The image of the Palestinian Territories, for most outsiders who have never had the chance to visit the ruggedly beautiful terrain, typically only involves the political stalemate that overshadows the incredible creativity and inventiveness of the Palestinian people. In many ways Palestinians seem to have entrepreneurship in their DNA. I had the opportunity to witness this first hand on a recent visit to the region, where I accompanied U.S. Special Representative for Global Partnerships Kris Balderston. He was leading a delegation of American entrepreneurs and investors seeking to harness this entrepreneurial spirit and celebrate the culture of innovation in the West Bank.
Palestine for a New Beginning, the Palestinian chapter of the State Department-private sector Partners for a New Beginning (PNB), hosted its second annual Celebration of Innovation (COI) on October 7 in Ramallah. This event brought together 15 teams of young entrepreneurs to present their business plans to a panel of private-sector judges. After listening to seven-minute pitches, the judges selected five winning teams. The Palestinian executives who make up the board of PNB have committed to providing the winners with additional training, mentorship, and funding to help them successfully start and grow their fledgling companies. A significant portion of the Palestinian business community, as well as the U.S. Consul General to Jerusalem, the Palestinian Authority (PA) Minister of Telcom and IT, and the PA Minister of National Economy, attended the event, portions of which were covered live by Palestine TV.
Brought together by the Aspen Institute (serving as PNB Secretariat), the U.S. delegation spent five days learning from the local chapter about the business, education, and investment climate in the West Bank. The PNB Palestine chapter was among the original six members of the PNB partnership and has been leading the way toward seeing opportunities in the midst of a challenging environment since its creation in 2010.
As PNB Palestine chair Zahi Khouri described to the group, "Diamonds are created under pressure, therefore it is only natural that Palestinians entrepreneurs are like diamonds within this region." The Celebration of Innovation brought together 28 young, aspiring Palestinian entrepreneurs from hundreds of applicants. The Palestinian PNB leadership sought to promote the best and brightest entrepreneurs to bring international attention to the business opportunities in the West Bank.
Over the course of our visit, the delegation mentored the young Palestinian competitors and visited entrepreneurs and incubators in Bethlehem, Nabulus, Jerusalem, and Ramallah. The delegation also participated in roundtables on education and universities within the West Bank, met with small businesswomen owners supported by Tomorrow's Youth Organization, and were briefed on the economic situation by Prime Minister Dr. Salam Fayyad. The visit culminated in a celebration announcing the five winners of the COI competition on October 7.
The five winning teams included a Gaza-based business that designs furniture for use in small spaces; a software company, also based in Gaza, that designs web and mobile Arabic educational games for children; a third Gaza-based company that uses technology to improve hydroponics, water usage, and grey water recycling; a female-owned sheep farm based in Nablus that is beginning to expand into the organic market; and a wind-power company planning on developing the first wind farm in the West Bank. While presenting their business plans, participants explained how they intended to overcome obstacles inherent to doing business in the West Bank and Gaza, such as the difficulties in securing permits from the Israeli government to build infrastructure, such as wind turbines, or the challenges in importing needed equipment into Gaza. The Palestinian organizers and large audience enthusiastically welcomed the Gazan participants in the program. (Of the 12 entrepreneurs from Gaza, only one had ever been outside the Gaza Strip before.)
With a commitment for seed-funding and mentorship by the PNB local chapter, each of these unique Palestinian diamonds were beaming and shining bright, proving that even in difficult climates such as the Palestinian Territories, where there is a will there is a way. Congratulations to each of the winners and all of the participants in the Celebration of Innovation. The Secretary's Office of Global Partnerships is excited to see how each of these young Palestinian diamonds progress and is proud to be a part of PNB Palestine's success.