Tara Todras-Whitehill for Al Jazeera America

A startup sisterhood in Gaza

Young Palestinian women bid for funding and a future. Photos by Tara Todras-Whitehill for Al Jazeera America

Women's Rights

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Wearing a bright hijab, black blazer and long denim skirt, Mariam Abultewi sat in a cab she had just ordered using Wasselni, a taxi-ordering and carpooling app she launched in Gaza four months ago.

Abultewi, 25, is the first woman to have a startup funded in Gaza, where more women like her are beginning to start tech businesses they hope will generate incomes for them and their families in this cash-strapped society. For the most part, the women are young — some as young as Sofiya Mosalem, 16, whom Abultewi was mentoring during the fourth annual Gaza Startup Weekend June 19-21.

Being a female entrepreneur in Gaza isn’t easy, Abultewi said. Initially her father wasn’t happy about the plan, believing it wouldn’t lead to a job or income. And when she pitched her idea at Gaza’s first startup weekend in 2011, it was rejected.

Mariam Abultewi is the first Gazan woman to have her startup funded.
Tara Todras-Whitehill for Al Jazeera America

“I only got one vote, and I voted for myself,” she said. “I wanted to leave the event.”

However she returned in 2012 and won with the same idea that had been dismissed a year earlier.

When she was asked to deliver a pitch for Wasselni in Egypt and Jordan, and Israel granted her permission to travel, she asked for her father’s permission. He didn’t reply.

“Suddenly the borders were open, and I was told I had to leave a week in advance, and I told my father I would have a business trip next week,” she said. “He said, ‘OK, I will tell you yes or no tomorrow.’”

“He didn’t say anything, but he let me go,” said Abultewi. “That day I made one of my dreams come true — to travel alone.”

She eventually secured seed funding from Palinno, a Palestinian mentorship program. Since the launch of Wasselni, a thousand users have created profiles, and 120 rides have been booked.

Even her father has come around to her way of thinking. He’s working on his own startup idea incorporating his furniture-making skills and now encourages Abultewi to involve her four sisters and three brothers in her work.


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Local and international investors arrived at the office of Gaza Sky Geeks, a local startup accelerator, a day before Gaza Startup Weekend.

Tom Sperry, an investor and judge who runs Rogue Venture Partners, was among them. He said a major barrier for Gazan startups is that U.S. investors are not legally allowed to invest in Gaza because of the government’s position that Hamas is a terrorist organization. 

“I believe that it should be done locally,” he said. “People should come here and help train and mentor the process, but all the knowledge transfer has to happen in Gaza.” 

Both the Bank of Palestine and the Palestine Islamic Bank committed to invest in Gazan startups ahead of this year’s startup weekend.

“You have to have local investors solving local problems,” Sperry added. “It’s against the law for a U.S. investor to [invest] here. It can’t happen today. It’s just that simple.”

However, Iliana Montauk, director of Gaza Sky Geeks, said startups supported by the organization were not registered in Gaza to avoid problems with the U.S. stance. 

"When Oasis500 invested in our startups, they registered those startups in Jordan,” she explained.

Holding events like Gaza Startup Weekend can be unpredictable. A judge from Ramallah was refused entry to Gaza by Israel, and two judges and five mentors were forced to leave two days early.

And after Israel alleged that Hamas kidnapped three young Israeli settlers and launched air strikes on targets in Gaza, Mercy Corps, a partner in Gaza Startup Weekend, pulled its international guests out of the region.

Meanwhile Hamas fighters took to the streets during the weekend for the funeral of five members believed to have died in an explosion in underground tunnels in Gaza City.

Abultewi lives next to the Nuseirat refugee camp, known to be a Hamas stronghold. Residents face severe rocket attacks and harsh living conditions throughout the year.

In addition to the political and economic challenges, women who aspire to be tech entrepreneurs must also navigate family pressures and expectations.

Nina Curley, a startup consultant and judge, speaks to Palestinian women at the event about gender issues in startups.
Tara Todras-Whitehill for Al Jazeera America

Nina Curley, a consultant focused on entrepreneurship, women and innovation in the Middle East, said that despite the added obstacles, Gazan women startup founders were ahead of their U.S. counterparts in some regards.

There are no conclusive figures on women’s startup involvement in Gaza, but 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 Curley, who used to be the editor of Wamda. “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.”

According to the Global Entrepreneurship Development Institute, only 2 percent of technology startups in the U.S. were founded by women. A study from Harvard Business School showed those women-led companies raised only 7 percent of venture capital in the U.S.

Two months ago Mosalam had no idea what a startup was. Now she has a website and a fully conceived model.

Born in Ukraine to a Palestinian father and a Ukrainian mother — both doctors — Mosalam and her family moved to Gaza when she was 8. She spoke little Arabic then. Now she’s fluent in four languages.

“Some people see me as a geek. I am actually not. My results are often around 97.5 percent, and I am first in my class, but I am not the type that studies a lot,” she said. “I want to go to Harvard. My friends think I am crazy. I know it’s really tough, but I want to do it.”

Sofiya Mosalam, 16, attended the Gaza Startup Weekend to pitch her idea for a website aimed at Arab moms and moms-to-be.
Tara Todras-Whitehill for Al Jazeera America

Her mentorship with Abultewi is part of the Intalqi mentor program, with funding from Google directed through Mercy Corps to Gaza Sky Geeks. The goal is 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.

Mosalam’s website is called Boom Baby Boom, aimed at Arab moms and moms-to-be living in the Middle East and North Africa. She communicates her pitch smoothly with a rundown of how mothers can access up-to-date information, from pregnancy through infancy and up to adolescence.

Boom Baby Boom seeks to create networks among mothers and 24-hour professionals and also allow mothers to document key moments in their children’s lives through the site.

Mosalam said her parents are a bit skeptical about her business plan.

“My family says I can study whatever I want,” she said, “but I think they are worried about me because I am a young teenager,” she said.

On the first night of the startup weekend in Gaza, participants flapped their sheets of paper in the air trying to persuade voters to select them. Their faces showed excitement when their pages filled up with stickers of support or worry when they had only a few. Gaza’s startup weekend has its own flavor, with a Friday prayer room and lots of dancing to popular Arabic music.

The pool of ideas was narrowed down to 25, and groups formed to develop them for two days before a final five-minute presentation in front of the judges.

Mosalam’s Boom Baby Boom site was selected, along with an educational science app, an app to encourage people to learn sign language, an app creating a network of artists and designers in Gaza and a platform to connect Arab translators with customers.

Mosalam lobbies for votes for her startup.
Tara Todras-Whitehill for Al Jazeera America

Abultewi’s entrepreneurial skills were on full display. She got little sleep, between mentoring Mosalam and promoting her own startup, which is still undergoing growing pains.

When she tried using the app to order taxis for a large group from the event, it was difficult to monitor who the taxis were for once they arrived. There ended up being too many taxis. On the second night of the event, taxi companies said they couldn’t send cars because of a power cut.

Of the 140 participants in Gaza Startup Weekend, 60 were women. They’d invested a lot of energy and hope into winning the judges’ approval.

Mosalem’s hopes were dashed when a family led by a 26-year-old woman, Hala Eid Naji, won. Their design app, Lilac, shows you how much furniture you can buy to furnish a room within a particular budget. A 14-year-old boy whose education app would deliver science tutorials took second place.

With the weekend over, Mosalam returned late at night to climb the stairs to her family’s apartment in downtown Gaza. She used a flashlight app on her phone to light the way. The power was scheduled to go back on at 10:30 p.m., but it was still pitch black.

She told her mother Olena that she won $400 but didn’t come in first. They were excited. Her younger sister Maria, a toddler, joined them on Mosalam’s bed.

“I hope for Sofiya that she will be happy and have an uncomplicated life,” her mother said. “I don’t have the right amount of money for her to study at Harvard.”

Abultewi hugs Mosalam after learning that Mosalam’s idea would not win the event.
Tara Todras-Whitehill for Al Jazeera America