This is the story of Nalan Al-Sarraj, an entrepreneur in Gaza, written by the director of Gaza’s startup accelerator.

Nalan al-Sarraj walked shyly into Gaza Sky Geeks in January 2014. She’s a strong presence with a big Twitter following but on that day she was nervous.

Her Journey to Gaza Sky Geeks

Nalan had just been recruited by Alaa Saqer, the CEO of Datrios, to represent his startup at a big pitch event in Jordan: the first demo day for Gazan startups abroad. Alaa was applying for a permit to travel, but we had advised him that he should have at least three team members apply for permits, ideally one woman. Men between the ages of 18 and 30 sometimes have a harder time receiving permits to travel outside of Gaza than women do. This demo day was three weeks away and Alaa’s startup could not afford to miss it.

Nalan had never heard of a startup. She was a prominent Gazan blogger and had represented Gaza at a conference for bloggers in Tunisia. She had more Twitter followers than we do at Gaza Sky Geeks, and still does by far. But speaking about business plans, cash flow, monetization, user acquisition, and other startup challenges was outside of her comfort zone. Datrios’ CEO had chosen Nalan because his network spoke highly of her and reassured him that she could learn fast.

She also speaks perfect English, which was important when pitching to an audience in Jordan. With international investors in attendance, pitches in English would perform better than those in Arabic. Nalan lived in Texas for a year during high school and has maintained her English proficiency.

The demo day in Jordan

As it turned out, Alaa was not given a permit to travel, and so Nalan prepared to do the pitch in Jordan. Arriving with her stomach tied up in knots, she confessed “I’m nervous, but don’t worry Iliana, I can do it.” I tried to coach her to calm down and soon found her coaching me. “Listen,” she said. “My father died when I was a kid. I’ve been through harder things. I can handle this.”

As it turned out, Nalan was *the* person who stood out at the demo day, exhibiting her strengths in public speaking and performing well under pressure. She and her team member Mohammed Ballour also got very creative. Datrios is a sports social network, so they had soccer jerseys made with the word “Datrios” on the front and they showed up with whistles to rally the audience. Investors from as far away as Turkey perked up as soon as Nalan took the stage. She was the only woman presenting that day, and as one person said, “We had no idea there are people like this in Gaza.”

Shortly after returning home from Jordan, Nalan walked into Gaza Sky Geeks.

Nalan pitching SW
Nalan pitching at Startup Weekend Gaza in June 2014

Continue reading Nalan’s story
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by staff writer

Iliana Montauk
Gaza Sky Geeks Director, Mercy Corps Digital Economy Program Director