Sheffield entrepreneurs head to Gaza to mentor young people

Sheffield-based entrepreneurs volunteer their time to help coach young people in Gaza for the Gaza Sky Geeks programme. Elizabeth Shassere mentors participants.

Sheffield-based entrepreneurs volunteer their time to help coach young people in Gaza for the Gaza Sky Geeks programme. Elizabeth Shassere mentors participants.

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Two Sheffield-based entrepreneurs will travel to Gaza to give business advice to enterprising young people.

Elizabeth Shassere and Laura Bennett are taking part in Google’s Gaza Sky Geeks, which supports people living in the Palestinian territory to establish tech startups.

Sheffield-based entrepreneurs volunteer their time to help coach young people in Gaza for the Gaza Sky Geeks programme. Laura Bennett and Elizabeth Shassere.

Sheffield-based entrepreneurs volunteer their time to help coach young people in Gaza for the Gaza Sky Geeks programme. Laura Bennett and Elizabeth Shassere.

Elizabeth runs Textocracy, a texting-based feedback firm, and has already taken part in the scheme once, while Laura is programme manager for digital accelerator Tech North, and is going for the first time.

The pair are preparing to fly to Gaza at the end of the month, thanks largely to the support of the startup community in Sheffield.

Elizabeth called her first visit in October last year a ‘life-changing’ experience.

“The people are incredibly warm, welcoming and generous,” she said. “They are full of hope and ideas. They really do appreciate it when people come to Gaza, because it’s not a straightforward journey to make.”

Sheffield-based entrepreneurs volunteer their time to help coach young people in Gaza for the Gaza Sky Geeks programme. Elizabeth Shassere with some of the entrepreneurs.

Sheffield-based entrepreneurs volunteer their time to help coach young people in Gaza for the Gaza Sky Geeks programme. Elizabeth Shassere with some of the entrepreneurs.

The idea behind the Gaza Sky Geeks programme was to open up the huge Middle East and North Africa market and make the most of the skill base in the regions.

Elizabeth said: “The Middle East and North Africa has millions of people and is a massive untapped market.

“But it also has some of the most highly skilled and talented young people in the world who just need access to training and mentoring to create jobs and companies back in their home countries.

“Gaza is a place of 1.8 million people. It’s got a large young population who are highly educated. But the employment rate for under-25s is about 70 per cent.”

Sheffield-based entrepreneurs volunteer their time to help coach young people in Gaza for the Gaza Sky Geeks programme. Elizabeth Shassere with some of the entrepreneurs.

Sheffield-based entrepreneurs volunteer their time to help coach young people in Gaza for the Gaza Sky Geeks programme. Elizabeth Shassere with some of the entrepreneurs.

During her last visit, Elizabeth arrived during a startup weekend – the kind of event that happens regularly in Sheffield and across the UK. She sat on the judging panel, then helped the winners move their ideas on to the next stage.

“There were 150 people, and half were women, which was quite an unusual achievement,” said Elizabeth.

“There are only about 20 of these visas awarded every year so when mentors are able to go, the people there are really hungry for this sort of experience.”

She added: “There are many travel restrictions and they are unable to get out of Gaza. When people bring stories of other places they really do lap it up.

Sheffield-based entrepreneurs volunteer their time to help coach young people in Gaza for the Gaza Sky Geeks programme. Walking into the Gaza strip through the 1km 'cattle chute'.

Sheffield-based entrepreneurs volunteer their time to help coach young people in Gaza for the Gaza Sky Geeks programme. Walking into the Gaza strip through the 1km 'cattle chute'.

“It helps them understand how to position themselves to have a global opportunity and make a success of their company.”

There was no shortage of ideas at the startup weekend.

“Some were basically a way to have the things we take for granted in Gaza,” said Elizabeth. “They might have decided to recreate something like Amazing or an e-commerce site.

“There was a lot of edu-tech. Things to help people learn to speak Arabic, programmes to help children learn English. Even things like an Arabic humour website.”

Elizabeth and Laura hope to use their knowledge to inspire a new set of entrepreneurs during their upcoming visit. And they also plan to ease the difficulties faced by young people looking to get into business in Gaza.

Elizabeth said: “For business, some of the main challenges are that they don’t have a steady, reliable electricity supply. You have to deal with it cutting out, which restricts access to the internet.

Sheffield-based entrepreneurs volunteer their time to help coach young people in Gaza for the Gaza Sky Geeks programme. One of the workshops.

Sheffield-based entrepreneurs volunteer their time to help coach young people in Gaza for the Gaza Sky Geeks programme. One of the workshops.

“They have trouble getting equipment. They ask us to bring as much stuff as we can.”

But an intermittent electricity supply is far from the biggest problem facing people in Gaza. Earlier this week Israel launched a barrage of air strikes in response to a rocket attack by Palestinian militants.

Elizabeth said: “Setting up a business in Gaza is challenging, and that’s before you even talk about safety issues that people have to deal with every day. It was striking how much people could accomplish in such an environment. They do just get on with it.”

The women have set up a fundraising website to gather donations for their trip.

n Visit www.gofundme.com/gaza-sky-geeks to help.