came across a group of American and British veterans driving food and medical convoys into Aleppo under the name “Hera.” Gibian, a suburban Pennsylvania native, noted that the small team was “pretty loose,” and decided to introduce the sort of order one would expect from a man with a meticulously color-coded bookshelf. Convinced that the nascent organization could be better structured, use data more efficiently, and also expand, he joined the vets to found the Heraion Foundation (often stylized as HERA for short), a humanitarian non-profit based in Brooklyn and Erbil, dedicated to aiding those communities most severely affected by extremist violence.
Though they started out in Syria, the founders were keenly aware of the growing threat ISIS presented, and soon pivoted in kind. Now comprised of about 25-30 members, most of whom are veterans, the foundation has firmly established itself in northern Iraq, where it is a Kurdish government-sanctioned entity and works closely with several organizations including the Kurdish regional government security forces and the Kurdistan Children’s Hospital in an effort to curb the impact of extremist violence on local populations. Gibian describes their work as taking an “ecosystem approach”—a strategy that incorporates education and employment plans alongside short-term security measures to protect the long-term welfare of those most vulnerable to extremist violence. Eventually, they’d like to have a team on the ground in other areas affected by extremist conflict, such as Somalia and Nigeria, but for the past couple of years they have focused on the Yazidis of northern Iraq and other local Kurdish populations most affected by ISIS. Now far more than a few vets in a truck, Heraion has already made a significant impact.
In the last year alone, Heraion has helped rescue 94 women and children from extremists in Syria and Iraq, employed 39 women (that number continues to grow) in their factory making NATO-standard clothing, and enrolled over 40 children to study in the five schools the organization operates. For Heraion, Gibian says,”our measure of success is about the individual.”
Despite its roots, Heraion is not a military organization. Gibian, the director of Middle East and Africa for the foundation, is not a veteran himself—though he’s worked with the military in data and intelligence—and says that combatting extremist violence is not only a veterans’ game, but their experience in VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) environments makes them especially well suited to providing aid on the front lines. “At the end of the day you just have to go do it,” he says, “and we’ve found that vets are very comfortable just going and doing it.”
I was fortunate enough to sit down with Davey in his Williamsburg apartment to discuss his work. He returned again and again to the importance of a two-pronged strategy to combatting extremist violence. The root of Heraion’s ecosystem approach, he says, is the founders’ frustrations with what a military approach alone does in socio-politically unstable situations. Only through both hard and soft power—including more emphasis on diplomacy and organizations like USAID that provide health care, economic support, and schooling—does he believe we will see the “long-term, sustainable outcomes” that define Heraion’s mission.
What was your first job out of college and how did you land it?
I worked as an investment banking analyst at Duff & Phelps, straddling a great Industrial Technology and CPG team. It was a great learning experience that also allowed me to further my geopolitical skills through cross-border deals and some parallel work in Russia. Landing the job took 4 years of networking. I also worked almost full time in college, starting as a bartender before working as a trader and private equity associate. No magic here, just hard work.
How did your political science major factor into your career path after college?
Political science gave me a macro perspective and framing to use when viewing international and market trends. Although not a technical skill per se, it provided me a strong qualitative research and statistical skillset to examine the human side of complex issues. Now that my work with HERA and elsewhere includes direct government advisory, the political science degree has more fungible applications!
Had you not attended college, looking back, would you and why or why not?
I would definitely attend again. College was a great time to try on new selves, intellectually, personally, and emotionally. Meanwhile, the constant challenge from my Columbia classmates was fantastic. I grew into a mature person through some extremely trying environments and I am better for it.
You mentioned that you yourself didn’t serve, but had worked with the military. Can you elaborate on your professional background?
Broadly speaking, my career since finance has been as a geopolitical operator. I have worked on projects ranging from political support for the US-backed Syrian opposition forces, to investment projects in Afghanistan, to helping manage a Congressional campaign. I co-founded a company that provided data-driven strategies in conflict and crisis zones, putting me at the front lines with security forces, revolutionaries, and freedom fighters. So through these experiences, I came in contact with and greatly respect the U.S. military service and the men and women in uniform.
When you were younger, did you envision a future in nonprofit and/or humanitarian work?
Hah! I still don’t see myself as a humanitarian! I work half the time in Brooklyn. There are more noble persons deserving of that title. However, I also cannot look away as ISIS and other organizations continue to place marginalized population at risk of death and enslavement. The non-profit is a vessel through which I hope to make a change. So I guess no, I didn’t have my eyes set on non-profits, but I did always want to help others through my work.
If you weren’t running Heraion, what would you be doing?
I wish HERA didn’t need to exist. What I mean is, I wish the world didn’t require the sort of work we provide. However, since the world is not perfect and there are not enough people helping the communities HERA serves, there is nothing else I would be doing.
Describe a typical day in the life of your business.
With HERA in particular, every day is different. But part of each day involves fundraising in the U.S. to raise awareness for HERA. The rest of the day can vary from coordinating the opening of a new safe house to making sure our front line distributions at the ISIS front are going safely.
What are the three most important things to consider when starting an organization like Heraion?
There are not three that I can point to for everyone. I say the only important thing is making sure you are in it for the right reasons. The work is hard, exhausting, and brutal. Working with women and kids who were held as sex slaves for multiple years takes a harsh emotional strain. I image other organizations like ours are similar in that regard. But if you are motivated by the cause, not by the image it projects, you can keep going day after day.
What motivates you?
I have three sisters and I would never want anything to happen to them. When working with HERA, I emphasize that each woman and girl we work with is someone’s sister, someone’s daughter. That’s enough.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned so far?
Everything takes far longer than expected.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
The job is tangible. When we do a good job, people live better lives.
What advice do you have for people trying to get into the nonprofit business or get 501(c)(3) status for their organization?
Follow the rules. The IRS is pretty clear and it’s not really too hard to register.
Given where you are now, what advice would you give your high school self? Your college self?
The best advice I followed was to always take opportunities as they come, even if unexpected. The plans you have in high school and college will not be met, something will change. It’s best to know that in advance and learn to adapt.
And finally, since RoomZoom is a site to find roommates, what has your experience with shared living been? Anything particularly hilarious and awful or wonderful that you recall?
I think I am sworn to secrecy to protect their reputations.
In light of recent events in Aleppo, consider donating to the Heraion Foundation’s efforts this holiday season.
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