When I tell Americans that I run a startup accelerator in Gaza, they look at me as if they’ve just seen a ghost. They have heard of wars, rockets, and humanitarian crises in Gaza. Could Gaza also be the home of entrepreneurship and innovation?
The answer, I’ve found, is yes. This little strip of land (5 miles by 25 miles, or the size of the San Francisco Peninsula) has a highly-educated population with a growing IT community. Companies in the region regularly outsource their computer programming to talented Gazans.
One of my surprises when I arrived to Gaza four months ago was the high rate of women’s participation: at many events in the burgeoning tech scene, there are just as many women as men. At a recent presentation that an American investor made at the Business Technology Incubator (BTI), half of the attendees were women, and they asked just as many probing questions as the men. The heads of the local Google Developers Group are women. The team that won the last Startup Weekend had an equal ratio of female and male cofounders.
In Palestine and some other countries in the region (including Jordan), there is no stereotype that women are worse at math and science than men. This gives us a big leg up when seeking to increase women’s involvement in tech entrepreneurship. This March, in partnership with Google for Entrepreneurs’ #40Forward initiative and many local incubators and leaders, we are launching Intalqi (“Start!” or “Set off!” in Arabic), a program focused on increasing the number of women startup co-founders whose startups get selected for our investment & acceleration.
We are aware that the challenges facing both men and women entrepreneurs in Gaza are not simple. In future blog posts, we’ll discuss many of these, including ones that are typical to entrepreneurs around the world (like finding investment or choosing the right team) and some that are specific to Gaza (lack of electricity, the inability to leave Gaza to participate in conferences or meet with potential clients).
Nevertheless, our hypothesis is that women face some slight but meaningful additional barriers. If you are a woman in Gaza seeking to launch a startup, join us! We will provide:
- Community Support
In general, Gazan families encourage their children to seek stable employment, and for good reason: 50% of the population is unemployed, and only about 25% of university graduates are able to find a job within a year of graduating, according to university officials I spoke with. But for most women, the pressure to either find stable employment or stay home – especially after getting married – is higher than it is for young men. To provide a counterbalance to this, Intalqi will provide a community supportive of entrepreneurship by pairing big sisters with little sisters for regular gatherings.
- Immediate Incentives
In focus groups we ran, women told us their families say, “If you are going to leave the house, do so to earn a salary or a training certificate. Do something that brings immediate benefit to the household or to your career.” Intalqi will provide stipends to big sisters and prizes for little sisters so that their families can be more supportive of their startup endeavors.
- More Training & Mentorship… and Structure
In our focus groups, women said they sometimes stopped working on their startups when they did not have continued training, mentorship, and structure. They felt that they did not have the knowledge to launch a startup. We will provide these additional resources for Intalqi participants… though our experience indicates that Gazan women are just as capable in these areas as Gazan men!
We look forward to working with both women and men in Gaza in 2014 to create more successful startups in general… and we know that Gazan women are ready to play a large leadership role. Let’s start!
by staff writer
Gaza Sky Geeks Manager, Mercy Corps Digital Economy Program Manager