This morning, Sabine, Elizabeth and I were invited to a Gaza Geekettes meetup. Sabine gave an excellent talk about how she had overcome obstacles as a woman engineer in 1960s USA; Elizabeth described how she has dealt with some of the challenges she has faced as a female non-technical founder in a sector dominated by male techies; and I spoke generally about how women can support and encourage each other, and how we should always seize any opportunities to talk publicly about our work, however nervous we feel, because in doing so we open up the doors for other women to do the same.
Elizabeth, Sabine and I all paid due respect to the amazing women at the bootcamp; they really have been the absolute superstars of this whole experience. Without exception, the women taking part in the bootcamp are incredibly intelligent, very driven and ambitious, articulate (and in English too), lively, funny, and generally holding their teams and the whole show together. In the majority of the mixed gender teams that I've met with, it's been the female(s) who have either been the technical co-founder, or the CEO, or both. (It really puts us to shame in the UK - running Founders' Network, I'm lucky if I have two female startup founders at any of my events.)
I had a mentoring session with Dietii in the morning, co-founded by two women. Dietii is an app for the Middle Eastern market, to help Arabic women lose weight by giving them access to healthy recipes and enabling them to track their exercise and food habits. Dietii was a Gaza Sky Geeks bootcamp graduate from last year, and they have gone from strength to strength, the two co-founders building their business and app in their spare time whilst finishing up their final year at university studying software engineering. There were a couple of interesting cultural differences that came up in our conversation: I asked whether they had thought about making it possible for the users of the app to publicly declare their weight loss goals (based on the idea that if you publicly commit to something you are more likely to follow through). They said that this wouldn't work in the Middle East, and that at most a woman might tell her close family but no further than that. Fair enough. But I did manage to give them one piece of advice they hadn't yet received - the main photo on their app is of a woman holding up a doughnut in one hand and an apple in the other... and she is very clearly white and Western looking... they laughed out loud at that, and said that they'd make sure to change that photo to be more representative of their customers!
After a quick lunch, we headed out for a tech ecosystem tour of Gaza (for the uninitiated, a tech ecosystem is essentially all the components needed in a community / geography to enable tech startups to survive and thrive, so incubators, accelerators, co-working spaces, universities, mentors, meetups etc). There is an inordinate number of accelerators and incubators in Gaza City: in a place where youth unemployment is right up there at 60%, entrepreneurship is naturally seen as a viable alternative. We visited the University College of Applied Sciences Technology Incubator (UCASTI) who were running two entrepreneurship programmes concurrently: one funded by the Kuwait Development Bank, and the other funded by Oxfam. The most impressive piece of tech we saw there was an Arabic text-to-audio recognition software solution, whereby you could take a photo of Arabic writing, and it would be converted into text and audio for visually impaired people. It's especially impressive because of course Arabic is written in cursive, so it's a lot harder for a piece of software to "read" individual characters.
Other starups incubated at UCASTI included agriotech.com (linking agricultural engineers with farmers to advise on water and pesticide use); Kids Mobile (first Arabic language filter for YouTube content); Jeonr (automating Gaza's manual delivery services via an app); and a couple of "lo-tech" businesses, including a board game for kids based on monopoly to teach them holistically about how different elements of society work together (politics / commerce / agriculture / services etc).
Next stop was the Islamic University of Gaza, where they had two different incubators within the same building: SEED Projects (Startups Economic Empowerment and Development) and Mobaderoon ("Supporting Innovative Ideas in the ICT Sector"). As this was the Islamic University, Sabine, Elizabeth and I had to cover our hair. Luckily I had Heba on hand to lend me a pin and fashion my scarf around my head properly. Worst thing about the headscarf? It totes gives you a double chin...! Best thing about the headscarf? They are so pretty! The women wear a different one every day, coordinating with what they're wearing.
And yes, I know there is a bit more to the debate than that... but sometimes it helps to remember that the headscarf can be a form of self-expression. Heba told me that when she was in the States, she wouldn't always wear hers in private, but she'd always wear it in public because that was the right thing to do (in this day and age of social media). Huda (my interpreter) told me that she started wearing hers when she was 16, partly because she believed in its religious significance, but mostly because that was what was expected of her given the conservative society that she lives in. Arabic women have a million and one different reasons for wearing / not wearing the headscarf; it would be really quite nice if we could stop policing what women choose to wear... in general, not just related to the headscarf.
We had a quick stop at the Palestinian Information Technology Association of Companies (PITA) who work to promote the ICT and tech sector in Gaza and the West Bank, to support tech companies, and attract investment to the region. They run PICTI, the Palestinian Information & Communications Technology Incubator. I swear there is more incubation / acceleration activity happening in Gaza than there is in the North of England.....
It was then back to Roots for an afternoon of mentoring with five more teams. Dinner this evening was pretty incredible - a table full of freshly-caught fish in every guise you can imagine... shrimps in a garlickly sauce, prawns cooked in tomatoes, a local white fish BBQ'd and served with limes, fried shrimp, all kinds of salads... and Palestinian "fake 7-Up". It's our last full day tomorrow...!