Founding a startup is difficult anywhere in the world, but it’s especially hard in Gaza.
Since the war one year ago, Gaza has been nominally peaceful — but the norm is Gaza is not easy: six hours of electricity, and therefore six hours of Internet, a day; a 43 percent unemployment rate, with youth unemployment at 60 percent according to the World Bank; an embargo from Israel that limits what can be shipped into and out of the country.
Sounds like a challenge for true entrepreneurs.
I went into Gaza unsure of what I would find, and unconvinced of whether startups could thrive, much less exist, in Gaza. I was quickly proved wrong — Gaza has some of the most motivated people I have ever met, and Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG), the first startup accelerator in Gaza, is helping them live out their potential.
GSG was launched by Mercy Corps in 2011 with a grant from Google.org. I visited GSG twice to mentor their startup teams, first in March 2015 for a pre-incubation bootcamp, then in June for a pre-investment bootcamp. Like any organization forged under difficult circumstances, GSG has succeeded by working at the top of its game — and is even setting new examples for Silicon Valley to follow.
If I can succeed here, I know I can do it anywhere. Hadeel Elsafadi
The first thing I noticed upon arriving was the gender diversity: 41 percent of the entrepreneurs that GSG supports are female. The ratio didn’t start this way: As in Silicon Valley, women in Gaza were historically less represented in startups. GSG responded proactively, creating structures to enable greater diversity.
First, GSG hired a diverse team and made promoting diversity part of the job: Of the four full-time staff members in the accelerator, two are male and two are female; one woman, Mai Temraz, is dedicated to improving outreach as the Mentorship & Women’s Inclusivity Program Fellow. For example, GSG noticed that fewer women came to their evening sessions and so moved sessions earlier in the day to make them more accessible for females.
Second, GSG created an all-women’s support group called Intalqi (“Let’s start!” in English).This group is for female entrepreneurs — founders, as well as women who are interested but don’t yet have a startup. Their meetings include visits from local female role models and presentations on relevant topics by members of Intalqi.
The day I visited, Rola Zakout shared tips for social media marketing based on her experiences with Bzzra, a social gardening startup. Sozan Al-Amassi shared tips for facing challenges based on her own struggles with physical disability and her work in the community.
Finally, GSG educates the community to ensure that women have support to keep working on their startups. When family members feel wary about their daughters or wives participating in GSG, the GSG team calls them and invites them to the GSG office for a meeting to learn about what startups are and what founders do.
GSG differs from Silicon Valley startups in another way: It doesn’t make decisions based on a 15-minute interview or a two-minute pitch. GSG builds relationships with the community and startup partners to learn about budding founders.
Promising teams are invited to attend a five-day bootcamp during which GSG educates them and also tests their ability to work together, respond to feedback and execute. Because this model focuses on demonstrated performance rather than gut feel, it allows the GSG team to reduce implicit bias and pick the true winners.
In addition, GSG knows that companies need to think globally, and that there are lessons to be learned all over the world. Because of the Israeli blockade, many Gazans have never left their country and don’t have experience working in other markets. This means that the natural tendency in Gaza is to focus on the local economy.
To change this, GSG decided to bring the world to Gaza. GSG brings in international mentors on a regular basis — in my two visits, I was joined by mentors from Silicon Valley, London, Copenhagen, Dubai and Miami.
This strategy has effectively taught the teams to think globally: Not once did I meet a Gazan startup targeting only the local market. Moreover, GSG’s teams are learning not only the lessons of Silicon Valley, but also lessons from the broader U.S., Europe and the Middle East.
These international relationships didn’t happen by accident; GSG has been thinking globally from the beginning. The Mercy Corps brand gives credibility to their work and makes it easier for GSG to bring international mentors in and out. GSG’s American director, Iliana Montauk, has spent time working in the Bay Area and the Middle East and has connections to Europe.
Perhaps the most important success factor for GSG is its sense of broader purpose. More than making money or creating cool products, GSG is creating hope in a place that needs it. As their mission states, “Gaza Sky Geeks aims to transform Gaza’s most talented youth into the Middle East’s business leaders and realize Gaza’s potential as a startup hub.”
I went into Gaza unconvinced of whether startups could thrive, much less exist, in Gaza. I was quickly proved wrong.
The GSG staff and founders believe their work is not just for themselves, but also for their communities. One founder, Hadeel Elsafadi of Da Vinci Box told me: “I love startups, but I also know that this is what I need to do. We love it and we are pushed to do it — because of our friends, our family, our country.”The proof of GSG’s model is in their teams. Only two months passed between my first and my second mentoring trip to Gaza, but in that period, their teams grew from ideas to prototypes and products with traction:
TebCare, which connects patients in the Middle East to doctors, created their product, launched and completed 400 consultations in their first month.
5QHQH, 9Gag for the Arab world, launched and got thousands of page views in their first month.
MENAship, which connects students in the Middle East to scholarship opportunities abroad, built their team, including finding a female CTO who is passionate about their vision, and launched the alpha version of their website.
Walk and Charge, which has a device that charges your phone while you walk, finished their prototype — and charged a phone while I was visiting!
As Elsafadi told me, smiling, “If I can succeed here, I know I can do it anywhere.” GSG is making sure its founders are ready for whatever challenges they face — and showing Silicon Valley how to win, even when the odds are stacked.