Equality as an ingredient for peace: from Gaza to Ramallah to Tel Aviv

It’s hard to know if you can make a difference. Small actions, personal actions, can they in some small way change the path to peace? Who knows, but why not do them anyway just in case? Here’s the story of our efforts; the story of WE2, women for economic equality, and our mentoring mission in January 2018.

Early this year I led a delegation of Silicon Valley executive women to Israel, Gaza and the West Bank to mentor women entrepreneurs. As I posted before we left:  I am more deeply convinced now in 2018, than ever before, that the long-term path to a more sane, peaceful world is equality for women. The research is conclusive. Investing in girls and women transforms economies, and healthy, growing economies are more peaceful. We were six women from Silicon Valley with a broad set of experiences between us as entrepreneurs, leaders, engineers, lawyers, recruiters and product designers and plenty of experiences, good and bad, to share. Together we believe women achieving economic equality is essential for sustainable peace.

It was an extraordinary experience.

Tel Aviv is one of the great startup success stories with energy and intellect oozing out of every crack in the pavement and second only to Silicon Valley. But even in Tel Aviv startups need help and their statistics for women are bad as ours. Low numbers of female founders, crazy low percentages of venture capital going to women. Frustrating for Israeli women, but the norm in tech, and something we can actively change by mentoring and investing in women. I had done some business plan coaching for female Israeli founders a year earlier and so knew of the hunger for women mentors – and this time I reached out to the non-profit Startup Nation Central for help to put the delegation together – asking first if they thought there was demand.

SNC more than exceeded our expectations of what we could accomplish in a handful of days! We met with hundreds of female entrepreneurs, executives and aspirers through panels, round table coaching sessions and one on ones. We talked about the “hard knocks” of our careers and shared the experiences that we had learned from – such as grasping opportunities before you feel ready, taking risk, becoming a CEO or realizing being fired is sometimes the best thing that happened to you. We met with women board directors of Israeli companies to compare notes on the challenges of being (often the only woman) on boards and with leaders of non-profits working on the role of women in Israeli society.

We learned how even hip and liberal Tel Aviv is patriarchal, of the challenges working in startups or technical jobs while holding to Orthodox rules and the lack of role models for successful female CEOs.  I had naively assumed that since young Israeli women serve in the Army alongside of men they’d both be tough (and I know a few stellar examples) and would have equality opportunity. But not the case. Everyone spoke to us about the elite intelligence Unit 8200 (famous for cyber security excellence and the best unit to be from if you want to do a startup). In 8200 we learned that while the initial numbers of boys and girls joining are equal the gender stats are that the more technical the departments and roles, the lower number of women. Is this because you sign up for more years if you join 8200? Or because the roles are more technical? I doubt it, and no one we spoke to could explain it, but the Israeli women seeking equality for the next generation of technical entrepreneurs are trying to understand the underlying reasons.

Startup Nation Central also made sure we got educated about the politics too, which we appreciated. We listened to, and learned from, community leaders – political, societal and peace makers. It is an understatement to say the politics and history is complex so we chose to listen carefully, not take a position and to simply try to understand better than we did before. Some of what we heard appalled me, some reassured me. We learned a powerful metaphor for the calamity of the peace negotiations which has stuck with me: The Israeli and Palestinian political bodies are like a traumatized divorcing couple who can chose one of two paths. They can try to mutually destroy each other, and destroy the future for their children, or they can acknowledge their trauma and work together to create a future for their children. The metaphor fits the current situation and it is unclear which path will prevail in our lifetimes.

Our experiences in Gaza and the West Bank had very different top-level issues, and yet many of the core issues of being women in business are the same. How to raise money, how to grow your career, how to balance family and work, how to challenge the traditional role of women in your society when you know you can do more!

In Gaza we were hosted by Gaza Sky Geeks which is a subsidiary of the Mercy Corps NGO who arranged our entry. The Gaza Strip is a desperate place where the borders are controlled by Israel and Egypt, you cannot enter and residents cannot leave without a permit, which often is not granted.  Unemployment is 42% in Gaza, the highest in the world and youth unemployment is close to 60%. Poverty rates are high and living conditions are bad. Little clean water, limited electrical power, issues with sanitation, medical care, infrastructure maintenance… you name it it’s hard. And yet, to the great credit of the GSG leadership, the GSG team has built a tech accelerator with its own power and a shared work space for more than 140 young people, men and women, to learn how to code and to start small businesses, taking advantage of the freedom the internet and digital skills can provide. The space is warm, light and full of optimism, like an incubator should be. Volunteers come through frequently (by far the most useful are full-stack developers or people who can teach design thinking) and, like entrepreneurs all over the world, the young people we met with wanted to tell us about their businesses and the challenges they are up against.

Here we mentored both women and men. Some of us taught small classes on early stage product design, some reviewed business plans and worked with the entrepreneurs to find ways around the unique product development and distribution challenges Gazans face (remember the borders of Gaza are closed to all but a very few). The amounts of funding in Gaza are very small, maybe $10,000 to start a business, so it impressive to see how far some entrepreneurs have come on less money than many Silicon Valley startups would spend on frivolities.

We met with young women to share our careers and while our lives in Silicon Valley are, without question, so much easier than those of the women in Gaza, we had plenty of laughter around our shared experiences. The feeling of being overwhelmed and learning how to simply survive every day while your husband, children and job compete for your time, or to survive the judgement by others as to whether you should be a leader or not. But for many of the young women at GSG they not only had all our challenges and more; they are also working two jobs. One is their startup, the other is a paying job to survive. They just do not have the luxury to only work on their startup.

One example is Amal AbuMoailqe, a young woman who is a degreed, qualified mechanical engineer and who is CEO of a Gazan product and consulting company solving engineering problems she and her team sees in Gaza. Here is her product, the Sketch wheel, designed to help get heavy loads up stairs when you have no power. It is said “necessity is the mother of invention.” It is certainly true in Gaza.

We stayed overnight in Gaza City and, unlike when I visited a year ago, we were very limited in what we could do outside the office or the hotel. Tensions are high after America’s stated intention to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and so we were not able to walk around and explore. There isn’t money for maintenance for most properties (water came in under the window and flooded my hotel room floor when there was a heavy storm overnight) but food for special occasions, even in Gaza, is delicious and our hosts took pity on us before we left and took us out for kanafeh – the heavenly Palestinian dessert made of honey and cheese. Sharing the pleasure of food with friends is important, no matter what the situation.

And while in Ramallah there is more physical freedom than in Gaza, life is still very hard for entrepreneurial young women. There we met with students studying computer science and young women in technical and product roles who had so many questions about how to grow their careers. It’s so much harder for women to take risk with their careers in a society with high unemployment. They simply cannot put their current job at risk by applying for a new job, even in the same company. Low unemployment such as we have in tech in the US is a luxury which allows a young engineer to move around and try different roles to see what she most enjoys.

But high unemployment in the West Bank is also unleashing female business creativity. Because it can be hard to get a job, young women are building their own businesses in creative ways. We were also hosted by the Palestinian Business Women Forum where we met, and listened to, a remarkable group of young, female business owners. Traditionally women are not bakers in Palestinian society, and yet we met with three who are breaking with tradition and building bakery businesses. One is even now being hosted in London because of the quality of her desserts. One 28 year old woman had built a food distribution business to get local products from farm to store efficiently and determinedly shared her samples with us to show us the quality of the cheese. Women are organizing travel, designing clothes, using the internet and social media to get their message and products out.

It’s impossible to visit the West Bank and speak with Palestinians living there without feeling the pain of the ordinary people living with check points and restricted movement. As is so often the case the individual Israelis and Palestinians we met want peace. They hold no ill will at the individual level, but politics gets in the way. The emotion is intense and I was deeply moved by a Palestinian friend who, after a dinner we hosted, said to me in shock “I have never hugged an Israeli before” – yes women hug when they are talking about intense subjects.  I do not presume to take a position on the political crisis in the Palestinian territories – I say again this is complicated – but whatever the reasons the human pain and suffering being felt on both sides, for different reasons, is real. We felt honored and humbled to listen to young women’s stories and share, in some small way, our experiences with them. The trip also confirmed for me that I can read all the books in the world, and watch films and documentaries, but I cannot begin to understand until I go on the ground, experience and listen.

So was it helpful to the women we met? We hope so but from two very different perspectives.

First, the closer an entrepreneur was to having her business plan under way, and some level of product in development the more helpful we could be at a practical level. I met with an entrepreneur with a terrific voice analytics technology to diagnose the progression of dementia who needed business presentation advice, and one who has a brilliant idea (and patent) for stroke treatment who needs to talk with VCs with FDA and medical device experience. Advice, brainstorming and connections are things we can provide. Several of us are in follow up sessions on Skype and in person now; on the ground, sharing our practical experience and Silicon Valley resources.

But the second, which we did not fully appreciate beforehand, is that we are existence proofs that women can lead. We prove, consciously or not, that it’s possible and young women told us over and over how exciting it was to hear our stories – which we did our best to make funny and self-effacing. We talked about anger, and fatigue, and lack of confidence – we did not hold back on the reality of being women in the minority swimming against the current. We appreciate, and do not take for granted, how privileged our starting points were and yet the six of us also shared how hard we had to work, how much crap we took from some men around us and how much personal and professional risk we had to be willing to take to get ahead.

Finally, on a personal note, it is so clear to me that it’s time for women to take an equal role in business. It’s unacceptable that company after company, in Israel, in the West Bank, in the United States has all male leadership or maybe one token female executive or female board member. Women are half the population, they are highly educated in many cases, and we now know that when economically empowered they create a more peaceful society. It’s time for women to have economic power, economic opportunity, economic equality. And no more so than in places where peace is so elusive.

Thank you to the Startup National Central, to Gaza Sky Geeks, to the Palestinian Business Women Forum and the Ramallah executives (you know who you are) for organizing and hosting us, and to Indagare for arranging our travel. We self-funded our trip. If you’d like to help the women on the ground come with us next time and/or invest in women led startups in the region.

Here’s my TV interview on our delegation on i24 while in Tel Aviv:

A delegation of female Silicon Valley tech executives & entrepreneurs are helping empower their Israeli & Palestinian counterparts; Penny Herscher & Start-Up Nation Central's Ayelet Tako on i24NEWS English's #TheRundown, with Calev Ben-David & Nurit Ben

Posted by Calev Ben-David on Tuesday, January 16, 2018


Our delegation with Israeli community leaders who are advocating for equal opportunities for women

Three of us on a panel in Tel Aviv sharing “hard knocks”

With young women who are building their own businesses in Ramallah

Selfies are a big deal in Gaza Sky Geeks

Two types (Gaza and Nablus styles) of amazing kanafeh. We were hooked!