Breakwater at Gaza Harbour

Why I mentor tech entrepreneurs in Gaza

Aug 31, 2018 · 6 min read

I am about to take my fourth trip to Gaza to mentor startup teams for two weeks. I’ll be helping them get their pitches ready for their upcoming Demo Day and running workshops on leadership and building strong teams. In many ways it’s not an easy trip. It’s a bit tricky to get there, and conditions are not what I am used to in the UK.

But there are many reasons why I keep going back. As a startup founder, working with startups and aspiring entrepreneurs in Gaza gives me a perspective and motivation that helps me take my own entrepreneurship to another level.

Let me explain:

If you are an entrepreneur, particularly a startup, you will know very well the ups and downs of the life, the days of despair and frustration, motivation nowhere to be found, the self-doubt and thoughts of giving up. And that is when you have total freedom, a supportive ecosystem around you of almost infinite advice and guidance, and opportunity. How would you get through those days when your hopelessness has a very real edge to it?

Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG), the first accelerator in Gaza and the organisation I volunteer for, was founded in 2011 to build a startup movement in a frontier market with strong potential, but in the context of exceptional challenges. Lauren Peate in her article in Tech Crunch powerfully describes these challenges that startups in Gaza face. She mentions things like intermittent electricity (which of course means intermittent internet), lack of access to materials and resources due to the embargo, no access to PayPal, and the lack of exposure to different types of markets since most Gazans haven’t been allowed to travel outside of Gaza.

But every time I get to go work with startups and entrepreneurs in Gaza, the energy and enthusiasm in this tech entrepreneurial community lifts me up. The ideas, skill, and hope that these teams have to create their own viable businesses in the context of such adversity never ceases to amaze me. The type of inspiration I get from the Gazans, who are working in this limiting and frustrating environment, is something I couldn’t get anywhere else.

In a place where unemployment is around 40%, and for the under 25s is close to 70%, creating business and income using the internet can be a rare lifeline to economic productivity, for supporting families and making a livelihood.

Adam Heffez describes the essentialness of entrepreneurialism in Gaza in his Foreign Affairs article Shark Tank in Gaza:

“[M]any Palestinians are “necessity entrepreneurs,” who start businesses as a refuge from unemployment. That’s why small and medium-sized businesses constitute 98 percent of the Palestinian private sector and employ almost half of the total work force.” …

…Gaza’s four engineering schools graduate 800 students a year in a market that needs about 50 engineers.” -Adam Heffez, Sunday, September 25, 2016, Shark Tank in Gaza, The Future of Palestinian Entrepreneurship, Foreign Affairs

Gaza is also particularly good at producing female techies and entrepreneurs. At one startup weekend where I volunteered, 50% of the participants were women. 41% of the entrepreneurs supported by Gaza Sky Geeks are women. They have a hub of Geekettes based in the GSG workspace, and pulled off a hugely successful LadyProblems hackathon, addressing the barriers to women becoming entrepreneurs.

But in addition to very few hours of electricity a day, access to decent internet speed is another exceptional challenge faced by these highly educated entrepreneurs. How would you function daily with this?:

Internet speeds are among the slowest in the world, and Israel hasn’t yet extended 3G frequencies to the area. With 2G — fast enough only to send and receive text messages and download basic ringtones — building and operating an Internet-enabled start-up calls for heroic levels of patience. Mohammed laments that “no 3G connection, slow Internet speeds, and travel restrictions together make Gaza, on paper, the worst place ever to launch a start-up.” -Adam Heffez, Shark Tank in Gaza

And yet the accomplishments I have witnessed since I took my first trip to Gaza by some of the startups based at GSG are equally exceptional. Dietii secured an investor from London; Baskalet was the only startup from the Middle East to win a place on the Blackbox Connect residential programme. There are many other individual accomplishments, as well, such as Mai Temraz who was awarded the Grace Hopper Change Agent ABIE Award. And there have been many more since.

These extraordinary achievements are another valuable lesson for me. If these people can do so much with so many constrictions, where should I be setting my sights?

Gazans don’t have access to PayPal, either:

PayPal operates in 203 markets worldwide but currently doesn’t work for Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza. The #PayPal4Palestine social media campaign waged by Palestinian activists is making waves, but it has yet to convince the world’s de facto online payment service to enter the market. -Adam Heffez, Shark Tank in Gaza

Even entrepreneurs in Yemen and Angola have access to PayPal. This means entrepreneurs are severely limited in their business models.

Finally, people in Gaza do not have freedom of movement. Permission to leave via the border crossing has to be applied for from Israel and Jordan or Egypt. These are more often than not denied, or simply too late for the purpose of travel that was applied for.

As an entrepreneur, imagine then you have an idea to solve a problem that you believe many people have. How do you try to address your potential market if you can’t travel to conduct your customer interviews? You can only meet your finite customers in the 141 square miles in which you are trapped, you can’t count on getting out to talk to suppliers, or potential investors, or visit other operations to learn how they do things that you might be able to apply to your own business idea.

Entrepreneurial life can be much tougher than the glamorous and successful image we often see in trendy publications. Add the challenges of no freedom of movement, no access to an otherwise universal payment system, and a thousand and one other restrictions from living in an over-populated tiny strip of land predicted to run out of water by 2020, and you might begin to get the full measure of the remarkableness of the startup entrepreneurs in Gaza.

I meet people who are used to overcoming extreme challenges while still full of optimism and hope for their futures. I witness people making things happen and making due with limited materials and resources. I see teams coming together to create opportunities for themselves in Gaza that many of us take for granted every day.

This is why I am about to return for my fourth trip to Gaza. I get more from the people, the place, the culture, than I could ever give in return. I learn lessons about grit and determination, creative solution finding, dedication to a product you believe in, and how to do more with less. What startup couldn’t use more lessons like those?

My first book, Becoming a Fearless Leader: A simple guide to taking control and building happy, productive, highly-performing teams is out now. You can find access to a free pdf workbook that accompanies it on my website. If you do read my book, I would love to hear your comments.

I write about how I became the founder of a tech startup as a non-techie, over-40 female with no entrepreneurial experience, and all I am learning along the way. You can see more here. If you think this might be helpful for others on their entrepreneurial journey, please recommend and share.

Elizabeth Shassere

Written by

Author of Becoming a Fearless Leader | Founder and CEO of Textocracy Ltd.

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