Supporting entrepreneurs in Gaza
Google for Entrepreneurs founded Gaza Sky Geeks in 2011 to build a startup movement in a frontier market with strong potential. Gaza has a high density of well-educated, technically-savvy, and eager young professionals who are seeking exposure to global markets for their skills and talent. Gaza Sky Geeks runs a popular co-working space, conducts active outreach, and creates the conditions for a vibrant community to nurture innovation. Gaza Sky Geeks is one of the main organizers of Startup Weekend Gaza.
In 2013, the Gaza Sky Geeks accelerator began connecting top startup teams to global resources to transform Gaza’s most talented graduates into the Middle East’s business leaders. Gaza Sky Geeks has attracted investors from around the world to put much-needed resources into local startups. International investors and experts work with Gaza Sky Geeks to provide them with knowledge, mentorship, and networks.
In September 2016, Elizabeth Shassere and Laura Bennett will be travelling to Gaza to mentor startup teams competing for a place on the Gaza Sky Geeks accelerator. This weeklong Bootcamp will get teams startup-ready. Elizabeth and Laura will be part of a group of local and international mentors leading sessions on topics such as marketing, problem/product/market fit, leadership and management, business models, customer development, building teams, and much more.
Both Elizabeth and Laura are integral members of the tech community in the North of England, in particular, Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester. They see tech as an enabler to increase the reach and impact of businesses and social ventures, and are passionate about the potential of entrepreneurship to effect change in the world, especially in disadvantaged communities.
The costs involved
Gaza Sky Geeks is a not-for-profit organisation, and they rely on international volunteers to fund their way to take part as mentors. Due to the uncertain and risky environment of Gaza, and the associated restrictions on travel, all flights and accommodation are particularly costly. Gaza Sky Geeks also rely on visitors to bring in much-needed equipment and materials, creating an additional cost for baggage and travel.
We are fundraising to cover the following costs associated with our trip:
Return flights UK - Tel Aviv - £2000
Due to the uncertain environment, we are required to get fully refundable and changeable tickets.
Accommodation in Jerusalem (2 nights) - £400
We will be required to spend two nights in Jerusalem, either side of travelling to Gaza.
Accommodation in Gaza (5 nights) - £1000
Due to security risks, accommodation for international visitors in Gaza is particularly costly.
Excess baggage fees - £200
GSG relies on international visitors to bring in essential items for the accelerator programme.
Living expenses and sundries in Gaza - £400
Lunch, dinner, supplies & materials
(These figures are for our combined costs and are based on the pre-trip information sent to us by Gaza Sky Geeks, as well as our own research. Any additional funding above our costs will go directly to Gaza Sky Geeks to fund their future programmes.)
All additional funding raised will go towards purchasing much-needed equipment such as solar chargers, battery packs, USB sticks, smartphones, tablets, Raspberry Pi, books.
Due to restrictions on trade, travel, and imports, the entrepreneurs in Gaza rely on visitors to bring them much-needed equipment. Specifically, we are looking for:
- Battery packs, solar cell phone chargers, USB sticks
- Hardware (e.g., smartphones/tablets, arduino kits, raspberry pi)
- Books about tech / startups / business
Also, any company branded items are always very well received! Have you got a stockpile of stickers or notebooks or pens with your logo on it? Any branded tee-shirts? All is very welcome!
Seeking Your Support for Gaza Sky Geeks - a note from Elizabeth and Laura
"We are both are passionate advocates for advancing opportunities in entrepreneurship for communities with limited opportunities, and we are therefore committed to paying our way to get to Gaza. We would be extremely grateful for any sponsorship or individual donations to help us get there. Gaza Sky Geeks consider international mentors' time as a considerable donation, as their expertise, mentoring, and networks can make a significant difference to the success of the programme itself and the startup teams. Therefore, in effect any funding that we raise is a donation towards Gaza Sky Geeks."
"If any business would like to consider sponsoring our trip, we would be delighted to discuss how we can make the best use of our time in Gaza to create useful connections for you and raise your profile in the Middle East."
About Elizabeth and Laura
Elizabeth is currently scaling and growing her first company, Textocracy. She worked for 20 years in leadership and management positions in the public sector in public health, and has learned a great deal about building a startup since leaving that career and doing it herself. She volunteers with her local Startup Weekend Sheffield team, and has been a part of the Dotforge Social Impact Accelerator as a participant and then as a contributor. Textocracy is one of the winners of Unltd’s Big Venture Challenge, a 12-month programme that supports promising startups ready for high-growth and scalability. Elizabeth volunteered last year at Gaza Sky Geeks, first at their Startup Weekend Gaza, then as a visiting mentor in the accelerator. She is delighted to be returning to Gaza and working with the incredibly talented and highly motivated teams there.
Laura is Programme Lead for Founders’ Network at Tech North , a UK-government funded organisation that supports and promotes the tech sector across the North of England. Laura designed and is running the eight-month Founders’ Network programme, providing access to top quality accelerator-style learning, and fostering the conditions for a vibrant and supportive ecosystem across the region. Laura’s educational and professional background is in international development, fair trade, and social enterprise. She lived for 3.5 years in rural Peru where she was Operations Director for a fair trade social enterprise facilitating access to international markets for indigenous women's weaving and knitting cooperatives. She has acted as a mentor for Startup Weekend Sheffield , has run workshops on social enterprise, customer development, and business model canvas for the University of Sheffield, and most recently was a 121 mentor for a cohort of South Korean MBA students who are building social enterprises as part of their course. Laura spent 10 days in the West Bank in April and was fortunate to introduced to the startup scene in Ramallah. She is excited at the opportunity to get to know Gaza and meet more Palestinian entrepreneurs.
Gaza & the MENA region (Middle East North Africa)
The population of the MENA region at its least extent is considered to be around 381 million people, about 6% of the total world population. The rise of the middle class in emerging economies such as the MENA region is considered a key driver for global economic growth. Consumers in the MENA region are hungry for the latest tech innovations, and their demands are not currently being met by supply. Frontier markets are where any forward-thinking and ambitious company should be focussing its efforts.
Gaza itself has a population of 1.8 million. Many of these are young people who are highly educated but with very limited opportunities for employment due to the restrictions on markets and travel. Urban unemployment is estimated at over 50 percent in the Gaza Strip, over 70% for young people. The untapped potential of young tech-savvy entrepreneurs is huge.
We are incredibly grateful that we managed to raise £2,215! This will be split 50/50 between Elizabeth and I (after the gofundme charges). Amazingly, we achieved our objective of raising enough to cover our flights (nearly £800 in my case), our excess baggage costs (another £100 or so), and our accommodation in Gaza (around £250) plus a night in Jerusalem (£90). Absolutely amazing - we are chuffed to bits :)
We were also lucky to receive support in the form of physical donations (books and equipment) from the startup community in Sheffield and Manchester (and London in the case of Rob Fitzpatrick, who gave us around 30 copies of The Mom Test to take out to Gaza!).
It was a fantastic trip, and we're both committed to returning to Gaza, that's for sure. So, THANK YOU for helping us to get there!
Elizabeth has written a blog post detailing all of our donations which I will copy below, and you can read here (with photos): http://startupliz.tumblr.com/post/150487738125/imagine-you-had-to-rely-on-volunteers-to
When mentors come to Gaza Sky Geeks there is absolutely no expectation that mentors will bring anything other than their knowledge, expertise, and experience. It is already quite an expensive undertaking to get to Gaza and stay for the duration of an event or period of mentoring. And mentors are self-funded.
Also, Gazans have access to many things that you or I would- chocolate, great food, clothing, materials for making many essential goods. However, there are many things that they simply don’t have access to, or are cost prohibitive to get brought into the Strip. When you don’t have access to services like Amazon or PayPal, or an international delivery service, getting electronic equipment and English language books on startup and business culture can be impossible. That’s why many mentors and other visitors choose to offer to bring in things that individuals and companies might need that they are struggling to get themselves.
As soon as Laura and I knew that we had been accepted to participate in this exciting opportunity with Gaza Sky Geeks, we put out a call for donations for the types of things that are much needed but difficult to come by. The list provided by GSG includes:
Battery packs, solar cell phone chargers, USB sticks
Hardware (e.g., smartphones/tablets, arduino kits, raspberry pi)
Books about tech / startups / business
Any company branded items (stickers, pens etc)
The response from our entrepreneurial startup communities across Manchester and Sheffield was incredible!
Swag and essential gadgets donated by companies like CANDDi, organisations TechCityUK and Tech North, the customer development guru behind The Mom Test Rob Fitzpatrick, and the kind and supportive folks behind Startup Weekend Sheffield.
For instance Tim Langley and Saadia Choudry at CANDDi donated Raspberry Pis and a Vector robot to help with the hackathons that Gaza Sky Geeks offers for the entrepreneurs of the future, along with a haul of essential startup and business reading, and the ever-popular company swag!
We also answered a call from organisations and individuals to carry much-needed items from the UK into Gaza that otherwise would not have made it. For example, we were proud to be able to help the innovative project At Home in Gaza and London get essential sound and video recording and broadcasting equipment from the London team to the technical director in Gaza.
This ingenious project uses live performance and digital invention to bring together people separated politically, economically, and physically. See the ultra-cool film about the project at their Indigogo page.
It aims to open up the Gazan creative community to the world by offering a fresh, personal response to Gaza and its isolation. The next phase is a four-week workshop from 17 October-13 November to develop the work into a full production for 2017.
We also took tablets, laptops, ipads, and other items to people who need these tools to create businesses and employment that you and I may take for granted.
This meant extra luggage fees and a few sore muscles for Laura and I, but it was more than worth to take an opportunity not to be missed to take what people need to them, and we would gladly do it again.
This is just another challenge that the startups and entrepreneurs of Gaza face, and another example of one of the many ways that Gaza Sky Geeks facilitates solutions to these challenges- and of course, another way that these resilient and resourceful teams continue to show what they are made of.
Imagine you had only 6 hours outside of the 141 square miles you had lived your whole life, and may never get another hour….
How would you choose what to do during those hours? How would you mentally process the condition of your life in context as you experienced those precious hours of freedom knowing you had to be back by a certain time or face dire consequences, and then perhaps be banned for life from ever leaving again?
I met an incredible young woman in Gaza who had faced exactly this situation. She was granted just 6 hours to visit Jerusalem, and at 18 this was her first experience getting to leave Gaza. She said that when she returned her family bombarded her with questions all beginning with “why didn’t you….” and expressing their disappointment she had not gone to certain shops to bring them treats. She said that while she was there, she was so overwhelmed with the realisation that she had such a limited time and it may be her only time, that she could only pray and focus on the sacredness of the religious sites she went to see. She described how she felt it was just her and God there in those hours, and she needed to immerse herself in that experience while she could.
When I met her she was waiting on a permit to be able to take up a scholarship to go to Jordan to study for her master’s degree.
She was hearing that Rafah crossing, one of only two ways to get out of Gaza, might be open for two days, and she was waiting for her approval. If it came in time for the Rafah opening, she just might be able to get out. If not, she would miss the opening and have to wait until it opened again. This may not be for a very long time. Maybe never in time to be able to use the scholarship she had earned with her hard work over many years of study. The strain of this waiting and powerlessness showed on her face.
As striking as her story is, it is by no means unique. Some people are granted permits to leave for two hours, for instance. Not enough time to get anywhere and back, so they are in effect useless. Of course, by far most people never get a permit at all. I wrote after my visit to Gaza last year about how this restriction to travel was affecting some of the amazing people I met. And some people who were granted a permit just a few months ago are denied the next one citing “security reasons”. How is someone perfectly safe to travel one month and a security risk the next?
I have had the privilege of being allowed to enter and exit Gaza three times in less than a year. Many Gazans have never been allowed to do this even once in their lives.
This of course also applies to those who are trying to start businesses. Imagine then as well you have an idea to solve a problem that you believe many people have. How do you try to address your potential market if you can’t travel to conduct your customer interviews? You can only meet your finite customers in the 141 square miles in which you are trapped, you can’t count on getting out to talk to suppliers, or potential investors, or visit other operations to learn how they do things that you might be able to apply to your own business idea.
If you are an entrepreneur, particularly a startup, you will know very well the ups and downs of the life, the days of despair and frustration, motivation nowhere to be found, the self-doubt and thoughts of giving up. And that is when you have total freedom, a supportive ecosystem around you of almost infinite advice and guidance and opportunity. How would you get through those days when your hopelessness has a very real edge to it?
Only 5% of people who apply are granted the permits they need to travel. Which 5 of the 100 entrepreneurs in this room will get to leave to conduct essential business or study?
And of course, as I wrote about previously, you would also have no access to PayPal and would have to build in the expense and logistics of getting payment physically from your customers for whatever you managed to sell.
Entrepreneurial life can be much tougher than the glamorous and successful image may imply, of cool offices with skateboards and foosball tables. Add the challenges of no freedom of movement, no access to an otherwise universal payment system, and a thousand and one other restrictions from living in an over-populated tiny strip of land predicted to run out of water by 2020, and you might begin to get the full measure of the remarkableness of the startup entrepreneurs in Gaza- specially the ones ambitiously working with Gaza Sky Geeks to do all they can to be a success regardless of what next unjust challenge will be thrown at them.
Day Five... AKA our last full day in Gaza! In the morning we headed to the Gaza Sky Geeks office, where the GSG team work from, alongside the startups in their programmes. They have only been in this new office a few months, but they’ve very much made it their own – the walls are filled with pen drawings, photography, and artwork, all from the people who use the space. It has some of the familiar accoutrements of a tech co-working space… a bookshelf full of great business books, breakout areas, quiet work space, soft cushioned seats and sofas… and a ready supply of coffee.
We had been invited to a breakfast meeting with other actors in the Gaza tech ecosystem, so there were a number of familiar faces from yesterday, plus a few of the more advanced startups who had been through either GSG or one of the other acceleration programmes in Gaza. This was a great chance to share stories with other programme / community leaders, all of whom are working to create the right conditions for a supportive entrepreneur-led ecosystem. I commented that all the main actors seemed to be present (universities, incubators, co-working spaces, entrepreneurs, accelerators, commercial partners), but of course, as Ryan pointed out, the key missing element in the room, and in the ecosystem in general, are the investors.
After some informal networking, Ryan opened up the discussion so that we could share some of our experiences working within ecosystems in our home towns and cities. Elizabeth spoke about starting out as a tech startup founder in Sheffield, and how she was able to go along to “Startup in the Pub” meetups, and take part in Startup Weekend Sheffield, both organised by the wonderful Samantha Deakin at the University of Sheffield Enterprise. Elizabeth also gave a shout-out to Founders’ Network, the programme that I run at Tech North, saying how it had helped her to connect with other startup founders in the wider region, as well as access great speakers and valuable learning. I made a few key points about tech ecosystems from my experiences in Sheffield and across the North of England:
- Keep it focussed on the entrepreneur. What do they need and how can we provide that?
- The various actors within an ecosystem need to be collaborative; a zero-sum game this is not! Ryan and the GSG are doing a great job in encouraging collaboration and shared learnings by running quarterly ecosystem meetings (this breakfast was one of those).
- The “brand” should be Gaza startups, not one accelerator/programme over another. A win for any of the actors is a win for the ecosystem as a whole. This point was echoed by Dario when he spoke about how to encourage investors to look to Gaza. We take the same approach at Tech North - it's not about pitting Leeds vs Manchester vs Sheffield; rather it's about putting the North on the map.
- Our role as community leaders is to create the conditions for an ecosystem to thrive (e.g. find the space, invite speakers, set a theme for a meetup etc) and then stand back. There’s no room for egos; we are the facilitators.
Back at Roots Hotel, we were paired up with another mentor (I was with Joe) to give feedback and guidance on pitch decks and presentations. We had twelve teams x ten minute slots, and Mohamad from GSG was keeping a strict eye on the clock. Most of the feedback we gave was to encourage the presenter to be super clear about what problem they were solving; to explain why it was a “real” problem (i.e. had they spoken to any potential customers); and to tell us more about skills they had in their team.
And then in the afternoon, from around 2pm until 7pm… 40+ pitches, 3 minutes per pitch, plus 1 minute for questions… GO! We did have a couple of much-needed breaks, and in both of these we were treated to local musicians who came in to play for us. The GSG team did a fantastic job keeping the energy high, in what was a long afternoon at the end of a very intensive bootcamp, for participants, mentors, and organisers alike.
Given that English was not the first language for any of the presenters, and that pitching in public is nerve-wracking at the best of times, I thought everyone did a truly excellent job. Again, I was so impressed by the women! My three favourite startups (all with female co-founders, but I promise that is coincidental) were “Easiest Hajj”, “Mommy Helper”, and “Munasabat”. Easiest Hajj is an app to help pilgrims find their way to Mecca and connect with each other on the journey. Mommy Helper is MumsNet for the Arabic world (the founder already has a community of several thousand mothers online who she interacts with). And Munasabat makes it easy for Palestinians in the diaspora to buy personalise gifts for their relatives in the West Bank and Gaza (they have already developed a partnership with a local delivery company to handle the logistics).
7pm and we finished up the pitches and had a prize ceremony for the outstanding entrepreneurs of the bootcamp. The winners received prizes from Jawaal (the local mobile phone company) and some of the donations that Elizabeth and I had brought over were also used as rewards for hard work / most improved / most advance prototype etc. Final chance for selfies and goodbyes, and then we headed back to the hotel for the evening. Elizabeth, Joe, Dario, Sabine, and I ended up staying up late, despite all of us being absolutely exhausted, sharing food, nargile, and stories until 1am.
The following morning (this morning, as I am writing from Tel Aviv on 6th September), the GSG team met with us for a debrief over breakfast. We each gave our feedback on the teams that we thought would be a good fit for their accelerator programme, and our feedback overall on the bootcamp. Without exception we all said that we would be happy to continue mentoring the teams via Skype, and that we’d all love to come back and work some more with the Gazan entrepreneurs.
I was already impressed with Gaza Sky Geeks before coming out here: my admiration and respect for the work that the team is doing in Gaza has only increased. The pre-arrival information and organisation was absolutely spot on (thanks, Ryan and Heba); the logistics throughout our stay was smooth and expertly managed (thanks, Hani, Mog, Mohamad, and their logistics army); the fact that we were so well looked after and had someone to go to for anything we needed (thanks Heba and Basel); our amazing translators who made the whole experience come to life for us and made our mentoring possible (thanks, Huda!); the fact that we felt that we were playing a vital role in an ongoing acceleration programme (thanks, Saib)… I feel I can be a good judge of this: having run programmes as part of a non-profit organisation in a challenging environment, I know from first-hand experience that it’s a real struggle to find the time and resources to do everything that you know needs to be done, and that was in rural (but touristy) Peru, not the Gaza Strip!
So, it’s over and out for me for now, I might summon up the energy to write a shorter recap of the whole experience, but… later. For now, it’s beer time (Corona: no limes to be found, but I did find a satsuma) with my good friend Tammy in Tel Aviv before flying back to the UK on Thursday.
This morning, Sabine, Elizabeth and I were invited to a Gaza Geekettes meetup. Sabine gave an excellent talk about how she had overcome obstacles as a woman engineer in 1960s USA; Elizabeth described how she has dealt with some of the challenges she has faced as a female non-technical founder in a sector dominated by male techies; and I spoke generally about how women can support and encourage each other, and how we should always seize any opportunities to talk publicly about our work, however nervous we feel, because in doing so we open up the doors for other women to do the same.
Elizabeth, Sabine and I all paid due respect to the amazing women at the bootcamp; they really have been the absolute superstars of this whole experience. Without exception, the women taking part in the bootcamp are incredibly intelligent, very driven and ambitious, articulate (and in English too), lively, funny, and generally holding their teams and the whole show together. In the majority of the mixed gender teams that I've met with, it's been the female(s) who have either been the technical co-founder, or the CEO, or both. (It really puts us to shame in the UK - running Founders' Network, I'm lucky if I have two female startup founders at any of my events.)
I had a mentoring session with Dietii in the morning, co-founded by two women. Dietii is an app for the Middle Eastern market, to help Arabic women lose weight by giving them access to healthy recipes and enabling them to track their exercise and food habits. Dietii was a Gaza Sky Geeks bootcamp graduate from last year, and they have gone from strength to strength, the two co-founders building their business and app in their spare time whilst finishing up their final year at university studying software engineering. There were a couple of interesting cultural differences that came up in our conversation: I asked whether they had thought about making it possible for the users of the app to publicly declare their weight loss goals (based on the idea that if you publicly commit to something you are more likely to follow through). They said that this wouldn't work in the Middle East, and that at most a woman might tell her close family but no further than that. Fair enough. But I did manage to give them one piece of advice they hadn't yet received - the main photo on their app is of a woman holding up a doughnut in one hand and an apple in the other... and she is very clearly white and Western looking... they laughed out loud at that, and said that they'd make sure to change that photo to be more representative of their customers!
After a quick lunch, we headed out for a tech ecosystem tour of Gaza (for the uninitiated, a tech ecosystem is essentially all the components needed in a community / geography to enable tech startups to survive and thrive, so incubators, accelerators, co-working spaces, universities, mentors, meetups etc). There is an inordinate number of accelerators and incubators in Gaza City: in a place where youth unemployment is right up there at 60%, entrepreneurship is naturally seen as a viable alternative. We visited the University College of Applied Sciences Technology Incubator (UCASTI) who were running two entrepreneurship programmes concurrently: one funded by the Kuwait Development Bank, and the other funded by Oxfam. The most impressive piece of tech we saw there was an Arabic text-to-audio recognition software solution, whereby you could take a photo of Arabic writing, and it would be converted into text and audio for visually impaired people. It's especially impressive because of course Arabic is written in cursive, so it's a lot harder for a piece of software to "read" individual characters.
Other startups incubated at UCASTI included agriotech.com (linking agricultural engineers with farmers to advise on water and pesticide use); Kids Mobile (first Arabic language filter for YouTube content); Jeonr (automating Gaza's manual delivery services via an app); and a couple of "lo-tech" businesses, including a board game for kids based on monopoly to teach them holistically about how different elements of society work together (politics / commerce / agriculture / services etc).
Next stop was the Islamic University of Gaza, where they had two different incubators within the same building: SEED Projects (Startups Economic Empowerment and Development) and Mobaderoon ("Supporting Innovative Ideas in the ICT Sector"). As this was the Islamic University, Sabine, Elizabeth and I had to cover our hair. Luckily I had Heba on hand to lend me a pin and fashion my scarf around my head properly. Worst thing about the headscarf? It totes gives you a double chin...! Best thing about the headscarf? They are so pretty! The women wear a different one every day, coordinating with what they're wearing.
And yes, I know there is a bit more to the debate than that... but sometimes it helps to remember that the headscarf can be a form of self-expression. Heba told me that when she was in the States, she wouldn't always wear hers in private, but she'd always wear it in public because that was the right thing to do (in this day and age of social media). Huda (my interpreter) told me that she started wearing hers when she was 16, partly because she believed in its religious significance, but mostly because that was what was expected of her given the conservative society that she lives in. Arabic women have a million and one different reasons for wearing / not wearing the headscarf; it would be really quite nice if we could stop policing what women choose to wear... in general, not just related to the headscarf.
We had a quick stop at the Palestinian Information Technology Association of Companies (PITA) who work to promote the ICT and tech sector in Gaza and the West Bank, to support tech companies, and attract investment to the region. They run PICTI, the Palestinian Information & Communications Technology Incubator. I swear there is more incubation / acceleration activity happening in Gaza than there is in the North of England.....
It was then back to Roots for an afternoon of mentoring with five more teams. Dinner this evening was pretty incredible - a table full of freshly-caught fish in every guise you can imagine... shrimps in a garlickly sauce, prawns cooked in tomatoes, a local white fish BBQ'd and served with limes, fried shrimp, all kinds of salads... and Palestinian "fake 7-Up". It's our last full day tomorrow...!