Even in the worst of times, Gaza manages to inspire us with stories of hope and innovation. In this piece that was originally posted on The World Bank Blog, Iliana Montauk, Director of Gaza Sky Geeks, explores women’s growing roles in Gaza’s start-up scene.
It is amazing how often in crisis, new opportunities arise. Gaza is no exception. With its borders tightly controlled, the narrow strip (roughly twice the size of Washington, D.C.) is the last place one would think of looking for economic opportunities for young women. And yet, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the territory’s regional limitations, women in Gaza have an advantage when it comes to becoming leaders in technology start-ups.
My agency Mercy Corps, a global humanitarian organization, runs Gaza Sky Geeks, the first and only start-up accelerator in Gaza. The start-up movement here is nascent but burgeoning. Last year, in fact, we helped facilitate the first private investment into Gazan start-ups. And while the number of women participating in our start-up activities was already high by international standards, we wanted that participation to be closer to 50%. To that end, in 2014 we launched Intalqi—a Big Sister/Little Sister community that connects potential female entrepreneurs with one another and fosters their leadership. Little Sisters (young women who display potential as start-up founders) are mentored by Big Sisters in Gaza, and the Big Sisters (women who have already taken their first steps in the field) receive mentorship from prominent female technologists outside of Gaza, including in the U.S.
Growing women’s leadership is good for business anywhere in the world: Statistics show that companies with inclusive leadership perform better. For Gaza’s start-up sector, I have a hunch it is important for other reasons, as well. 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 start-up 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.
This was the case with Nalan Al Sarraj (@nalansarraj), a young woman who was asked by the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a rising Gazan start-up called Datrios, to represent his company at a demonstration event in Jordan. At the time, Nalan was a prominent blogger in Gaza, but had no experience with start-ups. The CEO had no women on his team and was worried this would lower his chances of sending a representative to Jordan. Nalan was well-positioned to take on the role. Having spent a year in Texas attending high school, her English was flawless—an important skill for reaching international audiences. For three weeks before the event, Nalan learned how to talk about a start-up: its business plan, cash flow, monetization, user acquisition, and more. Luckily, she is a fast learner! It turned out that Nalan was the only woman presenting at the event, and she totally impressed the audiences. One even commented, “We had no idea there were people like this in Gaza!”
Women in Gaza, unlike women in some parts of the Muslim world, are often encouraged by their families to work in order to generate income. Because Gaza’s unemployment rates hover around 50%, anyone who is able to earn a living and support the family is encouraged to do so. Some traditional families may not want their daughters working in a co-ed environment, and for those, start-ups also provide a fantastic solution: Women-led teams can and often do choose to hire other women.
Gaza’s women and men never cease to impress me. I arrived in Gaza without knowing what to expect. I found optimistic, hardworking, committed people. Most of our potential entrepreneurs have never had the chance to see a successful tech company in action. When they’ve traveled, they’ve even been surprised to find that, abroad, there is electricity all the time!
Just six months ago, bombs dropped heavily here in Gaza each night. The destroyed buildings that are spread throughout our neighborhoods remind us of the conflict last summer, but sitting at Gaza Sky Geeks, watching entrepreneurs hard at work, I see their focus is not on the past but on creating a better future.
We’re at the forefront of building a thriving start-up and tech sector in Gaza. Places like Silicon Valley took decades to become what they are now; we began our work just a few years ago. I believe the seeds we plant now will shape that future. Two decades from now, when Gaza receives international recognition for having the most inclusive start-up sector in the world, I’ll know it’s because of the community we are building today.