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We recently sat down with Ryan Sturgill and Iliana Montauk of Gaza Sky Geeks, one of the five Techstars Foundation Grantees, to learn more about the organization and how it’s helping diversity in entrepreneurship.

Gaza Sky Geeks is a co-working hub, entrepreneurship outreach organization and startup incubator and accelerator in Gaza, run by the global organization Mercy Corps.

(NOTE: Brad Feld and Amy Batchelor will be matching donations to the Techstars Foundation until mid-October. Brad and Amy will be matching $1 dollar for every $2 dollars contributed by members of the Techstars’ community, up to $100,000.)

What problem are you solving?

Since 2007, people and goods have been largely restricted from crossing in and out of Gaza’s borders, leaving an isolated population with few avenues for employment. But the technology sector is less hindered by these restrictions – IT is the one thing that you can really do anywhere.

Building off two of Gaza’s core advantages – a strong internet connection provided by a fiber optic cable and a highly educated population – Gaza Sky Geeks is working to provide Gazans with the opportunity for reliable, fulfilling employment and the chance to join the global tech movement as coders and entrepreneurs.

What is the biggest misperception around the issue you are trying to solve?

We have found that a lot of the international community imagines Gaza as the pile of rubble often shown on the news, not the next potential hub for tech talent. The reality is that Gaza has a dense, urban population of educated, hard working, resilient and adaptable young people who are eager to learn and contribute to the growing global tech community.

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Core to our existence is the belief that young people in tough environments have the DNA of entrepreneurs and that they can engage meaningfully in the tech sector, even if they are in isolated areas, and we have definitely seen this in Gaza. There is tremendous innovative potential here – it just needs to be harnessed.

What sparked the vision and foundation behind Gaza Sky Geeks?

In 2008, international NGO Mercy Corps saw that consistent access to high-speed internet from the fiber optic cable laid across Gaza could allow Gaza’s highly educated youth to sidestep many of the restrictions on the movement of people and goods.

Mercy Corps then embarked on a long-term mission to turn Gaza into a regional hub for internet-enabled entrepreneurship, establishing Gaza Sky Geeks in 2011 with support from Google.

Tell us about how your organization has positively impacted your audience?

Thanks to the hard work of our core staff, the dedication of our volunteers and mentors, and the support of organizations like Techstars, Gaza Sky Geeks has been able to lead the charge on building a new entrepreneurial technology ecosystem in Gaza that we believe can ultimately generate globally competitive businesses and freelancing talent.

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In our vibrant co-working space in downtown Gaza City, where over 45 tech startups, online freelancers and software outsourcers work side-by-side every day, Gaza Sky Geeks is not only training individuals with hard technical skills that they can monetize, but also fostering a hopeful, growing community of over 2,500 people who now have a connection to the rest of the global tech world.

It is the only program of its kind in Gaza and the first to focus on tech entrepreneurship.

Over the past year, we have secured opportunities for entrepreneurs to travel to major startup pitch competitions in Jordan and Ramallah, complete internships with software startups in Sweden, and conduct market research in Morocco and the UK, despite increasing restrictions on permit issuances for Gazans.

For 80 percent of our entrepreneurs, these opportunities were the first time they had left Gaza in their lives.

In May 2016, we also hosted Gaza’s first hackathon, a 30-hour software development competition in which 19 teams produced working demos of their products, and one of the winning startup teams will have the ability to participate in a Silicon Valley-based acceleration program. This was a first for Gaza’s tech ecosystem and demonstrated to the entire community the potential the Gaza’s developers have to create viable online products and services.

How has the Techstars Foundation helped your business?

Techstars has helped us fund a major initiative to increase the skills and confidence of female tech founders. There are more women than men studying STEM related topics in Gaza, and in Gaza, women get higher marks than men in engineering fields.

There is also no stigma against women for excelling in science or math or engineering, but we find that many women lack the confidence and support to transfer those skills into launching their own companies or working in tech fields after university.

Our programming seeks to change that by providing a supportive community of women tech founders through regular meet ups, female coding and hardware workshops, stipends for transportation and income while working on startups, as well as investing in staff whose dedicated job is outreach to female engineers.

With those investments and support from Techstars, we’ve also established a safe, respectful and inclusive co-working space in downtown Gaza City that is accessible to everyone. Each day, over one third of the users of our co-working space are women who are working on startups, freelancing or working for software outsourcing companies.

We also believe that the global tech sector will benefit from the inclusivity of women and enterprising techies from conflict environments. People with these backgrounds and experiences will help develop the diverse solutions our world needs today, whether in consumer products or innovations that solve intractable problems.

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Among other things, support from the Techstars Foundation has allowed us to jumpstart our women’s inclusivity program for 2016. Engaging women in our programming is is a core part of Gaza Sky Geeks. Research shows that businesses with mixed female and male leadership perform better than businesses with less diversity.

We believe that Gaza Sky Geeks are uniquely poised to become a leader in this space – since it is still the beginning of the startup movement in Gaza, it has not yet become defined as a traditionally male-led space in this geography.

Our commitment to this effort, with Techstars’ support, has allowed us to solidify Gaza Sky Geeks’ approach to:

  • Empowering women leaders and forging our partnerships with organizations like Geekettes, Technovation and TechWomen.
  • Offer the first ever women-and-girls-only coding classes in Gaza to teach one cohort of women how to code over a period of 6 months.
  • Employ a dedicated Mentorship & Women’s Inclusivity Program Coordinator.
  • Provide commuting stipends for women participating in the program.
  • Send female founders and developers from Gaza to participate in regional and international events
  • Bring international women mentors to Gaza.

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Ali Berman
Ali is the Executive Assistant at Techstars and the Interim Director for the Techstars Foundation.