Nearly four years ago, Jess Erickson started a program called Geekettes as a way to bring diversity into the tech ecosystem. She set out on a mission to reach out to women around the globe, bringing them together in the hopes of building a community around developing technology.
After launching in cities throughout the U.S. and in Europe, Erickson, who is also the director of diversity at 500 Startups, along with her cofounder, Denise Philipp, set their sights on Gaza in Palestine. Accordingly, they have partnered with Gaza Sky Geeks, the first and only startup accelerator in the country, to support female entrepreneurs. The goal of this new hub is to provide opportunities, innovation, job creation, startup support, online workshops, and inspiration to the “next generation of ladies” entering the market.
An area that’s roughly twice the size of Washington, D.C., Gaza is said to offer a more equal playing field for women when it comes to taking leadership roles in the startup space. Run by the global humanitarian organization Mercy Corps, Gaza Sky Geeks has the big responsibility of supporting Gaza’s slowly growing startup scene, and roughly 50 percent of its startups are run by female founders.
Gaza Sky Geeks also has a mentorship program called Intalqi that pairs potential female entrepreneurs with female tech mentors from areas outside of Gaza, including the U.S.
“There are a lot of young women in Gaza who are interested both in technology entrepreneurship and in software development,” said Wafaa Bardawil, a co-ambassador for Gaza Geekettes. “At the Al-Azhar University in Gaza, where I am studying Computer Systems Engineering, about half of the students are female. The start of the local Geekettes chapter gives this entire community new global opportunities.”
While there is a burgeoning startup market in Gaza, it’s not without its challenges. In addition to political and social conflicts, civilians face infrastructural problems that are particularly difficult for entrepreneurs. For one thing, electricity is only available for six hours a day, which presents a considerable challenge to tech-based development.
While some programs look to establish hubs in developed markets, Erickson told VentureBeat that she’s looking to establish more chapters in other emerging areas, particularly countries in Asia: “This is the first emerging market we’re launching into and we’d like to help support the innovative community in Gaza. With Mai and Bardawil (two Geekette ambassadors) at the helm of this new hub, we’ll be able to build a strong community of women there and connect them with global resources, mentors, and our Geekettes network.”
Erickson said that she hopes Geekette’s involvement will double the percentage of women entering tech companies in 2016. “Women of Gaza want the opportunity to grow, learn, and connect with tech communities all over the world. We’ve seen the power of the Geekettes movement in Europe and the United States and we’re excited to take this to a new region.”
Besides Gaza, Geekettes has operations in Berlin and Hamburg, Germany; Maastricht, Netherlands; London, England; Lisbon and Porto, Portugal; New York City, New York; and Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota.