Entrepreneurship Under Occupation: My Gaza Startup

Breaking into the tech industry is never easy for women. It’s even harder in Gaza, under the shadow of conflict. Entrepreneur Ghada Ibrahim shares her experience of trying to build a new life for herself and her family through learning to code.

Written by Ghada Ibrahim Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
“Gazans see the value of education. It is a way of fighting back.” Ghada Ibrahim started out as a volunteer translator. Now she’s launching her own tech platform.Gaza Sky Geeks

GAZA, Palestinian Territories – Living in Gaza means constantly adapting to disruption. Here, we have to be ready for anything to happen. Our lives can be interrupted by conflict at any moment.

Our society has a very tight-knit fabric, so when something terrible happens, like the eruption of violence at the border in May this year in which more than 100 Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers, everyone knows someone who was killed or hurt.

But amid food and water shortages, power blackouts and the constant threat of violence, Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG), where I work, is a haven for people who have talent. Founded in 2011 by Mercy Corps and Google, we are the only startup accelerator in the Gaza Strip, providing funding and mentorship to people who dream of having their own tech enterprise.

Gazans see the value of education. It is a way of fighting back. It is a form of resistance to earn your degree, harness your knowledge and share it with others.

This is especially true for women. Gaza has a high percentage of women with degrees in computer science or software engineering – sometimes because conservative parents prefer their daughter to study in a field that will mean she ends up working behind a computer, and won’t have to interact with men.

I have three children, and every day it’s an inner struggle to leave them to go to work. You really have to believe in what you are doing or the guilt you feel as a female entrepreneur can be overwhelming. I have to force myself to look at things differently. I am raising independent young people who can do things on their own. They have a mother who has her own dreams and aspirations, and that is an important lesson for them.

Women in Gaza have the potential to do great things if they are adequately supported. At GSG, female participation is about 42 percent, an unusually high number in the tech industry. In 2015, we launched an inclusivity program that provides women-only coding classes and a travel stipend so they can commute to our hub.

I am an example of how GSG fosters female entrepreneurs. I started here a year and a half ago, volunteering as a translator. Until then, I had only ever done basic coding, but I began to think I could build things, too. I joined a boot camp to learn how to code, and I was in the first graduating class. I was surprised when I was accepted. Doubting yourself is sadly often part of being a woman.

Forty-two percent of the people supported through Gaza Sky Geeks are women. (Gaza Sky Geeks)

At GSG, I have seen women find solutions by coming together. This gave me the idea of connecting even more women through the internet. I couldn’t pay developers to help me, so I had to learn to code and build a platform myself. I am hoping to launch Women in Technology, or Witlist, later this year. It is a resource for women in technology, including a directory and Arabic content.

For the past nine months, I have been part of the GSG team, supporting the Code Academy program as a course facilitator and recently transitioning to the position of program coordinator. I work six days a week. I love my job.

The Gaza Strip has the highest unemployment rate in the world: Almost half of the population is out of work, and women are worst affected. Many who do work don’t have reliable incomes, as employers reduce or withhold salaries when business is disrupted by the blockade. There’s little chance for mobility or developing your skills.

In these conditions, being able to work on your own startup nurtures your mind and your soul. It isn’t easy, of course. I won an award for my Women in Technology initiative and was invited to speak at a conference in the United States. But I didn’t make it in time – my permit to leave the Gaza Strip came late. When I eventually got it, I was further delayed at checkpoints and in the end I could only spend a few days in San Francisco.

Still, I call that experience “my first time everything”: my first time leaving Gaza, my first time abroad, my first time in the U.S., which felt like crossing the universe. To be honest, I was scared, but at the same time I felt the rush of excitement for the adventure in my blood.

In Gaza, accepting our situation is part of living. I cannot control the political situation, but I can control my life. I accept that I live in the Gaza Strip, that it’s hard for me to leave and that I don’t have enough money to do as much as I would like for my children. But through embracing technology, I have begun to find ways around my situation. We have to find a way, because that’s our only hope.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Women’s Advancement Deeply.

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