If you have any doubt that near-universal access to tech is helping a new generation take control of their own lives, solving problems and building opportunity from the bottom-up everywhere — that “near-universal” means it’s not a phenomenon of the elite, but unleashing talent anywhere it resides — come to Gaza.
We’ve all seen it on the news. Gaza is a land of closed borders, three terrible conflicts in seven years and among the highest unemployment rates anywhere.
At the same time, and even with spotty and irregular electricity, it also has one of the higher levels of education and internet access in the Arab world. More than two-thirds of Gazans are under 24, and nearly all have high written and computing literacy. If the definition of a great entrepreneur is one who thrives in working through and around challenges and creating innovative solutions, it’s no surprise that Gaza is chock-full of them. Half of them, by the way, are women. And they are fighting for better futures there and across the region.
As in most nascent rising startup ecosystems in emerging markets, the pulling together of talent, their ideas, skills, mentoring and capital takes concerted work. In 2011, the global NGO Mercy Corps founded the co-working space Gaza Sky Geeks as an initial effort to convene young entrepreneurs. In 2013, two people joined to take it to a new level: Iliana Montauk, a Silicon Valley native with extensive experience in the Middle East, and Said Hassan, a former employee from the region’s largest e-commerce player, Souq.com, who had just returned home to Gaza.
What, they asked, if there were an acceleration program so prevalent in Silicon Valley and now around the world right there in Gaza? They cultivated the first class of investments by the end of that year. By 2014, more than 600 entrepreneurs applied to their efforts — double from the previous years combined. More recently, Ryan Sturgill, who launched an incubator in Afghanistan and has extensive experience in advising startups across the Middle East, joined as the new director building on its success to date.
Gaza Sky Geeks finds some of the leading startup ideas and entrepreneurs and connects them with mentors, training and coaches to help them turn these concepts into businesses. They also run a network of local freelancers so young people can earn income part-time by doing gig economy work online across the region. Plans are in the works to launch a coding academy to teach young Gazans not just how to code but why to code — what real-world application can software be brought to bear to create new opportunities. The offices are equipped with their own fiber lines and sufficient fuel to power their generators — and keep high-speed internet up — at least 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
It doesn’t take a lot of capital to get an idea into motion. Entry-level software engineers command $100,000 to $150,000 a year in Silicon Valley, but less than $4,800 in Gaza. With access to the web, this talent is significantly self-taught — accessing the best programming classes from around the world, gathering together in hackathons to improve their skills and partnering with other investors and accelerators in the region, like Oasis500 and PALinnO in neighboring Jordan.
What are these young women and men building? Everything you’d expect anywhere in the world today, often with a local flavor. 5QHQH is a platform to create and share funny online content in Arabic. Baskalet is a gaming studio aimed at Arab culture. MockApp offers professional designers apps to create prototypes, share them and manage projects. KooKies is a community of cooking enthusiasts that also provides access to home-delivered ingredients to create new recipes. Health care, ed-tech, e-commerce and more are all there, driven by a rise in consumer spending and ubiquitous access to mobile.
Inspired by Gaza’s geeks, and understanding the impact that entrepreneurs can have in bettering people’s lives and their economies, Silicon Valley and other global tech hubs have taken note. Tech gurus from places like Uber, Google, SoundCloud, Microsoft, 500 Startups, Endeavor Global, Udacity, Hitachi and more have visited Gaza on their own dime as volunteers to mentor these startups.
Complementing funders like Google, the Coca-Cola Foundation, Skoll and local players, Gaza Sky Geeks leveraged this support and track record to run its first crowd-funding campaign to help fund operations in 2014. They hoped to raise $70,000, but raised over $267,000 within weeks, and from more than 60 countries.
Last month, they kicked off their second campaign, Power Up Gaza Geeks, this time with matching contributions from regional ecosystem leaders like the founder of the largest VC firm there, Fadi Ghandour of the Wamda Group, and Samih Toukan, who founded one of the earlier successful exits in the Arab world and now chairs Jabbar Internet Group. In addition, matches are coming from the likes of 500 Startups co-founder Dave McClure, Y Combinator founder Paul Graham, Foundry Group and TechStars managing director Brad Feld and Crowdpac co-founder Gisel Kordestani. Just yesterday, Salesforce founder Marc Benioff and “Lean Startup” author Eric Ries joined the campaign match.
This campaign was launched to buy a generator and fuel to extend the co-working hub’s hours in response to Gaza’s most severe energy shortage to date. In addition, they are raising funds to launch Gaza’s first coding academy.
Ghandour built Aramex, the largest tech-powered logistics company in the Arab world and perhaps the first true “unicorn” before the term was used. As a go-to investor in the Arab world, he has seen everything. “This is what we do at the Wamda Group,” Ghandour explains. “We support entrepreneurs and we help nurture the ecosystem in the region. Gaza Sky Geeks is where techies come to get their dose of hope in achieving part of their ambitions under a blockade system that punishes everyone. This is about Gazan Geeks becoming entrepreneurs and building businesses like everyone else around the world. It is ambitious, talented youth exploring, venturing and succeeding.”
McClure, who now operates funds in nearly every core emerging market, told me, “Gazans are smart people working on ideas for companies, and to some extent they have even more hustle than I’ve seen elsewhere, because they’re working in such a tough environment. They may actually be some of the best entrepreneurs in the world.”
One of the greatest and least understood stories of our times is not only that a new generation — everywhere — is solving problems themselves and not waiting for anyone to give permission, but has for the first time the tools in their pockets to do so at scale and affordably.
And nothing stands in their way. Said himself is living proof. His home was destroyed during the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. Israeli shelling destroyed his whole neighborhood, including the U.N. building across the street from his home, where his father had previously worked. Said was able to evacuate with his laptop and returned to Gaza Sky Geeks, living in a friend’s house and back to work in a matter of days.
This story in Gaza is hopeful in and of itself, but a lens for prosperity and paths to futures everywhere. What I have seen has convinced me to be an adviser to them and their entrepreneurs and support their campaigns. They are deeply worthy.
Christopher M. Schroeder is a U.S.-based venture investor, tech entrepreneur and the author of “Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East.” Reach him @cmschroed.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.