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.
Originally published at lauraihbennett.com on September 6, 2016.