Gaza Strip Becomes Unlikely Hotspot For Female Entrepreneurs


When you think of women in startups or emerging female entrepreneurs, you don’t automatically think of an area like the Gaza Strip. You think of Silicon Valley, or even “Silicon Beach”, both in sunny California. Yet, the strife-ridden area between Egypt and Israel has become an unlikely hotspot for young women to think outside the cultural boundaries and go for gold.

According to NPR, electricity is frequently cut and high unemployment means people have little money to spend, let alone invest. But this has not stopped a generation of women to create opportunities for themselves in ways their parents and predecessors wouldn’t have been able to.

Aljazeera America reported on the story of 25 year old Mariam Abultewi who is the first women in the Gaza Strip to have a startup funded!

Mid-June 2014 was when the fourth annual Gaza Startup Weekend was held, and saw women as young as 16 coming to the event to showcase their talents and bright ideas. The conference grants only one young Palestinian the opportunity to have their idea funded. Altogether 140 people attended, 60 of which were women! Not bad odds for an unlikely area for women to thrive in.

Mariam created something called Wasselni, a taxi-ordering and carpooling app she launched in Gaza four months ago. Think of it as the uber of Gaza Strip, kinda.


Aside from coming up with an idea that would attract investors, the women in the region have other hurdles to overcome. Mariam told Al Jazeera she had to get permission and blessing from her dad to attend the event, which meant she had to travel alone. As a Muslim woman traveling solo, that is pretty much unheard of. But thanks to trailblazers and progressive advocates, change is happening and allowing women to break out like never before.

Eventually Mariam was allowed to go to the event, but it wasn’t the first time she pitched her idea. In 2011 she was unsuccessful, but Mariam returned again in 2012 more determined than ever and landed finding from a Palestinian company called Palinno, which is a mentoring program.

Since the launch of the app Wasselni, a thousand users have created profiles, and 120 rides have been booked. The sweetest part of her success was how it has now influenced her previously conservative father who was inspired to create his own startup, and he know encourages his other children to follow in Mariam’s footsteps.

The US in prohibited from investing in any Palestinian startups, which has meant local companies have more opportunities to fund businesses in their country.

Research suggests that women startup founders in the Gaza Strip are actually beating out their female counterparts in the US. A recent survey by Wamda, a website and investment fund for entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa, showed 23 percent of the nearly 1,000 founders in the sample were women, 38 percent of companies had at least one female founder and 13 percent had female-only founding teams.


“In the U.S. the numbers are much lower,” said Nina Curley, a consultant focused on entrepreneurship. “And I’ve heard women of prominent growing startups complain that despite making major lists of women-led startups, they have to be twice as compelling and persuasive as their male peers to convince talent to join their companies.”

Well at least that’s one thing women in the Middle East have in common with women in the Western world: we ALL have to work twice as hard in some industries just to be seen, heard, and taken seriously.

“According to the Global Entrepreneurship Development Institute, only 2 percent of technology startups in the U.S. were founded by women, and a study from Harvard Business School showed those women-led companies raised only 7 percent of venture capital in the U.S.” writes Al Jazeera’s Kate Shuttleworth.

So how do we change this data and encourage more women that this industry needs them? We believe sharing resources, support networks, and highlighting the existing women in the field is a start.


Google is already recognizing the potential of female startups in the Gaza Strip, and have teamed up with Gaza Sky Geeks, a local startup accelerator, and Mercy Corps to increase the number of women who successfully found a Gazan startup. Gaza has come under the umbrella of Google’s initiative #40Forward, with $1 million allocated to 40 startup communities to rethink the gap between men’s and women’s involvement in the startup community.

You can’t be what you can’t see, so if other women, whether they are in the US, Gaza Strip or anywhere else, see their counterparts breaking down barriers and changing the cultural perceptions, it will hopefully open the floodgates.

For the record, the 2014 startup conference in Gaza was won by a 26 year old woman whose app is called Lilac, which allows a user to know how much furniture they can buy to furnish a room, within the parameters of their budget. And this year, previous winner Mariam Abultewi chose to mentor other young women who entered the comp.

This story is filled with so many fascinating cultural breakthroughs in a way that are outshining women in countries who have no restrictions. If you are a woman interested in the tech field, just know that there are organizations and events dedicated to evening out the score and closing the gender gap, such as Google’s ‘Made with Code’ initiative recently launched in the US for girls.

Tech needs women, and if there is anything we can learn from these awesome entrepreneurs from the Gaza Strip, it is that boundaries are not a reason to stop doing what you love. Hack everything!



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