Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 28 November 2020

Gazan women put their best foot forward for start-ups

Gaza Sky Geeks, the only start-up accelerator in the strip, says there has been a surge in women entrepreneurs participating since it launched in 2011.
Iliana Montauk, the director of Gaza Sky Geeks, says Gazan women are not held back by stereotypes about technology and science. Victor Besa for The National
Iliana Montauk, the director of Gaza Sky Geeks, says Gazan women are not held back by stereotypes about technology and science. Victor Besa for The National

Launching a business in Gaza is not easy, but the local start-up scene is providing hope for one particular group: the strip’s sizeable pool of educated women.

Gaza Sky Geeks, the only start-up accelerator in the territory, says there has been a surge in women participating since it launched in 2011. At first about a quarter of attendees to its events and training sessions were women; by last year, that had jumped to 49 per cent.

Iliana Montauk, the director of Gaza Sky Geeks, says one reason behind this is that local women are not held back by stereotypes about technology and science.

“Women in Gaza are surprised when I tell them that in the United States there is a stereotype that women are worse at science, technology, engineering and maths,” says Ms Montauk.

“They say: ‘What do you mean? In Gaza, when we graduate from high school nine out of 10 of the top students in those fields are women’.”

Ms Montauk, who is Polish-American and divides her time between Gaza and the West Bank, says women’s participation in her own organisation – which helps to develop young start-up businesses – is particularly strong.

“My experience in Silicon Valley is that most start-ups are still predominantly male, with a few exceptions,” says Ms Montauk, a graduate of Harvard University who once worked for Google.

One of the four start-ups that Gaza Sky Geeks has helped to develop and obtain funding is a car pooling and taxi-ordering app called Wasselni. It was founded by Mariam Abultewi, a graduate in computer science at the Islamic University in Gaza. Having clinched third place at the 2012 Startup Weekend Gaza, also organised by Gaza Sky Geeks, Ms Abultewi’s start-up went on to attract funding from PALinnO, which provides seed investment to Palestinian start-ups.

Some women have been helped by the Gaza Sky Geeks Big Sister, Little Sister club, in which experienced entrepreneurs help mentor others. One of the next projects in the organisation’s pipeline is a website for Arab mothers, developed by a 16-year-old high school student, Sofiya Mosalem.

The American entrepreneur and investor Christopher Schroeder, the author of Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East, says that the level of participation of women in the Gaza Sky Geeks is above what is common in the US start-up space.

“It is hard to find numbers close to this at any Silicon Valley event,” says Mr Schroeder, who serves on the advisory board at Gaza Sky Geeks. “There are amazing young people in Gaza, and a nascent start-up ecosystem seems all but impossible – and yet there they are doing amazing things.”

Another key reason that Gazan women have one foot forward in the start-up scene is that it is generally easier for them to travel compared to the men, says Ms Montauk.

“Being able to represent your start-up outside of Gaza and network is absolutely key,” she explains. “Women sometimes have an easier time with that.”

Gaza Sky Geeks last year took a group of entrepreneurs to Jordan, with some also visiting Egypt and Morocco. Ms Montauk says she would like to continue such programme this year.

But much of that depends on funding. Gaza Sky Geeks launched with an initial US$900,000 donation from Google’s charitable arm. But Ms Montauk says it needs to raise $250,000 by today; at the time of writing, it had successfully raised $177,000 via the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo.

Other challenges remain. For Gazan women in particular, things are tough because their families may be less likely to give their support.

Last summer’s 50-day war with Israel was another obvious challenge.

“For most people, when they think of Gaza the first thing they think of is wars, rockets and bombs,” says Ms Montauk. “[But] the biggest challenge is a lack of awareness and a lack of an ability to connect with businesses, entrepreneurs, investors and mentors around the world.”

Despite this, Gaza’s talented band of entrepreneurs – both male and female – are attracting more international interest, Ms Montauk adds. “They are incredibly passionate and committed. That is something some investors have told us that they see lacking elsewhere, and that they’ve been really hungry to find.”

business@thenational.ae

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Updated: January 18, 2015 04:00 AM

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