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Women Have An Edge In Gaza Startup Market


The narrow Gaza Strip between Egypt and Israel is a place of severe border restrictions. It makes it difficult for Palestinians living there to travel and import or export products. It's certainly not a simple place to run a startup company. Electricity is frequently cut and high unemployment means people have little money to spend, let alone invest. But some of Gaza's challenges are giving women entrepreneurs a leg up. NPR's Emily Harris reports.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Some 20 women sit scattered in pairs around the offices of Gaza Sky Geeks, a startup incubator. This is a regular meeting of a mentorship program. Haneen Abu Al Zoom practices her pitch for a web-based marketplace for Arabic translators.

HANEEN ABU AL ZOOM: Translation and Arabization is something is very important. And people also need it a lot.

HARRIS: Her mentor, Rola Zaquot, talks her up.

ROLA ZAQUOT: She has good experience - good relations. So she can develop this service and improve it.

HARRIS: Zaquot is only slightly more experienced in startups than the woman she's coaching. Business isn't a new idea here. But creating a product to make millions in international markets is. American Iliana Montauk manages Gaza Sky Geeks for Mercy Corps, the charity that funds this training center for entrepreneurs.

ILIANA MONTAUK: The biggest challenge that they're facing is awareness of global trends. Even the concept of a startup is something that people are often not aware of if we're not here to promote it. And those who are aware of it, the challenge that they're facing is access to markets and to investors.

HARRIS: Physical access. Gaza's border with Egypt is currently closed. The only other way out is through Israel, which due to security concerns requires Gazan's to get clearance before travel is allowed. Unfortunately, says Montauk, the profile of a terrorist and of an entrepreneur can be quite similar.

MONTAUK: What we were seeing as a profile of an entrepreneur was a young man between the ages of 18 and 25. Unfortunately, most terrorists are also between the ages of 18 to 25. And so it makes it harder for them to pass the security screenings quickly. Even if they all end up passing them eventually, it might take them an extra month or two. And by then, the event that you need to go to has passed.

HARRIS: Security services often consider women less of a threat. Egypt, in fact, requires men from Gaza to get a permit to enter. Gazan women don't need one. Other local challenges also wind up helping female entrepreneurs, says Suzan Atallah, who's building an online business offering equipment and design for rooftop gardens. For example, she says, high unemployment has changed some conservative families.

SUSAN ATALLAH: (Through translator) I've heard lots of families who want their daughters to be employed just to have an income.

HARRIS: Although she had some difficulties overcoming tradition.

ATALLAH: (Through translator) For my project, I've worked with carpenters and welders. As a young woman, this is uncomfortable. And my parents said this is wrong and asked me to stop. When I started getting work, I proved myself and they accepted the idea.

HARRIS: Twenty-three-year-old Nalan al-Sarraj is a mentee in the Gaza Sky Geeks program. Her experience as a high school exchange student in Palestine, Texas, taught her outside exposure can enhance networking skills. Most people she met there knew little about the Palestinian territory where she comes from. So a quick explanation became a conversation staple.

NALAN AL-SARRAJ: Over there, it's not only about being Palestinian. It's about being a Muslim because they're very Christian. And it's about being young. And it's about how to learn to present yourself and your country and your religion and your family. And to always win the debate.

HARRIS: Be convincing but not pushy, she says. Sarraj pitched a business idea at a startup session in Gaza this weekend. Organizers encouraged women applicants. About 75 were invited. The industry in Gaza is still young enough, organizers say, to lay the groundwork now for ongoing equality. Emily Harris, NPR News Gaza. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.
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