Hemmed in by Israel on one side and the Mediterranean on the other, the Gaza Strip is largely blocked off from the outside world. The 5-by-25 mile territory has little private enterprise and the idea of entrepreneurship is still strange to many.
But, remarkably, Gaza still has a startup scene, much of it centered on Gaza Sky Geeks, an accelerator founded by the charity Mercy Corps and funded originally by Google. Since 2011, Sky Geeks has inspired dozens of young people to start their own businesses, some of which now have funding of their own. The initiative is a bright spot amid continuing conflict and lousy infrastructure.
“For me, the feeling that it brings is that you can reach for sky,” says director Iliana Montauk. “It brings that feeling of hope and opportunity in a place that’s pretty constrained. Gazans can’t leave Gaza, so the Internet and social media are some of the only ways our entrepreneurs can get connections with the rest of the world.”
Sky Geeks is currently under threat because funding is running low and the startups aren’t yet generating enough value to share with the accelerator. So Montauk’s team is drumming up support on Indiegogo (contribute to the project here).
The most successful Sky Geeks businesses include Wasselni, an Uber for the Arab world; Datrios, a social network for sports fans; and Tevy, a second-screen app to be used while watching TV. They’ve each received between $15,000 to $20,000 from outside funders. In addition, Montauk says there is a long pipeline of other ideas, including a site for Arab mothers developed by a 16-year-old high school student named Sofiya Mosalem.
As you can imagine, developing startups under fire isn’t the easiest thing. Montauk describes how she went about organizing a recent Startup Weekend while Israeli forces were taking out Hamas targets (or what they claimed were Hamas targets). All the participants, including mentors from abroad, had to have their bags packed in case immediate evacuation was necessary.
One of the interesting aspects of Gaza Sky Geeks is that 50% of the startups are led by women–a deliberate move by Montauk. The accelerator also looks for ways to encourage young women who, despite having the same level of science and engineering skills as their male counterparts, sometimes lack confidence to see their ideas through, she says.
“Launching a startup anywhere is going to be hard and take time. In Gaza, these [women] are pioneers. They’re the first people doing it,” Montauk points out.
The money raised through the campaign will fund general operations, with any excess going towards trips for the entrepreneurs outside Gaza (Mercy Corps has an arrangement with Israel to take people across the border). Last year, some of the entrepreneurs visited Jordan and Egypt. Montauk hopes to go to Silicon Valley as well.
“The biggest challenge that our startups face is the lack of awareness of what’s going on in the world and the lack of access to markets,” she says. “It’s hard for them to understand. When we took them to Jordan, they were surprised to see there was electricity all the time.”