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Inspiring tech innovation at Gaza Startup Weekend

West Bank and Gaza, February 1, 2012

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Gaza isn’t necessarily the first place you think of for a Startup Weekend. These 54-hour events, started by a Seattle nonprofit, bring together web developers, designers, marketers, product managers and aspiring entrepreneurs to share ideas, form teams, build products and launch tech startups.

It’s a place few people ever get to visit, let alone a group of experts from Google and international business professionals from Mercy Corps. But the political limbo that has led to a virtual blockade of the area has inspired the many youth here to cultivate their talents around information and communication technology (ICT), making it a fertile place for innovation.

The December event was part of Mercy Corps’ Arab Developer Network Initiative, which is connecting over 1,000 Palestinian young people with ICT business opportunities — many of them women. Gaza certainly has a reputation as being extremely conservative, and I assumed we would see the event dominated by young men. During the first phase of Startup Weekend everyone who plans to pitch their idea stands in line and one by one steps on stage, given one minute to sell the audience on their idea. I was blown away when 17 of the initial 51 ideas were presented by young women. The confidence and enthusiasm they demonstrated set the stage for an inspirational weekend.

The entire audience then voted on the best ideas, condensing 51 ideas into 18 teams. The groups spent the better part of three days formalizing their roles and responsibilities, and developed a roadmap to hopefully take the concept to operational business.

The team of mentors from Google and Mercy Corps circled the room probing and challenging assumptions, and I was struck by the many different ideas being worked on. Two of the teams realized that were working on complementary concepts and quickly combined in order to offer a more compelling solution. I am not sure what I expected to see, perhaps more internally Gaza focused companies, but we saw ideas focused on the Olympics, gift registries, translation and employment marketplaces, as well as various social networking applications to name just a few.

The top five teams chosen by judges were awarded grants to provide operational capital to take their ideas from the Startup Weekend classroom to the real world. But I felt that everyone won that weekend — despite the many challenges faced by the young men and women of Gaza, their future is much brighter with a new way to tap into and support their entrepreneurial spirit.

Find out how you can get involved through mentoring, workshops and other opportunities.