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October 11, 2011

Peace Through Entrepreneurship?

Palestinian delegation photo

I had an out of body experience last week.  A few days before Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in the Jewish calendar and a spiritual day of remembrance, I found myself in front of ten Palestinian high tech CEOs talking about entrepreneurship.  At the end of the session, they invited me to meet with Palestinian President Abbas to advise him on how to build a thriving IT sector (which now employs 3,500 across 300 companies).  How did this juxtaposition come about?

It all began a few months ago, when Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick visited Israel on a trade mission.  He met with numerous Israeli entrepreneurs to foster greater business partnerships and opportunities with Massachusetts businesses.  While there, he met with a few Palestinian entrepreneurs as well and invited them to come to Boston to establish closer relationships with local businesses.  Last week, they took him up on this offer - coming to both Boston and Silicon Valley to meet with business leaders from the IT industry.  The Boston visit was coordinated by the Progressive Business Leaders Network, a business organization I co-founded, and Governor Patrick came to meet with the group to welcome them to Boston.

Honestly, when I was invited to speak to the Palestinian delegation, I paused.  You see, my father is a Holocaust survivor and finished high school in Tel Aviv.  My kids attend a Jewish day school, study Hebrew, and are being raised, like I was, as ardent Zionists.  I donate money to AIPAC as well as our local Jewish federation (CJP).  Although I strongly support a two-state solution, I worry that anti-Semitism remains rampant in the Middle East and that the demonization of Israel and Jews is at an alarming high.  And so the question I asked myself before accepting the invitation was:  would a strong Palestinian IT sector be a good thing for peace in the Middle East?  What if the next Skype or LogMeIn was started by a Ramallah-based entrepreneur instead of a Swede or Hungarian, respectively - would that be a good thing?

My conclusion:  100% yes.  And after meeting with the Palestinian CEO delegation, I would say 200% yes.

Thomas Friedman said recently that the surest cure to poverty was entrepreneurship.  I would say the same regarding peace.  If the Israelis and Palestinians are busy cooperating commercially, creating jobs and wealth for both sides, it will meaningfully reduce the tension that unemployment and a lack of opportunity for young and old represent.

I was blown away by the group of Palestinian entrepreneurs – they had more in common with entrepreneurs in Boston, Silicon Valley and NYC than probably many of their own people.  They could have stepped right out of Techstars central casting – smart, scrappy, ambitious, hungry.  I enjoyed hearing their stories of their entrepreneurial journeys to create their companies.  (I joked with some chagrin with the one female in the delegation – pictured above – that their male : female entrepreneurial ratio matched our own).

Traveling with the delegation was a USAID executive who is assigned to the region to foster more business development with entrepreneurial companies.  I was able to enlist a Palestinian Harvard Business School student (we hosted the event at Harvard’s new Innovation Lab, which is spectacular), to join us.  He was raised in Bethlehem and worked at a Palestinian venture capital firm last summer, called Padico, scouting opportunities for investment.

Who knows what will happen with the peace talks, but if these ten entrepreneurs are any indication, there’s hope yet for peace in the Middle East through posterity and entrepreneurship.  At least that’s what I was praying for in synagogue on Saturday!  With the recent bombshell announcement that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has secured the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, perhaps we are a step closer.

 

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Last summer, I had Shabbat dinner at The King David Hotel. While I find the idea of "shabbos goys" extremely distasteful, most of the workers on Friday night were Palestinians (for fairly obvious reasons).

I got to talking with our server, a Palestinian who was doing CS at a local school. He was so excited to talk to me about various languages. I pointed him to a bunch of "teach yourself" style tutorials about Python and Ruby (and steered him away from the MS curriculum he was currently in). We talked about the elimination of the desktop and emergence of the browser/mobile as devices to aim for. We exchanged email addresses and occasionally stay in touch.

The Palestinian people, like the Israelis, by and large want peace and prosperity... for each other. I know why that road is hard, but if one just sits down with the people on each side you realize there is much in common...

For me, the commonality is that the MS libraries for development were clumsy and overpriced :)

Improving entrepreneurship among Palestinians seems indeed like the best way to achieve peace. I've thought for a long time that the best way to achieve peace in the area is to provide hope for both sides.

My question though is: does Hamas want such a thing to happen? Not only does this organization make a living out of the conflict, but a *lot* of Palestinians depend on governmental jobs - a convenient way to control people. Maybe I'm paranoid, but If I were a Palestinian entrepreneur setting shop in a Hamas-controlled area, I would carefully choose the workplace so that someone cannot target Israel by launching a rocket from the roof (if Israel responds and bombs the building, Hamas can accuse it of destroying Palestinian jobs, if it does not respond it has found an ideal place where it can launch rockets in total impunity)

I commend you on your willingness to explore beyond your comfort zone and engage with people that you would normally hesitate to engage. If only everyone were able to go beyond dogma and explore their commonalities, we could make the world a far friendlier place.

For now its our job to engage one person at a time and hope for the maximum results.

This summer, at Babson College, a unique program was started taking Israeli and Palestinian undergraduates onto the Babson campus to learn and start businesses with each other. After the summer program, the students went back to the Middle East to launch their respective businesses and the program continues to engage the students abroad. It's a fantastic program that fosters both peace and innovation. For more information you can check out the link below. Hopefully the program will continue for many years to come.

http://www.babson.edu/News-Events/babson-news/Pages/11815-Israeli-and-Palestinian-New-Businesses-Press-Release.aspx

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I enjoyed meeting the students and speaking with them about entrepreneurship.

So wonderful to hear a story of hope and optimism when it comes to israelis and palestinians. As someone very connected to their Jewishness and supportive of Israel, as you obviously are as well, i'm heartened to think that maybe there is a road to peace. Those of us involved in the Jewish community need to look outside a bit more and engage others as much as possible, while retaining a solid footing in our own religious values. is it possible to do both? Look forward to hearing more.

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