Tech-savvy females taking Gaza startup scene by storm

With no Stem stigma in the Arab world, females in Gaza soldier through conflict with Gaza Sky Geeks Accelerator

Entrepreneurial Gazan women are flocking to the tech startup scene, the director of Gaza’s only startup accelerator has told Computer Weekly.

Iliana Montauk, director of Gaza Sky Geeks Accelerator, said the number of females attending its annual Startup Weekend event has increased from 27% in 2011-2013 combined, to 48% in 2014. 

More than 600 applicants applied for the event last June, but there were only 150 places available. Of those, 70 went on to pitch their startup ideas to investors and mentors, while rockets exploded just three miles away.

Gaza Sky Geeks is run by Mercy Corps, an international humanitarian organisation. Since launching in 1979, Mercy Corps has helped more than 170 million people survive emergencies and rebuild their lives.

Gaza Sky Geeks is the only startup accelerator in the Gaza Strip, with the mission of transforming the country’s youth into technology business leaders. The accelerator encourages entrepreneurial spirit though events, trips outside of Gaza and networks connecting startups to investors and mentors. 

Gaza Sky Geeks is the only startup accelerator in the Gaza Strip, with the mission of transforming the country’s youth into technology business leaders

Montauk explained that in the Arab world there is no stigma around studying science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects, so females are not put off by the geeky stereotype that is associated with these subjects elsewhere in the world. Some 60% of computer engineering students are female.

However, she said Gaza Sky Geeks has had to actively work to encourage more females to consider launching a startup.

“Women’s confidence in starting their own business is an issue. Going to a startup incubator every day, which is not bringing in any income at first, can also cause problems,” she said.

With unemployment rates at 50% in Gaza, Montauk said the majority of females are encouraged by families to work, which is a contrast to several other Arab countries.

“Some areas of Gaza are still very traditional, so they don’t want females working in a co-ed environment, but mostly families really welcome their daughters working and earning income, as unemployment is so high,” she added.

Female pioneers

To ensure the women coming to the accelerator had a community to call on for support, Gaza Sky Geeks launched Intalqi – its Big Sister Little Sister community.

Designed to increase the number of Gazan women who successfully found a startup, Montauk said the idea behind Gaza Sky Geeks was to make sure female pioneers can connect with each other.

“The Big Sisters connect with and mentor the Little Sisters in Gaza, and the Big Sisters have mentors outside of Gaza. We want to increase women’s involvement outside of Gaza and are in need of funding for female mentors to come and support women in Gaza in person. We have found a lot of support from female mentors over Skype. We don’t need the mentors to consider themselves ‘experts’ yet, but just willing to share their own experiences in trying to launch your own startup.”

She said the Big Sister Little Sister programme also offers Big Sisters some leadership experience, “so they can start to become leaders themselves, instead of feeling that Gaza Sky Geeks is the leader and not themselves”.

The passion of Gazans

Gaza Sky Geeks was launched in 2011 with a grant from Google.org after the company realised the technology opportunity in Gaza.

Over 50% of the population in Gaza is under the age of 18, and the area has one of the highest tertiary education rates in the Arab world.

The internet in Gaza is of a higher quality than in some of its neighbouring countries. “The broadband is very good in Gaza, and sometimes it’s the only connection to the outside world. Everyone uses Twitter to keep up on which areas are safe and which are not,” said Montauk.

“There is passion, commitment and adaptability in Gaza. There is a high density of hungry people wanting to show that Gaza has a lot to offer the world. We want to give those young people the chance to become tech leaders,” she added.

With a population of 1.7 million, in a space of 25 miles by five miles, 99% of Gazans have literacy skills and are known for being technically apt, despite only receiving electricity 12 hours a day.

However, Montauk believes “innovation can flourish in difficult circumstances”.

She said closed borders make a private sector difficult to develop, and this also tends to affect the ideas Gazan entrepreneurs think of. Closed borders and the threat of conflict means most are focusing their ideas on software for consumers rather than hardware development and enterprise sales.

Ideas so far have included websites for mothers in the Arab world, sports networks and solving public transit headaches.

Crowdsourcing campaign

Closed borders mean operating in Gaza does not come cheap, as everything that enters the country has to be imported through Israel and faces strict regulations. Therefore, an event such as the Gaza Sky Geeks Startup Weekend costs nearly $40,000 to run. 

In light of this, and with Gaza Sky Geeks’ funding coming to an end, the organisation is running a crowdsourcing campaign throughout January 2015.

The organisation’s funding came to an end in the summer of 2014, just after the conflict broke out between Gaza and Israel. Mercy Corps dipped into its budget to keep the accelerator going for the short term, but it cannot survive without outside funding.

Innovation can flourish in difficult circumstances

Iliana Montauk, Gaza Sky Geeks

The initial goal of $70,000 was set for the campaign, which would keep the co-working hub open with one staff member. However, as this total was reached in the first week of the campaign, the target was raised to $250,000, which will maintain three staff, conduct outreach to grow its pipeline, run the annual Startup Weekend or an even bigger international hackathon, and foster the next generation of startups with mentors, training and a few computers. This will also include trips abroad for startup founders who have received investment but have never been outside of Gaza.

The overall cost of running a startup accelerator in Gaza is about $500,000 a year.

Donations have been received from more than 50 countries, including Botswana, Japan, Mexico, South Africa, Panama and Kenya. 

So far, the UK is the sixth top contributing country, with over $4,400 received from 57 different people – an average contribution of $77. Nearly 1,500 people from the UK have visited the campaign site, and this level of interest is exceeded only by the US, Palestine and Canada. 

“Gaza alienates people who might ordinarily encourage entrepreneurs, as they think showing support is making some kind of political statement, but our entrepreneurs are just the same as any others in the world,” said Montauk.

Born in Belgium, before being educated in the US, Montauk studied languages and literature before finding her true passion in the tech sector.

“My brother was a tech geek and I was intimidated by that, so I went for languages and literature. After I graduated, I ended up at Google by happenstance, and there I fell in love with the scale, vigour and speed of the tech sector,” she said.

“As my career progressed I wanted to feel more like I was making a difference or making the world a better place in some way. I went to Gaza and I got hooked. The conflict in Gaza has a lot of media attention, but the people in Gaza are so hungry to be a part of a global movement.”

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