Written by Tena Pick
Originally published at Entrepreneur Magazine Middle East on March 2nd 2016 http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/271639
If one were to create a list of startup epicenters in the Middle East, chances are Gaza would be overlooked. That would be a grave mistake though- one that many players in the ecosystem have been making. Since the day I found out I was to join Gaza Sky Geeks as a mentor, I was met with confusion and the same question: “But why? Why are you going to Gaza, when there can’t be any entrepreneurs there? Why are you going to Gaza, when the situation there makes it impossible for startups to thrive?” And now I can reply to these queries with first-hand experience: while the situation in Gaza is difficult (to say the least) after the ten-year embargo, people were wrong about almost everything else.
Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG), Gaza’s first and only startup accelerator, is run by the international humanitarian organization Mercy Corps. It focuses not only on the startups in the program, but also on building an ecosystem in Gaza. In its current intake, there are ten businesses, ranging from educational services to wearable technology. GSG supports female entrepreneurs as well, through a series of specially designed events and workshops that answer the specific needs of female startup owners.
I have been following the work of GSG with great interest and had filled out their online application out of curiosity. After a Skype interview and a bit of logistical emails, we agreed on my dates and on the scope of work I was expected to do in the three days on the ground with the GSG team. My focus was on scaling to MENA, crowdfunding and female leadership, as well as offering ad hoc support for the teams in GSG.
The biggest challenges faced by entrepreneurs in Gaza are not so different from entrepreneurs all over the world: how to penetrate new market segments, how to raise funds and allocate them efficiently, how to structure the business so it can grow and take on additional pressures. What is different is the drive that the entrepreneurs have: for them, it really does come down to do or die. The energy, the passion and the dedication I have witnessed in the offices of GSG cannot be compared to anything outside of Silicon Valley.
Some of the businesses have already received their first round of funding, such as Maktabi, the Airbnb for office spaces, which is doing their pilot soon in Beirut. Other notable businesses are Walk’n’Charge, a wireless device that generates energy through simple movement and can charge your device anytime, anywhere, Baskalet, a mobile game developer, and Mockapp, the InvisionApp for the Arab world.
The team behind GSG, led by Iliana Montauk, reflects the ethos of GSG: hard work plus relentless passion equals success. Everyone I worked with had been nothing but welcoming and supportive, pushing both the entrepreneurs and the mentors to do their absolute best. They are driven by a vision of a tomorrow, in which Gaza’s youth are using their skills and expertise to advance not just their own lives, but also the entire region. On top of that, they were deeply engaged throughout all mentoring sessions and had an infinite appetite for new ideas.
One of the greatest pleasures of my line of work is being able to go and explore the startup scene in different parts of the world, supporting them in their growth. Working with Gaza Sky Geeks has been nothing short of inspiring and eye opening. I encourage more and more mentors to look beyond the preconceived ideas of what Gaza is and isn’t, and go be part of the next big wave of MENA entrepreneurship.