Can entrepreneurship bridge the Israeli-Palestinian gap?

Ohad Elhelo of Our Generation Speaks.
Ohad Elhelo of Our Generation Speaks.

Starting a new business or a nonprofit is inherently risky. Even more challenging is starting an incubator program that will pick a small set of businesses and nonprofits, and try to create an environment that will help them beat the odds and survive.

Then, layer on that half of the people who participate in the program will be Israelis and half Palestinians. For them, even the word “collaborator” has political connotations.

The person behind the new program, Ohad Elhelo, is a Brandeis University senior and former intelligence officer in the Israel Defense Forces. (Yes, that adds one more layer of complexity.) He has spent the last year-and-a-half rounding up $800,000 in funding — as well as signing up Israeli and Palestinian advisers — for the program, Our Generation Speaks. It kicks off in May, and among the supporters are former governor Deval Patrick, the Kraft family, Hani Alami, a Palestinian telecommunications entrepreneur, and Aron Ain, chief executive of the Chelmsford software company Kronos Inc.

Elhelo, a former lieutenant in Israel’s special forces, is painfully aware of how delicate the politics are — and he has worked hard to make sure the program isn’t seen as tilted toward one side or the other. “We believe there is a lack of leadership on both sides of the conflict,” he says.

Elhelo, 26, says the only thing that many Palestinians of his generation know “is Israelis in uniforms with weapons” and “the only thing Israelis know is Palestinians who throw stones at them.” His hope is that Our Generation Speaks can “build a relationship of trust as people work on these ventures together.”

About 175 people between 21 and 29 applied for the first cycle of the program this summer; Elhelo says the breakdown was approximately 50-50 Israeli and Palestinian, and evenly split between men and women. To apply, they needed to submit an idea for a “social impact venture” — either a for-profit business or a charitable entity that ideally will create positive effects in the region.

Sometime in March, 20 people will be selected to come to Boston for three months to participate in a program put together by Brandeis and MassChallenge, an entrepreneurship competition. Our Generation Speaks will pay for flights, housing, and the academic curriculum. It will also assign each a mentor from the local business community.

At the end of the summer, the plan is to supply $30,000 in seed funding for three ventures and their founders, who will be allowed to spend another six months developing their concepts in Boston.

Among the ideas submitted were technologies for using water more efficiently, and an app to make the wait at security checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank shorter. “When you have a clear record, rather than waiting 45 minutes every day, this would be like the TSA Precheck program,” Elhelo explains. A female doctor proposed building a shared hospital for Israelis and Palestinians, since the closest facilities to the Gaza Strip can be more than a half-hour away — and many physicians in Gaza are out of work.

Daniel Terris, a Brandeis professor advising Elhelo, says he interviewed young Palestinians and Israelis last month in places like Ramallah and Tel Aviv. While violence on both sides of the dividing line is an almost-daily occurrence, Terris says he “was really struck by the number of young people who said, ‘Things are difficult, but I really believe in a shared future for our two societies.’”

Terris says it was a conscious effort not to enlist politicians from the region in setting up Our Generation Speaks. He and Elhelo believe that “shared projects” — like starting a business or nonprofit — “can be a route to building shared societies. It’s a different way to get there than political negotiation.”

Of course, there is also the potential for economic impact once participants return home. Israel is well-known for its powerful entrepreneurial and venture capital ecosystem; the country has been dubbed “Startup Nation.” That’s not yet matched in areas governed by the Palestinian Authority. Alami, the Palestinian telecommunications entrepreneur who now oversees JEST, a startup space in East Jerusalem, writes via email that “throughout the years, we lost talented Palestinian entrepreneurs who moved out of Jerusalem. The fact they built — and often sold — their companies outside of Jerusalem has negative implications on the economic situation in the city.” He has signed on as an adviser to Our Generation Speaks.

Everyone acknowledges that there are some who don’t want to see the program exist — people who oppose any kind of normal interactions between Israelis and Palestinians. But Bhaskar Chakravorti, an associate dean at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, has studied entrepreneurship in emerging markets, and says that everywhere, “most people would like to have a decent livelihood, raise their kids, and live in peace.”

The region has seen “one form of failure layered upon another — usually failures of the political leadership or international organizations,” says Chakravorti, noting the average age in Gaza and the West Bank is about 20. “Instead of giving young people the wrong kind of tools, if we were to give them productive tools for entrepreneurship, there is a huge opportunity here,” he says.

Elhelo admits he’s not optimistic about Israeli-Palestinian relations over the next five years, but he remains committed to the long haul. His approach, he says, is to “create 20 change agents every summer, so that we know after five years, we have 100 people who have a shot at making change.”

“It’s a real long-term investment,” he says. “But we didn’t promise anyone that we are going to create peace tomorrow.”

I believe entrepreneurship almost always involves trying things that people say can’t — or shouldn’t — be done. So I’m eager to see what kind of foundation Elhelo and Our Generation Speaks can build.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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