The mentorship program at Gaza Sky Geeks pushes young entrepreneurs to solve problems themselves. Creatives Arthur Lang and Tom Hayton share their mentoring experience and innovative challenges in the conflict zone.
Cradled between the waves of water and conflict, the region of Gaza is historically cloaked in protest. A struggle over the religious and cultural significance has led to extreme isolation and a diaspora of interruptions limits daily life. The comprehensive system of checkpoints form boundaries that affect intellectual and spatial chances, layering an elaborate exclusion from the outside world.
However tough the political climate, the cultural and religious landscape of Palestinian territories has sprung creative technologists, developers, and innovators actively life-hacking their way into the tech world. At the center of a stripped back ecosystem, Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG) stands as the first accelerator in the region that provides locals with coworking space, workshops, and events. It was one of the first partners in the Google for Startups network as a way to help highly educated youth to overcome restrictions on movement and potential. Searching to open-up innovation in the isolated settlement, eight mentors, including full-stack visual designer Arthur Lang and creative director Tom Hayton, had a mission to mentor a women’s hackathon in Gaza, demonstrating that tech has no boundaries.
How did you find out about mentoring opportunities at GSG?
Arthur: I was amazed to hear about a tech hub in Gaza in the community newsletter. I’ve always been very curious about the Arab world, especially mentoring in that interesting atmosphere. I wanted to know what projects they work on, how they manage, about daily life, and how knowledge gets shared between entrepreneurs.
Tom: I met GSG at TechCrunch Disrupt in 2018. I’ve been mentoring early-stage startups and give talks on tech in crisis situations, advised NGOs on deploying strategies in crisis situations, and even worked with the British Council to provide online learning and development for Syrian teachers affected by the Civil War. I am also a mentor at ReDi School, a career development program for newcomers in Europe.
I’m interested in how technology helps people affected by conflict and am involved with humanitarian hackathons in Europe. There are limitations on how tech can help people who experience some crisis or distress due to conflict, but it can be used to help people at scale.
How would you manage your career if you were based in Gaza?
Tom: I don’t think I’d be able to manage my career from Gaza. Everything is severely restricted including my movements. As a person from Gaza, I wouldn’t have the know-how or the resources. The economic situation is challenging for many reasons, which you can read about elsewhere. GSG enables local entrepreneurs to engage with the global economy through hackathons or programming gigs, or remote work platforms. It’s allowing people to overcome local challenges. There’s very, very high unemployment, particularly among young people and women. GSG plugs skilled, often self-taught people into the digital economy.
Even though I have some experience with remote work, it’s difficult to compare my privileged situation with theirs. We were exposed to a tiny sliver of successful people who have managed to create something. The majority live below the red line and are dependent on aid. It’s hard to convey.
Arthur: I think it’s possible, but from a very different context due to the shortcomings. There would be limitations, which is the main reason I moved from Brazil to Berlin. There’s just no comparison. In Gaza, they have to create opportunities for themselves and for their own community. They have to break free and do whatever is possible. They are doing it well and the culture is full of confidence and dedication, which is key to managing a successful career path.
Which skills are harder to teach?
Arthur: From online platforms, it would be conceptual design. In Gaza, that’s the main mode for learning new skills. Obviously there are exceptions, but it is a critical issue there. Almost everyone at GSG knew how to code, but few had design skills. Core competencies are harder to build in this context, especially for design because outside influences are important. You have to mix cultures and address a diverse audience most of the time for tech. It is an immediate challenge and limitation because they cannot leave.
Tom: It’s very impressive how people manage with very limited resources. I met a fluent English speaker who learned everything online and to a very high standard. It was super impressive. There’s never more than a few hours of electricity per day (four or five hours) and it’s not necessarily continuous. You don’t know when it’s going to come back on again. Also, it’s generally harder to get the experience of other design cultures. To get feedback from people who have another perspective, a different background, a different environment, or culture is truly valuable. Most Gazans have never left Gaza. This shows how the internet can create opportunities for people at a very low cost.
Tom: Although there might be certain assumptions about what defines good design, it’s all relative to culture. All good work involves a feedback process. As a mentor, we share our experience but as mentors, we are also learning.
What makes an excellent mentor?
Tom: The most important quality is empathy. Understanding that it’s a two-way process and learning for the mentors as well. This particular experience had a big learning curve for everyone due to its highly unique context.
Arthur: Empathy. Since you’re there to help the mentee, you need to put yourself in their shoes, connect, and understand the kinds of challenges they face. It means opening up and it could mold your perspective. It’s not showing up with a toolbox and fixing stuff. It’s about empowerment and enabling people. In order to do that, it takes a strong sense of empathy.
Startups in Gaza continue to scale despite a catalog of challenges and fierce interruptions. While the power of the internet provides the infrastructure for entry into the digital space, it’s paramount for education, empowering local economies, running a business, and a platform for overcoming forms of restriction. The collective experiences from interacting with a diverse group of mentors and industry experts empowers and shape Gaza’s brand of innovation and it is being shared past the checkpoint.