Since Israel and Egypt imposed a land, sea and air blockade on Gaza in 2007, over 1.8 million Palestinians have been confined to the 139 square mile land mass, isolated from their fellow Palestinians in the West Bank, and the wider world.
Within Gaza, the unemployment rate stands at 43%, there’s no 3G coverage, power cuts are commonplace and restrictions on movement and trade make starting new business a challenge. For many Gazans, the WIFI-enabled internet is the only way out. Behind the wall, beneath the rockets and the rubble, a bourgeoning tech start-up scene is giving young entrepreneurs hope.
Ryan Sturgill is an MBA graduate from MIT Sloan and CEO of Gaza Sky Geeks, Gaza’s first start-up accelerator. The Google-backed, Mercy Corps initiative provides Gaza’s entrepreneurs with a co-working space, a tech-focused incubator and all the infrastructure needed to support their businesses.
The last few years have not been easy. Only the most successful crowdfunding campaign in the Middle East saved the accelerator from shutdown in 2014, raising $267,000.
Yet in the most challenging of circumstances, Gazans show incredible perseverance. Amid the bombings and the airstrikes of the Israel-Gaza conflict that same summer, Gaza Sky Geeks ran its biggest ever start-up weekend. Out of the 600 people who applied, 150 were selected to take part in a series of hackathons and coding classes and coaching sessions on entrepreneurship.
Today, the accelerator is beginning to thrive, hosting a number of high-potential tech start-ups including an online publishing platform, a female-focused health and fitness app and the Gazan Airbnb for office space.
Ryan worked in investment banking and private equity before relocating to Gaza six months ago. Since then, Gaza Sky Geeks has already facilitated seed investments into five of its start-ups, the largest $65,000. The political situation and Israeli blockade remains. Yet Ryan is adamant that Gaza is a place where young tech business can grow.
What is the thinking behind Gaza Sky Geeks?
Gaza Sky Geeks is a bastion of normalcy and hope. It’s a place where entrepreneurs are like entrepreneurs everywhere else; where people are taking their lives into their own hands rather than dealing with the lot that was given to them.
Over the last few years there’s been a big effort to promote technology-enabled entrepreneurship in Gaza, as a way for the economy to grow and for people to have sustainable incomes. IT is the one thing that you can really do anywhere. Gaza has a lot of infrastructure issues, but the internet is one thing that’s very solid.
What are the main challenges that entrepreneurs face in Gaza?
The biggest difficulty is the isolation and the inability for people to travel abroad to gain exposure. In the past few months the Jordanians have been preventing all Gazans from entering Jordan.
Attracting good technical talent is another obstacle. There’s not a deep pool of tech talent and there aren’t a lot of great role models immediately within the Gaza strip.
How do you help?
We’re trying to build the ecosystem in Gaza; to create networks between freelancers and outsources, owners and designers.
We want to develop more technical talent. We hold start-up weekends and coding classes. We bring in 8 to 10 international mentors per month from Europe and Silicon Valley, and we work with major companies like Google and Uber to help with software development.
Ultimately, we want to be able to build companies that can compete on the international stage.
How has the accelerator been affected by the ongoing tensions with Israel?
Since I’ve been here, not at all. The last conflict in 2014 was personally traumatizing for everyone in Gaza. But the start-ups only lost about 10 working days. Staying open was a good distraction and people kept coming to work every day.
How do you explain the growing passion for entrepreneurship in the region?
The level of resiliency and drive that you see here is pretty unique. Some of that is out of necessity, the conditions are certainly very difficult. But there’s a real drive to succeed and a sense of people wanting to grow and teach each other which provides a lot of hope.
How involved are women in entrepreneurship in Gaza?
Women are very well represented in our community. There’s no cultural stigma.
Across all of the events we held in 2015, we had about 45% female attendance. In our acceleration program, 2 of the 8 start-ups we work with have female founders. We’re always working to promote more women in tech.
How are you finding life in Gaza?
Certainly there are things here that would challenge a lot of people. But I feel quite comfortable. The food is fantastic and the people here are amazingly welcoming and warm.