Imagine launching a startup when you only have four hours of electricity a day. But, it is possible. And Gazan entrepreneurs are more driven than ever.
By Angie Chang (TechWomen Mentor & Hackbright Academy VP)
Last week, I traveled through Erez Crossing to mentor at Gaza Challenge — a startup bootcamp for aspiring and current entrepreneurs in Gaza. Over 35 teams participated in the five-day program (with over 300 applications to participate), sharing ideas and prototypes. The prize for the the bootcamp is admission into Gaza Sky Geeks’ accelerator program later this year.
Entrepreneurs in Gaza face unique challenges, from the current blockade to literally living in a war zone.
Restrictions for Gazans include living with only four to six hours of electricity a day, a lack of 3G service, and a frustrating inability to import and export products and the materials to make them. Landlocked countries that overcame similarly inordinate difficulties in the past have included Japan and Switzerland.
“The borders are closed. The only way for us is to get outside Gaza — through “sky” perhaps, with the Internet, technology can cross borders,” explained Mai Temraz, a mentor at Gaza Challenge.
Mai had recently visited the Silicon Valley as a TechWomen Emerging Leader – a program sponsored by the State Department to bring talented technical women from the Middle East and Africa to the Silicon Valley for mentorship and learning.
Mai is an amateur radio operator, programmer, mom and entrepreneur in Gaza. She launched and ran “Amateur Club Training Center for Kids” to engage children in technology and math, until the conflict in Gaza last summer destroyed her facilities.
Gaza’s First Startup Accelerator Highlights Mentorship
Entrepreneurship in Gaza is powered by a Google for Entrepreneurs-sponsored organization called Gaza Sky Geeks, which runs programs from mentorship to startup acceleration.
I participated in their women’s mentorship program for emerging entrepreneurs last year, connecting with a young Gazan woman with startup dreams. Since then, she has now participated as a “big sister” for a “little sister” at the Intalqi women’s entrepreneurship mentorship program.
The first funded female founder out of Gaza Sky Geeks was Mariam Abu Etewy, CEO and founder of Wasselni (“Uber for taxis” in Gaza). Mariam was also a mentor at the startup bootcamp, coaching early entrepreneurs on their business models.
Mentorship Means You Give – And You Get
“International mentors” (experienced startup founders and executives) arrived from Silicon Valley, Jordan, Norway and Denmark to participate in the startup bootcamp and advise entrepreneurs in Gaza. Blackbox VC CEO and founder Fadi Bishara told the Gaza entrepreneurs about his experience traveling around the world meeting entrepreneurs — and how the Gazan entrepreneurs are the best he’s seen yet. He urged the entrepreneurs to bootstrap and find customers early, instead of waiting for funding to get started.
“Amidst donkey carts and dirt roads and Hamas soldiers is an urban population of educated, talented, optimistic, and warm youth who want to do something positive with their lives. I’ve never met so many people eager to connect with the U.S. and Europe. They can’t travel, but they have the newest Android devices and iPhones – and dream of launching a successful tech startup,” said Iliana Montauk, director of Gaza Sky Geeks.
Gaza has a competitive advantage. Arabic is the fastest-growing language online, and with a sore lack of Arabic content and products. Gazans are known for their tech talent, and lack of gender gap in the computer science graduates from area universities.
The recent Gaza Challenge provided a crash course in business validation and startups, with talks on lean startup, customer development, user acquisition, time management and engineering. Entrepreneurs learned to ask the right questions, how to write a concise email delivering an updated prototype or deck, and hustle. Basically, the art of the start.
Women In Gaza Uniquely Positioned to Succeed In Entrepreneurship
Gaza Sky Geeks director Iliana Montauk (pictured, standing) coaches female founders to continue meet up beyond the bootcamp. She encouraged the women to share their startup challenges and stories with each other to learn faster in Gaza’s growing startup ecosystem.
“From experience, I can tell you that our female entrepreneurs are able to travel more easily in the region than men, receiving travel permits to exit Gaza and visas to enter destination countries (for example, Jordan and Egypt) more readily than their male counterparts. This means that when a startup company has an important reason to travel, very often it is women who are best positioned to represent the company’s interests abroad. This can be used to pitch to an investor, and to build strategic partnerships, hire international talent, or conduct a crucial sales meeting,” said Gaza Sky Geeks director Iliana Montauk.
UN-run college students (with the women outnumbering the men) arrived at the startup bootcamp to talk with international mentors. This group which I met and had conversations with shared their visions of individuality, innovation and a strong desire for more women to hold leadership and business positions.
“In 2014, 78.7 percent of Gaza’s female youth were unemployed. It is great to see so many young women at Gaza Challenge with startup ideas,” said Jenn Watson, UNRWA head of communications. She was impressed with the entrepreneurs brainstorming after a talk on Stanford d.school’s brainstorming methodology.
Mentor Entrepreneurs – Virtually
Entrepreneurship programs are in need of virtual mentorship from international mentors briefed on the unique challenges and limitations for young entrepreneurs in Gaza.
The biggest challenge for early-stage startups in Gaza is the lack of connection to the outside world. Gazans generally cannot leave Gaza because its borders are closed. This leads to a lack of awareness of potential markets. Once an entrepreneur in Gaza gets excited about launching a startup, they face challenges understanding their markets. When they travel for the first time out of Gaza, entrepreneurs are surprised by basic facts – some are surprised that there is electricity 24/7 in neighboring Arab countries.
Virtual mentors can connect with and coach students and entrepreneurs over Skype, creating pathways that otherwise could not exist (physical entry to Gaza was difficult at time of writing). You can find out more about mentoring at Gaza Sky Geeks at their website, or sign up for their newsletter to hear more about talent out of Gaza.
Above: Jordan-based startup executive Lauren Peate speaks Arabic, mentoring women entrepreneurs at Gaza Challenge in March 2015.