Borders may lock Gazan techies in, but they don’t lock support out

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In a jam-packed hall at Box inc. in the heart of Silicon Valley, Gaza Sky Geeks hosted a startup event atypical of Bay Area standard - 'How startup founders succeed in the world’s toughest places'.

Dave McClure at the event. (Images via Gaza Sky Geeks)

Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG) is the Gaza's first accelerator and only co-ed, coworking hub and incubation program.

The event brought together a number of founders from Gaza, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Guatemala. The entrepreneurs were accompanied by a roster of speakers including Dave McClure of 500Startups and Leslie Jump, founder of Startup Angels and former partner at Sawari Ventures.


McClure kicked off the event by recounting his first visit to Gaza which ended up with him stuck at the border on the eve of a public holiday. His Twitter prowess, entrepreneurial connections and “puppy eyes” selfie managed to get him across in time to catch his plane. The incident gave him real perspective on the challenging reality of trying to start up in Gaza, he said.

Ecosytems growing in isolation

Ryan Sturgill, current director of GSG, followed up to highlight that “an entire generation is coming of age in Gaza without any contact with the outside world”. The lack of contemporary educational and practical resources is deterring growth and reducing potential.  

Gaza’s isolation leaves its talent with little resources and opportunities to grow. The travel restraints and import constrictions imposed on Gazans make it extremely difficult for tech talent to grow.

Genius Soft founder Rana Al-Qirnawi
and Baskalet game studio founder Mohamed Ezzedeen.

Tough techies

The “tough techies” of Gaza represent a substantial regional talent pool. Over 1,500 software developers are graduating each year and working at universally competitive rates, facts that are slowly driving countries like UAE and Saudi Arabia to look at Gaza as an outsourcing hub. According to GSG unemployment rates are at 70 percent among recent graduates, entrepreneurship is seen as a need more than an aspirational pursuit in Gaza.

As challenging as circumstances are, GSG used the event to highlight several ways in which they are circumventing the lockdown, and illustrated that anyone outside Gaza can help them do so.


Collaboration program

One way GSG counteracts the effects of isolation is through collaborating with technology companies abroad to provide internships for Gazan youth. Sturgill mentions the founder of Baskalet game studio as an example. He was hosted at Klarna engineering in Sweden. Their most recent Ramadan game got over 500,000 downloads in its first three weeks.

Mentors

“Over the past year we have had over 100 international mentors visited us in Gaza,” said Iliana Montauk, cofounder and chair at Gaza Sky Geeks. She went on to elaborate that even if permits and restrictions are keeping Gazans in, they don’t necessarily keep mentors out. Both Montauk and Sturgill stressed the importance of mentorship as one of the only ways for youth to get exposure and hands on knowledge transfer.

Ghadeer Walid at the event. Two more Gazan
women were supposed to arrive to San Francisco
but were not allowed permits togo to the embassy.

“I am living proof of just how difficult it is to get out of Gaza, if at all. It took me 16 hours to reach Jordan and eventually make it here. Two other Techwomen leaders were denied permits to attend the program. In many ways it is sometimes easier if the world comes to Gaza,” attendee Ghadeer Walid, who was visiting San Francisco as part of the emerging Techwomen leaders program, told Wamda.

Laila Dahi, currently a firmware engineer at Palo Alto Networks and a speaker at the event speaks of how she applied and was awarded a Fulbright scholarship thanks to the help and guidance of a mentor who came to Gaza.

Around the world and prominently in Silicon Valley, gender diversity in tech remains an issue. In Gaza the number of women actively participating in the tech scene has climbed up to 50% according to GSG. Dahi, explained that GSG was able to achieve inclusion by understanding the social constraints women face and designing their program and initiatives around them. “We included women from the beginning.” GSG provides safe and reliable transportation as well as stipends for women. This relieves women from having to rely on male family members to pursue their entrepreneurial goals.

14448814_1120124308067964_7246236698865014247_n.jpg
Gaza Sky Geeks HQ.

Donations

Montauk announced a fundraising campaign at the event which aims to ensure at least 25 women would be able to participate in hackathons or co-work on their startups for six months. An attendee offered to match every $100 donated up until September 26.

You can donate to Gaza Sky Geeks to help them achieve their $10,000 goal before Monday by visiting Gazastarts.com.

Feature image Ryan Strugill, director of Gaza Sky Geeks. Image via Gaza Sky Geeks.

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