Ghadeer AbuShaban is an entrepreneur from the Gaza Strip in Palestine and an Ambassador for Arab Women in Computing. She is the co-founder of BrailleBoard, a startup that improves smartphone accessibility for the visually impaired, and a member of the Gaza Sky Geeks startup accelerator in Gaza City.
Gaza Sky Geeks was founded with funds from Google.org and is a program of MercyCorps. The accelerator provides a coworking space and an acceleration program, as well as access to mentors, training, and investors. These resources are scarce in Gaza, where movement is restricted, unemployment is high, and the electricity grid is unreliable.
Gaza Sky Geeks is currently running a crowdfunding campaign and has raised funds for a generator, fuel, and staff so that the entrepreneurs can work evenings and weekends, doubling their productivity. The accelerator is now raising additional funds to launch a coding academy, fund internships for Gazans to go to tech companies in the US and EU, and to further develop women's programs. Their donors include Brad Feld (Managing Director, Foundry Group), Paul Graham (Co-Founder, Y Combinator), Dave McClure (Founding Partner, 500 Startups), Fadi Ghandour (Co-Founder, Aramex), Badr Jafar (CEO, Crescent Enterprises), and many others.
The interview was conducted over Skype and has been edited for concision and to smooth over interruptions due to power failure in Gaza and connection issues. Talking to Ghadeer about the challenges of being an entrepreneur in such an environment and the importance of Gaza Sky Geeks’ current crowdfunding campaign resonated even more in light of this.
To start off, it would be interesting if you could introduce yourself and BrailleBoard.
I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Information Technology from the Islamic Univeristy of Gaza. After graduation, I worked as a teaching assistant in the Faculty of IT at my university. BrailleBoard was my graduation project at university, which I continued working on as a startup after graduation. BrailleBoard is an application for visually impaired people that allows them to type in braille on touchscreen devices.
How did you get the idea for BrailleBoard?
I worked on BrailleBoard with my colleagues Esraa El-Ashqer, Ayat Abo Noqaira, and Noor El-Wadiya. We were looking for problems that face people with disabilities and how we can solve these problems with a mobile app. We noticed that most of the blind people at my university didn’t own a smartphone. When we asked them why they don’t have smartphones or touchscreen devices, they said that when they use a smartphone, they have to memorize the locations of letters on the keyboard, so they preferred using the buttons [on a feature phone]. We started BrailleBoard when we learned this.
What specifically attracted you to creating solutions for people with disabilities?
I believe that every person has to leave an impact in their society. I believe that people with disabilities are an essential part of the society. Sometimes, such people do not have all of their rights in practice and I believe that they have to have the same rights as everyone else. They shouldn’t face any difficulties to use anything in the world.
How did you find out about Gaza Sky Geeks?
I follow the news related to technology and events that happen in the [Information and Communications Technology] sector in Gaza and Gaza Sky Geeks is the most popular accelerator in Gaza. They were doing a lot of inspirational events and workshops in the field of ICT and entrepreneurship and I discovered them on Gaza Sky Geeks’ Facebook page.
So you were attending the events, and now you’re formally part of Gaza Sky Geeks.
Yes, I’m one of the members of the Gaza Geekettes, which is one of the programs that Gaza Sky Geeks runs for girls who care about coding and entrepreneurship. They advertised this group and I applied and was accepted to be one of the members.
What specifically attracted you to Gaza Sky Geeks and Gaza Geekettes?
There are other accelerators in Gaza, but they are not doing the same work as Gaza Sky Geeks. Gaza Sky Geeks has international relationships and a huge network outside of Palestine—these are missing from the other accelerators—and they bring this network to Gaza. Since we cannot travel outside of Gaza, we lose a lot of opportunities. But GSG brings these important networks to Gaza. This is what really inspires me about Gaza Sky Geeks.
They also have an amazing environment that attracts everyone to go to the coworking space. Anybody is welcome to work from there, whether its coding or working on their startups—and everyone helps each other there. This is really helpful and is needed in Gaza.
It seems like there is a lot of interest in entrepreneurship and technology in Gaza. I’m curious to know what the experience is like for being an entrepreneur there.
In Gaza, there is a big trend toward entrepreneurship currently. There is a huge lack of job opportunities here. I think Gaza has the highest unemployment rate, around 45%, and Gazans are trying to solve this problem by starting their own businesses. Gaza Sky Geeks is trying to help them to go through this process as [most Gazans] don’t have knowledge about how to start a business, how to measure if the idea is needed in the market or not, things like that. Gaza Sky Geeks provides the resources and the experience to go through this process successfully.
Do women entrepreneurs in Gaza face difficulties that male entrepreneurs don’t?
Sometimes the parents or husbands of women might prevent women from doing such activities. But currently there is a high percentage of women in business. I believe that sometimes, in my opinion, that women can do better than men in business. Also, from Gaza Sky Geeks, there is MommyHelper, an application to help mothers to deal with their children. There is another startup called Munasabat that delivers gifts outside of Gaza for people inside of Gaza. Programs like Gaza Sky Geeks help women to be more confident and pursue these businesses. Fifty percent of participants in Gaza Sky Geeks programs are women and they have many events for women. Last month, they had Lady Problems Hackathon in partnership with AngelHack.
Recently you had the opportunity to go to Silicon Valley. Can you tell me a bit about that?
I went to Silicon Valley with TechWomen, a mentorship and leadership skills program sponsored by the US Department of State. It supports women in STEM fields who are leaders in their society and who have the passion to leave an impact on their societies. Every girl in the program is hosted at a tech company. I was hosted at FitBit and was connected with two mentors to work on a project that I select to improve my skills.
I wonder if being in Silicon Valley gave you any thoughts upon your return about what are the important areas to focus on for entrepreneurs in Gaza.
Actually, there isn’t a lot of difference between the areas of focus in Silicon Valley and Gaza. The trends in ICTs in Gaza are the same. The big difference was the ability to be in direct action with people in Silicon Valley, this sometimes doesn’t happen in Gaza—except for the network that Gaza Sky Geeks brings. I had the chance to meet a huge network of people from very different backgrounds. I could talk to them without any barriers. In Gaza, I have to contact people through emails and LinkedIn, and this isn’t as productive.
On your trip to Silicon Valley, when you were able to talk to people who had never visited Gaza, what were some things people were surprised to learn about Gaza that they didn’t know?
Around the world, people usually connect Gaza with wars, but Gaza has another, bright side. People there are very successful and passionate about their future. I can mention a lot of success stories, especially from Gaza Sky Geeks, there is a startup called Baskalet that develops games for Android and iOS. They are now raising a second round of investment. People should think about Gaza that they have very good skills that could bring life back to Gaza. We are doing this through our startups.
Can you tell me about Gaza Sky Geek’s current crowdfunding campaign?
I’m happy to know that they have had a very successful campaign so far. The funds they raised for the generator and the additional staff will improve the working environment for entrepreneurs. If we raise the additional money to open the coding school and to fund internships, it will open even more opportunities for Gazan entrepreneurs.
What’s next for you and BrailleBoard?
I’d like to make it available for every blind person around the world. I am focusing currently on the Arab world. We will have it available in app stores soon. In the future, I would like to build a company that focuses on building solutions for people with many kinds of disabilities—solutions that will include people in society and will help them use technology more easily.
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