How Gaza’s only startup accelerator achieved a record-shattering crowdfunding campaign…
Gaza Sky Geeks is the only startup accelerator in Gaza. In January, it ran a wildly successful crowdfunding campaign, exceeding its goal of $70,000 within the first week to raise more than $267,000.
Iliana Montauk, Mercy Corps’ director of Gaza Sky Geeks, shared with The Venture insights from the crowdfunding success and the incredible impact being made on the war-torn region.
Mercy Corps, the global humanitarian organization, launched Gaza Sky Geeks in 2011 thanks to a $900,000 donation from Google.org (the charitable arm of Google). By the end of 2014, Gaza Sky Geeks had hosted over 100 technology and business trainings for more than 1,500 Gazans, increasing their awareness of startups. Just two years after we ran our first startup competition, the first four Gazan startups obtained seed investment from international investors.
We saw that we had created a movement that was only growing stronger. Over 650 Gazans applied to our Startup Weekend competition in 2014, twice the number that applied in previous years. Investors were also asking us about more investment opportunities. The original grant was finished, however, so our team decided to find a new approach to funding the accelerator, and we chose crowdfunding.
We went this route for several reasons. We had seen a lot of engagement on social media during the Gaza conflict the previous summer, indicating that individuals wanted to understand the conflict and help create change. We believed that this community would understand and throw its weight behind our work. Also, in our previous fundraising, we had found that we were facing a limited set of potential strategic partners because of our geography.
The Middle East – and Gaza in particular – was not viewed as an investment priority because of the perceived impact of instability on the region’s opportunities. What many people didn’t realize, however, was that our entrepreneurs are like entrepreneurs anywhere in the world, and political instability affects their prospects much less than people often assume. We wanted to share that message with an audience that could respond to it quickly.
Finally, in addition to raising funds, crowdfunding was a way to raise awareness. From the outset, one of our goals was to change the image of Gaza abroad, showing the world portions of Gaza that do not typically get represented in the media.
We had no idea how successful the “Gaza Starts” campaign would be. It turns out we achieved the largest crowdfunding campaign to date in the Arab world (to the best of our knowledge). We wanted to have a big impact by running the campaign, but we didn’t know we’d be creating history!
The over $267,000 we raised will:
1)Keep our co-working hub open so that Gaza’s startup community retains its heart (the place that convenes our community, allows people to meet, etc.) and its necessary infrastructure (our generator gives startups stable access to electricity).
2) Allow us to run another round of the “Big Sister/Little Sister” outreach program, which connects Gaza’s female startup founders with young women who demonstrate high potential and could benefit from additional mentorship. Thanks to this program, women’s participation in Gaza Sky Geeks is now almost 50 percent.
3) Keep Gaza Sky Geeks fully staffed through the end of 2015 so that we can support our existing startups and run a second round of investment and acceleration. This will include a key outreach event to make sure we are bringing more talent into Gaza’s startup pipeline.
Gaza Sky Geeks has generated tremendous enthusiasm among young people in the Gaza Strip. This past summer during the conflict, in fact, GSG ran its biggest Startup Weekend ever. More than 650 Gazans applied, and 150 were accepted; the youngest participant was just 13 years old.
In a region so full of conflict, how has the opportunity for entrepreneurship changed the participants’ outlook? Most people in Gaza have never heard of a startup. Their knowledge of what’s taking place in the world — and how they can contribute to it — is extremely limited. After attending our events, participants say they now realize what opportunity exists, and they want to prove that Gaza, too, can produce innovative products that can compete in a global market. Many of them become hooked on the culture of entrepreneurship. They ask us to bring them books with advice from the top entrepreneurs around the world. They also follow important trends in entrepreneurship online, and study business or technical fields in order to have an impact.
Although the crowdfunding campaign has ended, if people would still like to support Gaza Sky Geeks they can make a donation at www.gazaskygeeks.com/en/donate
To learn more about Mercy Corps, visitwww.mercycorps.org
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