[Adapted from an article originally published on Global Envision, Mercy Corps' blog exploring market-driven solutions to poverty around the world.]
In the isolated Gaza Strip, economic instability is a constant. But in the months after November's conflict, our work with tech-savvy Palestinian youth has taken a new spin. Gaza Sky Geeks is the next step in helping the region capitalize on one of its biggest assets: its technical graduates.
Mercy Corps started the Arab Developer Network Initiative (ADNI) with a grant from Google.org a few years ago to connect young people with training and virtual career opportunities. Based on this outreach, Gaza Sky Geeks was developed as an accelerator that will further support standout technology entrepreneurs in Gaza, providing a wide range of services designed to help them turn their ideas into viable investments.
Here Program Manager Reem Omran talks about the effort — and whether Gaza could become the next IT hub in the Arab world.
What’s the blueprint for helping start-ups?
The primary objective of Gaza Sky Geeks is to prepare start-ups for the next stage. We will provide logistical and consulting services, as well as workshops that can help them turn their ideas into concrete business plans, capable of securing investment.
What resources does the accelerator offer?
Gaza Sky Geeks is outfitted with high-speed internet, desktop computers, iPads and Androids so that members have a reliable space to work on their projects. Members also have access to meeting spaces and a coffee shop, where they can network and collaborate on ideas.
What about events?
The accelerator hosts three types of events: workshops, hackathons, and mentorship programs and lectures. The workshops are held on a weekly basis and are designed to help with product development and promotion. Hackathons are held so that programmers have a forum to share ideas and explore software development. And the mentors are brought in to give developers feedback on their ideas and critique their business plans.
What are the biggest barriers facing members?
Electrical shortages are common, and Gaza’s reputation as a conflict zone makes it difficult to attract investors. However, at the core the issues are the same as those facing start-ups everywhere. Many technology entrepreneurs are passionate about their field and ideas, but transforming a vision into a viable business plan is tricky. Most people in the IT industry in Gaza don’t receive a business education, let alone have experience running one.
How is Gaza Sky Geeks helping to bridge this gap?
This is where the mentors are key. As I mentioned, most programmers in Gaza don’t have experience running a business, and so sometimes their target audience is off or their marketing strategy isn’t practical, and so on. Mentors can provide valuable constructive criticism so that start-ups can strengthen their goals and infrastructure to become a feasible investment.
In the coming months, Gaza Sky Geeks will select the top six startups to participate in a three-month intensive acceleration program. Selected startups that participate in the acceleration program will be linked with dedicated mentors who have varying backgrounds and experience. The three-month accelerator will also provide targeted business and technical training so each startup has a scalable business plan and validated prototype at the conclusion of the accelerator. Throughout the three-month program, each startup will work on a one- and three-minute pitch that they will give to potential investors at a Gaza demo day and regional road shows in cities such as Doha, Amman and Cairo.