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Building an Ecosystem for Entrepreneurship in Palestine

Published 11/07/2012 by Global Communities

The Celebration of Innovation: Building an Ecosystem for Entrepreneurship in Palestine
By Vanessa Zuabi, Associate Director of Middle East Programs, Aspen Institute
This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post. 
Breaking boundaries by overcoming obstacles and taking risks embodies the spirit of entrepreneurship. A Palestinian entrepreneur living in the West Bank or Gaza experiences these challenges as part of his or her daily life. It is difficult to find hope behind checkpoints, barrier walls and increasing settlement expansion, but the future of Palestine lies in its entrepreneurial youth. Whether it is developing technology applications in Arabic for children’s education, or building wind farms to address depleting local energy sources, the next generation of Palestinians are not only driving change, they are creating a new future for Palestine through business solutions that solve everyday problems and celebrate the Palestinian spirit.
The energy of Palestinian young entrepreneurs and business people is palpable, but the eco-system to support them in Palestine is still nascent. While new small businesses sprout up every day, there is not a sustainable environment to equip entrepreneurs with the tools needed to scale their businesses. Ultimately, partnerships with individuals who can transfer know-how and expertise are key to advancing the entrepreneurial eco-system in Palestine.
In light of this, a business plan competition, the Celebration of Innovation (COI), hosted by Partners for a New Beginning Palestine (PNB Palestine), brought together the local and international business community to celebrate young entrepreneurs with social enterprise ideas. Young business people participating in the competition specifically address key gaps and needs within Palestine through their enterprises.
PNB Palestine is led locally by Zahi Khouri, CEO of the National Beverage Company, vice-chaired by Lana Abu Hijleh, Country Director of CHF International- West Bank/Gaza, and includes membership from the heads of the Bank of Palestine, PADICO, Paltel, and other large local businesses. Their mission in Palestine is to promote and encourage youth entrepreneurship and innovation. In an effort to support PNB Palestine’s priorities to promote youth entrepreneurship and enterprise development, Partners for a New Beginning, in cooperation with the Telos Group, facilitated an October delegation to Palestine, led by Kris Balderston, Special Representative of the U.S. State Department’s Global Partnership Initiative. The delegation was made up of American private sector angel investors, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who came to mentor and train young entrepreneurs competing in the Celebration of Innovation. The delegation did one on one mentorship sessions to help the COI finalists develop their business plans by presenting examples of transparent financial statements, as well as concise operational and marketing strategies. Equally important, the delegation mentored the Palestinian entrepreneurs presenting in the COI on how to pitch to investors.
The local Palestinian business community, through private sector driven initiatives, like PNB Palestine, has been stepping up to the challenge of supporting an effective environment for start-ups to succeed. When asked, “What is the biggest challenge to supporting start-ups?” Hashim Shawa, Chairman and General Manager of the Bank of Palestine, answered, “Well, the occupation is clearly the main obstacle. We’re trying to work around our daily challenges and provide training and guidance to youth to become the next generation of business leaders. It’s not going to be easy given the obstacles to doing business here, but we’re doing it anyway, in spite of occupation, and we need partnership and know-how from the U.S., the international community, and the Palestinian Diaspora.”
His sentiments are echoed across the board by Palestinian business leaders who are mentoring and guiding young people to create a viable business eco-system and support the development of entrepreneurship in Palestine. The most important goal in the short term is to help young entrepreneurs realize that they can develop businesses that have a positive impact on their community.
“This was my first time leaving Gaza,” explained a 24-year-old Palestinian entrepreneur, Alaa Abuiteiwi, who had been granted permission to travel from Gaza to the West Bank for the COI in Ramallah, on October 7, 2012. He and nine others had largely been cut off from the world, even the rest of their own country, but they traveled for almost 24 hours to present their business plans that day. For the first time, they were being allowed to meet with mentors, develop their business ideas, and stand up in front of a crowd of three hundred people to show that even in the most desperate of surroundings, entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, and hope still exist.
“We want to show the youth and especially these young entrepreneurs that presented tonight that we’re behind them, we support them, we’re proud of them, and they are not alone. Without knowing who the winners of this competition are, I’m pledging to invest in one of the businesses that presented here today. I hope that others here are inspired to do the same,” stated Zahi Khouri prior to the announcement of the top 5 businesses.
Brenden Chaney, Global Vice President for Global Entrepreneurship Week and a member of the delegation, said, that “Many of the young entrepreneurs we met with lacked a full understanding of how to start and scale a business; but their hunger for learning was immeasurable. That simply led me to imagine what it would be like if they had the exposure to more entrepreneurs from all across the globe. The next Facebook could come from a young Palestinian mind; they just need the exposure to grow.”
The culture of entrepreneurship runs deep in Palestine, but there is still a long way to go. “We need to encourage youth to think outside the box, take more risks with their business plans and for this we need the right educational tools, training and exposure to successful entrepreneurs to inspire our young people,” explained Dr. Sabri Saidam, co-founder of Education for Employment Foundation, advisor to the President on Information and Communication Technology and a board member of PNB Palestine.
As the international community and diaspora look for ways to contribute to the development of Palestine, our focus needs to be on the future: building partnerships to support initiatives like the Celebration of Innovation, and helping Palestine create a sustainable eco-system for entrepreneurship.