Upwork and Gaza Sky Geeks Bring Remote Work To Gaza

Hawwa Muhammad
Hawwa Muhammad
July 12, 2023
Upwork and Gaza Sky Geeks Bring Remote Work To Gaza

What does the future of work look like for a region experiencing economic and geographic isolation? Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG), the first coworking space, accelerator, and code academy in the Gaza Strip, is working to answer that question.

The Gaza Strip is a small territory, bordered by Egypt, Israel, and the Mediterranean Sea, with a deep history, rich culture, and fraught geopolitical conditions. The last 75 years have been marked by resource scarcity, violent uprisings, and hotly contested issues of sovereignty and statehood. These factors, among others, have created a particularly difficult environment for economic stability and job creation.

In 2011, GSG, formerly known as the Arab Developer Network Initiative, was launched as a Mercy Corps initiative with support from Google for Startups to promote economic stability and propel a digital economy in the region. What started as a coding camp focused on mobile app development quickly became a suite of programs focused on tech skills and business development. In 2014, GSG launched Big Sister, Little Sister, a mentorship program to address gender disparity in tech (almost 80% of Palestinian females completed secondary school in 2022, but fewer than 20% typically enter the workforce). In 2015, they launched GeeXelerator, an intensive eight-month accelerator to support tech startups across the region. Shortly thereafter, their Code Academy was born, enrolling learners in a six-month-long web development bootcamp covering JavaScript, relational databases, UX design, and project management.

These early programs provided learners with the skills needed to succeed in tech jobs; the problem was, local tech jobs were in short supply. GSG needed a larger job market for their graduates to tap into.

Entering the world of remote work

As GSG was becoming more established, so too were remote work opportunities. The rise of digital work enabled people to work from anywhere and the demand for highly skilled tech talent was soaring, causing companies to look beyond their local community for talent.

Saed Habib was an early user of Upwork, the world’s work marketplace that connects talent with businesses across the globe. Saed’s freelancing journey began in 2014 when he was studying Information Technology at the Islamic University of Gaza. A guest lecturer at the University introduced Saed to Upwork and he quickly found work on the platform. Saed was so successful that in February 2015, MercyCorps tapped him to lead training for graduates in the region to help them secure freelancing jobs on Upwork. Later that year, Saed connected Upwork with GSG and by 2017, helped to launch the Freelance Academy, a three-month mentorship program designed to teach skilled talent (those who already completed the Code Academy) how to pursue a freelance career and successfully leverage Upwork. In 2018, Saed became the program manager for what is now called Skylance Academy and within two years, had helped 1,300 Gazan freelancers join Upwork and secure work as software engineers, UX developers, and english translators.

In 2018, a member of Upwork's Community team traveled to Gaza to meet with local talent and share best practices around leveraging the platform to win more work. Through a bootcamp titled "RiseUp on Upwork," participants learned how to build strong profiles, better market skills on the platform, and craft successful project proposals on Upwork. Just two weeks following the RiseUp On Upwork bootcamp, over 30% of participants had secured at least one freelance job.

With this, a unique partnership was formed. The Upwork Academy team and GSG continued to collaborate and worked to find ways to further support Gazan talent and to enable them to submit more proposals to clients. Upwork also shared real-time data about in-demand technical skills with GSG staff to inform their program development. According to Lindsey Silvestri, Manager of Upwork Academy programs, “GSG was a unique partner because they tailored their programs around how to succeed as a freelancer on Upwork. We hosted group sessions to discuss best practices in using the platform and GSG-specific Office Hours led by an Upwork Coach, but what contributed to their success, more than anything, was the fact that they were motivated and engaged.”

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Funding expansion

In order to pilot new programs, Gaza Sky Geeks needed new sources of funding. The Upwork Foundation was there to help.

The Upwork Foundation (TUF) was established in 2018 with a mission to bridge the global opportunity gap by funding initiatives that connect marginalized communities with life-sustaining knowledge work, regardless of their location. In addition to funding activities traditionally connected to workforce readiness and entrepreneurship—education, skills-based and vocational trainings, job placement, business accelerators—The Upwork Foundation supports programs that enable marginalized communities to build work around their lives, not the other way around.

This presented a great opportunity for GSG, who was invited in 2020 to apply for, and received, a $50,000 grant from The Upwork Foundation to launch “She Rises on Upwork,” a six-day version of RiseUp on Upwork to promote and upskill women from Gaza who had active profiles on Upwork but no earnings.

In 2021, The Upwork Foundation provided funding to Gaza Sky Geeks again, this time in the form of a $100,000 (US) unrestricted grant. Hannah Erickson, Upwork’s ESG Sr. Program Manager and Foundation Lead, saw the clear connection between GSG’s model and the Upwork Foundation’s mission, “GSG’s success up to that point was incredibly inspiring and we wanted to help them sustain their programming while also testing new offerings and expanding their reach.”

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The future is looking brighter

Upwork’s long-running and evolving partnership with GSG has helped the company shape its Upwork Academy offerings, which connect talent on Upwork with coaching and learning paths centered on building a successful freelance career. M’Chelle Ryan, Director of the Upwork Academy shared, “GSG has become a strategic thought partner for our Academy team, giving us insight into freelancer education gaps and helping us identify opportunities to expand freelancing courses and learning path topics. In fact, they inspired our new Upwork Agency learning path, which features one of Upwork’s successful agency owners providing tips and best practices for talent looking to start their own agency.”

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For Gaza Sky Geeks participants, tapping into remote work opportunities has proved valuable. In 2022, a full-time freelancer in Gaza earned $1,110 (US) per month, on average, within 12 months of graduating from the accelerator (Gaza Sky Geeks, 2023).This is over four times the average wage in Gaza.

Since partnering with Upwork in 2018, GSG has onboarded over 4,000 freelancers to the work marketplace and launched four freelancing bootcamps. Saed Habib, now Deputy Director for GSG, has been instrumental in helping Gaza Sky Geeks expand their reach to the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Iraq. Gaza Sky Geeks is proud to report that women make up 50% of their programs. As for GSG’s future plans, they’re developing programs around more technical skills tied to cloud computing and artificial intelligence. They’re also working with local companies to develop six-month paid apprenticeships for GSG graduates.  

While Gaza and the greater area served by GSG face new and ongoing challenges brought on by political unrest, the COVID-19 pandemic, and multiple refugee crises, the GSG team remains optimistic about the region’s future and steadfast in creating a future of work that knows no boundaries.  

Learn more about the Upwork Academy and The Upwork Foundation, or visit the Gaza Sky Geek’s website to learn about their work across the Middle East.  

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Hawwa Muhammad
Social Entrepreneur

Hawwa (@hawmuh) is a social entrepreneur with a passion for creating systems and launching strategies that help mission-driven organizations build a solid foundation for their work. With extensive experience working with local and international nonprofits over the course of a decade, she brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the social sector. Hawwa is based in Newark, NJ.

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