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What mentoring entrepreneurs in the occupied Gaza Strip taught me about the true spirit of giving

What mentoring tech entrepreneurs in the occupied Gaza Strip taught me about the true spirit of giving

And why #PowerUpGazaGeeks is my holiday season charitable giving choice

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, 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.

I have had the privilege of visiting Gaza for three different events over the past two years in which I got to mentor and support tech entrepreneurs and startups. Every time the energy and enthusiasm in this tech entrepreneurial community blows me away. 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 a true lesson in giving.

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 the 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 recently 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 in the 14 months 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 last year.

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

This means entrepreneurs are severely limited in their business models and have to build in the expense and logistics of getting payment physically from customers for whatever they manage to sell. Even entrepreneurs in Yemen and Angola have access to PayPal.

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.

Meeting people who are used to overcoming extreme challenges while still full of optimism and hope for their futures, making things happen and making due with limited materials and resources, and coming together to create in Gaza what many of us take for granted taught me that rarely is a place the sum total of what is shown in the news. Don’t just take what is fed to you. Reach out and read up and find out about all the people just like you who live in maligned places wanting the same things: a safe and healthy family, an education, a good job, a peaceful country, and maybe most importantly, freedom.

This is what mentoring in Gaza taught me about the true spirit of giving. That though I can scrimp and save to fund my trips there, spend a month away from home, deal with harsh conditions, and field hostile questions about why I would go there, what I was given by the people at Gaza Sky Geeks and the entrepreneurs I worked with is magnitudes greater than anything I could ever give in return- witnessing the embodiment of hope, motivation to work harder than ever to make my own startup a success, a new perspective on the down days and ‘hard’ times when it seems I am facing nothing more than barrier after barrier. In short, I was given a powerful new way of looking at my life, my work, and my opportunities that have made me a better entrepreneur more likely to succeed. A valuable gift, indeed.

Gaza Sky Geeks in partnership with Google for Entrepreneurs, 500 Startups, AngelHack, and many others is currently running a crowdfunding campaign, #PowerUpGazaGeeks to buy a generator to ensure entrepreneurs can use their space can get the electricity they need to create successful businesses to build economic stability and reduce unemployment.

You can read my stories about my experiences in Gaza here.

This is the latest story in my series on how I became the founder of a tech startup as a non-techie, over-40 female with no entrepreneurial experience. You can see more here: https://medium.com/@eshassere If you think this might be helpful for others on their entrepreneurial journey, please recommend and share by clicking the green heart.