Women in Entrepreneurship Emerging Globally From Gaza to Kiev

On June 19th, 150 Gazan women and men gathered for the fourth Startup Weekend Gaza – but this particular event promised the presence of at least 50% women, as one of the events participating in this year’s Startup Women initiative.

One woman in attendance was Mariam Abultewi, winner of the previous Startup Weekend event for her startup Wasselni, a taxi-ordering/carpooling app. Notably, Mariam is the first Gazan woman to receive startup funding– a feat that may offer inspiration to other young women evaluating the entrepreneurial leap.

The journey of the entrepreneur is a difficult one, and though her startup has been moving forward actively for about four months, she continues to face unique challenges including the eight-year, international blockade of the region following Hamas’ ascension to de-facto political control of the Gaza strip.

Additionally, Mariam has also faced difficulties that are largely tied to the basic fact that she is female; it took a long time to convince her father to approve of her decision to focus on her startup, but Mariam’s persistence led her to have her first solo traveling experience and convinced her father of the value of entrepreneurship – so much so that he is now considering starting his own venture, and has encouraged Mariam’s siblings to do so as well.

Startup Women, Startup Weekend, UP Global

The Organizing team for Gaza Startup Weekend 4.0 (Mohammed AlAfranji, Nadine Badereddine, Alaa Saqer, Said Hassan, Iliana Montauk, and Mohammed Skaik) focused on marketing and outreach that welcomed more women to the event, and their efforts were successful: over 650 applications were received with 150 attendees selected, 71 people pitched and 26 were women, 25 startup teams formed, and 16 were led by women.

Startup Women, Startup Weekend, UP Global

Since the launch of the Startup Women initiative, we’ve seen “Womens Edition” events take shape in communities all around the world; from Tokyo, to Kansas City, to Kiev. This year’s Startup Weekend Womens Edition in Kiev was made possible by a dedicated Organizing team who dealt with ongoing political upheaval and violent protest in the midst of preparation for the event.

“My story is about how one weekend changed my life,” Tetiana Siyanko, Co-Organizer of the Kiev event, said. “I want to help others make this leap.”

Equally encouraging is the constant support from men in communities around the world for a greater emphasis on welcoming women into the world of startups – or simply highlighting the stories of female entrepreneurs more intentionally. As Akram Dweikat, Gazan Startup Weekend Organizer, says: “My top priority is empowering women in my community.”

Stories like Tetiana and Mariam’s have altered the scope and potential of the Startup Women initiative significantly. Given the demand and passion of women in the entrepreneurial space, UP Global aims to seed 1,000 thriving startup communities internationally by 2016, and to focus on the unique barriers to women throughout this growth.

Taking on this goal also means that we are working to define thriving in tangible terms. Through initiatives like Startup Women, UP Global recognizes the critical challenge of ensuring that early-stage communities integrate diversity into their conception of “thriving.” This challenge demands an evolving dialogue around the value of diversity in innovation, and its solution stands to solidify the socio-economic legacy of start-up communities internationally.


Why the employment process in the Arab world is broken, and 4 ways to fix it

This piece was originally published on the Huffington Post.

Let me state the obvious: the employment process is broken.

It is especially broken in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), where the region continues to lead the world in the percentage of youth not on the path to a stable career.

Regional leaders and public figures often point to entrepreneurship as having the potential to drastically impact MENA’s job creation plans. The belief is that as entrepreneurs work to satisfy the needs and wants of different consumers regionally and globally they will also create jobs as a result. However, more and more entrepreneurs in the region are tackling the employment challenge head on — making the creation of jobs the key metric of their business model.

Fadi Sawaqedy first thought of the idea behind Amman-based Shabab Jobs back in 2010 when he won second place at regional digital summit ArabNet for his idea.

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Sawaqedy noticed that there was a clear lack of focus within the job-matching space on the substantial number of underprivileged and uneducated Arab youth, who usually “didn’t even have a resume.” Lack of investor funding meant that the website wouldn’t go live until earlier this year, but the response from both employers and job seekers has been very positive and the revenues have been coming in.

With a similar focus on youth, Dubai-based Gradberry launched in 2011 out of a realization by co-founder Iba Masood that most of the jobs advertised through popular channels focused on candidates with work experience, leaving fresh graduates to fend for themselves.

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Positive feedback on the platform that focuses on job seekers with zero to two years experience, has encouraged Masood and co-founder Ahmed Syed to launch a new section of the website, Gradberry Academy, that focuses on delivering needed skills to young job seekers online.

Of course it’s not only the youth that are having a difficulty finding jobs. Our entire notion of employment will need to change if we are to overcome the unemployment challenges that face the region. Suad Abu Srour launched StayLinked in Ramallah, Palestine earlier this year with several of her co-founders.

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StayLinked works to bring the concept of “microwork”to Palestine in the hopes of “leveraging Palestinian talent to serve the region and the world.”

Srour got the inspiration for StayLinked when she graduated with a degree in computer information systems and realized that most of her female peers, in spite of representing almost 50 percent of the graduating class, were usually forced to stay at home due to mobility issues and other difficulties. With funding from an angel investor, StayLinked has been in able to come in to play a brokerage role between employers and freelance workers, while adding a layer of coordination and, most importantly quality assurance. Palestinian workers at StayLinked have already served clients from Bahrain to the United States.

These are of course not the only startups directly tackling the unemployment challenge; several popular regional startups such as Nabbesh and Glowork are also tackling the crux of the matter from different angles. Speaking to several of these startups it became clear that there at least four important steps to supporting startups working in this space.

First, legislators will need to show they are serious about solving the unemployment challenge by reforming regulation surrounding freelance work and creating specific visas for internships that provide regional job seekers with vital work experience. In cases where the regulation is already available it will need to be simplified and communicated clearly to the public to avoid any confusion.

Second, a cultural and educational shift that normalizes internships and promotes apprenticeships in several fields will need to closely follow any shift in legislation. Even when the law permits it, several of our SMEs, and even larger companies, still do not know how to create internships that are beneficial for all parties involved. Public educational campaigns, and tax breaks for hiring interns are potential starting points.

Third, like all startups in MENA (and sometimes globally), startups in the unemployment space suffer from a lack of funding and investment in proven business models, especially after receiving angel investor funding and before qualifying for venture capital. International organizations like the IFC and the World Bank have begun to pay attention to this space but it is only a start.

Finally, the lack of transparent and clear data surrounding education and employment in the region is a serious hindrance for startups in this space as they try to pivot.Regional governments need to be more transparent about the data they collect (assuming they are collecting the needed data) so that entrepreneurs can play a more effective role in helping them overcome challenges they face.

Why a War & Shrinking Economy Can't Stop Syrian Innovation

Despite the zeitgeist of violence throughout the nation, young Syrians are mustering an entrepreneurial spirit.

Startup Weekend, Startup Weekend Damascus, Syria

“Entrepreneurship isn’t only about advanced technology startups; a lot of [Syrians] are starting [non-technical] businesses, initiatives, and projects to solve local problems,” Al-Amjad Tawfiq Isstaif, a co-founder at Wikilogia, said. “The local needs are huge, and I think there is great potential.”

Developers, industrial engineers, and designers echoed this sentiment, as more than 400 participants registered to support the country’s first Startup Weekend.

Between a crowded, youthful conference room and a procession of Syrian business mentors, Startup Weekend Damascus was cause for optimism in the nation’s business community. The Startup Weekend format is based on a 54-hour incubation period for entrepreneurs, allocating time for team-building, mentorship, and product evaluation. Ideas are judged at the event’s conclusion, and teams are awarded further startup resources for their business.

Startup Weekend, Startup Weekend Damascus, Syria

“Seeing my talented friends and colleagues disappointed and uncertain about their future[s], and about the future of their country is the main motivation for me [to organize,]” Isstaif said. “No jobs, closed schools and universities, having to leave the country to make a living for your family… Entrepreneurship is a good answer to face all these challenges.”

T3DMaker, the event’s victorious startup, designed a 3D printing prototype from local resources. The team also intends to develop and sell plastic filament “ink” to accompany their domestically-manufactured product. T3DMaker will be provided a $1000 cash prize, and complimentary month of mentorship and workspace access.

Startup Weekend, Startup Weekend Damascus, Syria

Robox, an application-versatile robot that is easy to program, won second prize. Robox is programmed through a simple visual IDE that allows users to implement sophisticated applications without the need to write code.

Startup Weekend, Startup Weekend Damascus, Syria

Third prize was awarded to Pharmgram, an application dedicated to helping patients find more convenient pharmaceutical services, while providing drugstores with an easier means of informational exchange.

“The main challenge is to make the right balance between supporting and promoting entrepreneurship – which is of mid-long term [economic] importance – with the urgent [needs] of destruction and relief,” Isstaif said. “There are a lot of problems to solve, and cool ideas that can be applied locally, but you can’t build a scalable business around them… we are in a war, and there is no reliable entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

Isstaif said that the traditional approach preferred by many Syrian entrepreneurs is to build scalable businesses that do not relate directly to local needs, before moving business operations outside the country.

According to estimates by the WorldBank, Syria’s economy has shrank between 15%-20% during the last three years of civil war, and is ranked among the most difficult national economies in which to do business. This standard is evaluated by a general access to permits, basic utilities, property, investment, personal credit, and more.

In the case of Syria, an unrelenting, brutal war continues, despite UN-sponsored maneuvering in Geneva last week.

“The main problem we faced [in organizing] was uncertainty… and the safety problem,” Isstaif said. “Second comes things like electricity and internet availability.”

Startup Weekend, Startup Weekend Damascus, Syria

“The need for [Startup Weekend] came from huge community enthusiasm after launching an entrepreneurship program in Wikilogia Hackerspace,” Muhammad Al-Syrwan, a web developer and event organizer, said. “There were a lot of promising ideas that needed support, and at the same time there was no funding for them.”

Al-Syrwan suggested that Startup Weekend Damascus could help transition Syria from consumption to production in the global technology market.


“In Syria, there are no big companies in the technology production field, so there aren’t many job opportunities for graduate engineering students,” Al-Syrwan said. “The only way to make a good career is to make a startup. Otherwise [graduates] find themselves working as IT support, coders, or system administrators.”

Students and business people mingled intently in Damascus, as they have throughout the middle east this month. Startup Weekends have been hosted in Syria, Jordan, and Iran during February 2014.

Organizer Ahmad Sufian Bayram explained that the goal of this weekend does not fall short of creating local startups.

“We want to expand our community with help from Syrians all over the world, in order to build a supportive entrepreneurial environment,” Bayram said. “Startup Weekend events can be [a catalyst], but much more work is still needed.”

While other tech communities do not face the same challenges as Syria’s entrepreneurs, there is hopeful solidarity in pizza, soda, and three days of hard work.

See all the photos from Startup Weekend Damascus HERE.