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Incubating women's businesses in the Palestinian territories

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Ammar Awad/Reuters/File

(Read caption) Palestinian women sit together at a newly opened upscale Italian cafe in the West Bank city of Ramallah in July 2012. Tomorrow’s Youth Organization serves as a support system to Palesinian businesswomen, encouraging new enterprises.

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In the Palestinian territories, entrepreneurs are everywhere, but successful businesses are hard to come by.

The economic situation in the Palestinian territories is uniquely difficult, and aid agencies have stepped in to help maintain living wages as much as possible under the blockade imposed by Israel. In recent years, business development and entrepreneurship programs surfaced across the West Bank and Gaza, and suddenly there was an influx of people trying to start their own business to escape the crushing levels of unemployment.

However, many of the programs put in place lacked follow-through. Entrepreneurs were left to sink or swim on their own. “It was like walking them to a cliff,” explains Samin Malik, coordinator of Women’s Empowerment Programs at Tomorrow’s Youth Organization based in Nablus. So TYO took a different approach—instead of just helping female entrepreneurs launch businesses, it helped promising new women-run businesses survive.

TYO’s Women’s Incubation Services for Entrepreneurs (WISE) brought back six businesses that had developed a foundation from their initial women’s entrepreneurship program—Fostering Women Entrepreneurs in Nablus, and recruited nine additional female entrepreneurs by running advertisements in local newspapers, radio, and on Facebook. The requirements were simple—businesses had to have a foundation or business plan already completed, and had to be based in the northern West Bank.

Candidates who responded to ads underwent two rounds of interviews, designed not only to determine the entrepreneur's eligibility for the program, but also to assess her strengths and needs moving forward. Partnering with the Small Enterprise Center, TYO sent their final 15 candidates to one-on-one coaching early in the process in order to set their women up for targeted support and success. Additionally, the year-long incubation project will provide marketing, access to capital, and financial-growth trainings, as well as business English and social-media training facilitated by last year’s Palestinian TechWomen delegation.

When planning for an incubation center, TYO kept in mind that the conservative culture in the Palestinian territories often limits businesswomen’s opportunities to participate in meetings, classes, conferences, and other development programs. Furthermore, the psychosocial environment at times leaves women discouraged when they do not see immediate growth or results in their efforts to propel their businesses forward.

By planning programming in the mornings and weekends, TYO is able to work around many of the restrictions on women’s mobility. Not only that, but establishing the TYO center in Nablus as the base for WISE, they are able to fill a gap by being the only business incubation center in the northern West Bank geared to women, and provide support to women who may not be able to travel all the way to Ramallah, where such programs are more common. By serving as a support system to the businesswomen, Samin and Inas Badawi—a local Palestinian—provide examples of female-to-female support that is uncommon in Nablus, and try to foster the same sense of encouragement between the women they work with.

It is this model of American-Palestinian cooperation that sets TYO’s WISE program apart from other entrepreneurship trainings in the Palestinian territories. Their model provides them with contacts and networking within the West Bank, but also regionally and internationally because of the center’s connections with the US State Department, the British-based Cherie Blair Foundation and US organizations that support women's empowerment in the Middle East. While TYO is technically an American NGO, it is run largely by local staff like Inas and youth volunteers from An-Najah University. Due to its sustainable and holistic approach, TYO's incubation doesn’t just focus on building better businesses, but building a better community where women are integrated and have full participation in society.

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Struggling businesses may currently be the rule in the West Bank. But the 15 businesses in TYO’s Women’s Incubation Services for Entrepreneurs program are proving to be the exception.

This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

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