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In Gaza, women see a future in high-tech startups

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Christa Case Bryant/TCSM

(Read caption) Nalan al-Sarraj (r.), a recent university graduate, hones her ideas at the Gaza Sky Geeks accelerator ahead of Start-Up Weekend, Gaza City, Gaza, June 9, 2014.

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When Nalan Al-Saraj won a scholarship to study in Palestine, Texas, for a year in high school, she had a hard time convincing people there that there was in fact another Palestine – her home, on the shores of the Mediterranean.

But now she and other female entrepreneurs are helping to put Palestinians on the map with bold start-up ideas. These young women, who have lived through four violent conflicts in the Gaza Strip, have harnessed the determination and resourcefulness demanded by daily life here into entrepreneurship.

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“We are not waiting for anyone anymore,” says Al-Sarraj, who graduated from Al Aqsa University just last year.

They also have the added advantage that they have a much easier time getting past Israeli security than their male peers, who are often held up by extensive questioning and background checks. When a CEO from Gaza was unable to get permission in time to leave for a month-long stint at the prestigious Oasis500 accelerator in Amman, Jordan, for example, Ms. Al-Sarraj was tapped to go in his place.

She came back with her own start-up idea – an online marketplace for Gaza graphic designers that enables them to hurdle Gaza’s physical and economic barriers and offer their services to the whole Arab world. At the fourth annual Start-Up Weekend run by Gaza Sky Geeks, which helps people launch high tech startups, she was among the winners of the first round.  The event, held June 19-21, drew a record number of participants.

“I want an investor,” she said in an interview ahead of the weekend.

The Start-Up Weekend, whose tagline is “No Talk, All Action,” drew 600 applications – up from 400 last year. Of those, a quarter were invited to participate, with a special emphasis on female entrepreneurs. They include a niche group of ladies who have been refining their ideas at Gaza Sky Geeks this spring, with the help of more experienced female mentors.

“We’ve been prepping the women for the past two months so they can shine at this event,” says Iliana Montauk, director of the Gaza Sky Geeks accelerator, which is run under the auspices of Mercy Corps’ Digital Economy Program.

Two of the entrepreneurs whose ideas have high-revenue potential, says Ms. Montauk, are Al-Sarraj and 16-year-old Sofiya Mosalam.

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Sofiya got the idea for a website to help mothers after long hours babysitting her first-grade brother and 2-year-old sister. “A mother with a baby 24 hours a day – she needs help,” says Sofiya, before ducking into a conference room to work with a graphic designer on the logo for her company, Boom Baby Boom.

“I came here, I knew zero about management,” she says in English. “Now my challenge is to prove to my family and everybody – it’s not about how old you are, or whether you’re a boy or a girl, it’s just about your dream.”