Entrepreneurship in Palestine
Lessons learned from entrepreneurs building startups in the West Bank and Gaza.
Invited to speak to entrepreneurs in Gaza and the West Bank through a State Department program, I accepted the challenge to go to Israel and be an “expert speaker” on tech entrepreneurship. Little did I know how much historical, economic and social background I had to gain from being on the ground in Palestine to adequately address the unique situation hindering entrepreneurship in the region.
A Taiwanese-American educated at UC Berkeley, I am prone to sympathizing with the unexotic underclass. So when I reached Palestine and heard grievances about the trade policies, lack of 3G service in the West Bank, no availability of PayPal for transactions (why??) and the fight for water, I was dumbstruck at the Palestinian’s lack of ability to do things we take for granted, like move freely.
“My permit expired today so I cannot leave and meet you” said one female entrepreneur in the West Bank in response to my request to grab coffee in the nearby city of Jerusalem where I was staying.
“Democracy, by definition, tore down every barrier to expectations” wrote philosopher Alain de Botton in Status Anxiety. Under occupation, the Palestinian entrepreneurs lack the entitled attitude of the Silicon Valley startup entrepreneur.
But even before we reach peace in the Middle East, we must encourage entrepreneurship in Palestine — because they are well-educated, motivated and with more mentorship and investment, have incredible potential to change the world.
It was my first trip to Israel (October 2-5, 2013)— I was struck by the looming presence of the “security wall” surrounding the West Bank, and soldiers everywhere.
The first stop of the four-day program was in the West Bank at the Ramallah-based Leaders Organization and spoke to the entrepreneurs and program administrators at FastForward Accelerator. I shared my personal story of entrepreneurship, and also discussed topics including the process of building a startup, technology innovation & disruption (current trends & the future) and startup fundraising. I encouraged early-stage startups and entrepreneurs in Palestine to create accounts on AngelList if they want to ever seek outside funding/capital.
After spying a huge poster on the wall detailing the known obstacles to Palestinian economic freedom, I hinted that perhaps the space should be decorated with the logos of the startups being incubated and the faces of their entrepreneurs, or perhaps doodles on the market opportunities for Palestinians.
Facebook is a great example of an office where there is no shortage of motivational posters and quotes. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s motto “Stay Focused & Keep Shipping” and COO Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” words are immortalized on posters plastered everywhere at the Facebook headquarters in the Silicon Valley.
The entrepreneur accepted into an accelerator program should be celebrated as much as the entrepreneur who raised venture capital and the entrepreneur who just exited the startup for millions of dollars. These are all legitimate entrepreneurial successes that should be celebrated in both local and international media.
Talented entrepreneurs are starting companies in the West Bank, for example Yamsafer (“Hotels.com for the Middle East”), Ezents (“Eventbrite for Palestine”), Karaz (first high-end online sex shop in the Middle East), and FeeKash (an emerging payment solution for the unbanked and cash-preferred customer). Co-founder Rasha Ali explains that FeeKash “provides an alternative payment solution to the COD model that amounts to 80% of online transactions in the MENA” — and will facilitate commerce in the West Bank in the absence of PayPal.
The next day, I recovered from jet lag and was excited to speak to university students in the West Bank. But first, I met and spoke to entrepreneurs in Gaza via video conference. They told me about their various business ventures enabled by technology. I saw many hijabs in the room so I excitedly shared stories of women entrepreneurs and their innovative, successful businesses.
I spoke to students in the West Bank — at An-Najah National University in Nablus and at the Palestine Polytechnic University in Hebron — sharing enthusiastically my story of accidental entrepreneurship and gave examples of many young women entrepreneurs, using them as role models. The students were enthusiastic as well — I met many after the talks, and now Arabic flows in my Facebook feed!
According to Forbes, the West Bank is home to ten different colleges churning out 2,000 engineering and computer graduates a year.
Yet the technology sector can only employ 4,500 individuals total,forcing many Palestinian engineers abroad for opportunities but also creates entrepreneurs out of necessity.
However, entrepreneurs in the West Bank and Gaza lack access to investors and a market outside of Palestine’s “security walls”.
At Paltel Foundation, there was a group assembled to hear my talk on role models, self-discovery and the freedom of women to choose their own career path. I was impressed by the questions asked by the audience of TechWomen in Palestine and the Ministry of IT, all thoughtful supporters of the early-stage entrepreneurs in the audience.
I met a team of three young female students who built a clever Android app on weight management. I also met an entrepreneur working to improve the smartphone user experience. The developer building the app should not be the same person leading the go-to-market strategy, and we discussed his need to recruit a marketing person to work alongside the team of two developers.
This is something the early-stage Palestinian entrepreneurs are not terrific at yet: team-building. There is also a fear of “startup idea-stealing” — a myth quickly dispelled in the Silicon Valley due to the many educational startup-related events. Competition is a GOOD thing! It makes you work harder and smarter, and you as an entrepreneur must engender that dogged determination and confidence that you are working on the best solution to the problem.
In my presentation, I give the example of Google. Before Google started, we had Yahoo! and at least a dozen search engine companies. Yet Google started up and worked hard to become the successful technology company it is today — and there is plenty of market share and opportunity for everyone yet.
The next day, I talked about “Building a Healthy Startup Ecosystem” to Global Entrepreneurship Week partners — an audience of senior members of organizations that support entrepreneurs in Palestine. There is a vision to turn the West Bank into a Palestinian Silicon Valley.
Starting with an overview of the startup ecosystem that exists in Silicon Valley, I detailed organizations that go above and beyond simply funding entrepreneurs — Y Combinator and First Round Capital provide thought leadership, a network and more.
“Palestine is the Silicon Valley of NGOs”
“Palestine is the Silicon Valley of NGOs” stated one entrepreneur over lunch in the West Bank city of Ramallah. A former technology executive, Feras Nasr is now working on AidBits (helpful software for NGOs) and seeking startup funding. Two more entrepreneurs (experienced software developers) are working on SocialDice (software to improve the hiring process) and are also seeking investment. Starting up in Palestine, not the Silicon Valley, is important to them as they hope for a better economic future for their hometowns and the next generation of Palestinians.
Moving Forward in Palestine
(1) What the West Bank and Gaza lack is a hype machine for entrepreneurship. In the Silicon Valley, we have TechCrunch, VentureBeat, GigaOm, PandoDaily, Women 2.0 and many more media companies that talk up startups and their entrepreneurs, from the 3-person startup to the venture-funded startups. Wambda covers startups in the entire Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) region, but there can be more much local press in the West Bank and Gaza celebrating entrepreneurship, business and technology.
(2) There is a need for thought leadership, starting with the investors in Palestine who see market opportunities. The Silicon Valley has Y Combinator founder Paul Graham who famously blogged “Startup Ideas We’d Like To Fund” and Khosla Ventures founder Vinod Khosla blogging about “The ‘Unhyped’ New Areas in Internet and Mobile”. What is your vision for the future?
(3) Mentors for startup accelerator programs in the Silicon Valley often list “Mentor” as a job on their LinkedIn profiles — this is a badge of pride, and also a way to encourage other experienced entrepreneurs (and service providers in the finance, legal, PR industries) to become mentors as well. Palestinian organizations that support entrepreneurs should keep their websites updated with the faces and names of mentors, program administrators and all accessible supporters of entrepreneurs.
To build a healthy startup ecosystem, there must be many players to help the entrepreneurs and startups succeed. The entrepreneur, no matter how disenfranchised s/he feels, must step up and become visible and vocal — assert that their startup idea will change the world — and simply go for it.
Success stories are made because someone decided not to give up.
لم تقم بالاستحواذ على شركة فلسطينية ناشئة للآن مقابل ملايين الدولارات, لهو أشبه بالعدول عن الذهاب الى النادي الرياضي لمجرد أنك لم تفز بالماراثون.حتى النجاح له درجات يجب الاحتفال عند الوصول لكل منها. هنالك الكثير من الشركات التكنولوجية الفلسطينية التي تجني أرباحاً جيدة, العديد من رجال الأعمال الناجحين الذين بدأوا كرياديين بمصادر محدودة, أفكار لأعمال حازت على استثمارات عالية القيمة. مشاريع ريادية تنمو و تكبر في مسرعات و حاضنات للمشاريع, فائزون في منافسات لخطط عمل لمشاريع, و الكثير من الرياديين الجديرين بالاحترام و الذين كرسوا أنفسهم لفكرة. كل من هؤلاء يمثل نجاحاً بحد ذاته و يقدم دليلاً ملهماً على التطور الذي يعيشه حالياً المجتمع الريادي.
Above, the wise words of Taylor Valore, a venture capitalist in Palestine