By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
Nine months ago, Seth Cohen, director of network initiatives for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and Randall Lane, editor of Forbes Magazine, were schmoozing about the “vibrancy of Tel Aviv and soul of Jerusalem,” as Lane put it.
They dreamed about how they could bring young and innovative millennials to the so-called “start-up nation.” From April 3-7, Forbes turned that dream into a reality. Israel played host to the first-ever Forbes Under 30 EMEA (Europe, the Middle East, and Africa) summit.
Lane described Israel as the most entrepreneurial place on the planet, with more start-ups per capita than California’s Silicon Valley. He said that hosting the conference in Israel shows future leaders that innovation and growth can thrive even in regions marred with strife.
“The energy and the excitement that the participants brought to this country and the understanding – and in lots of cases empathy – that participants are taking from the country far exceed the expectations of those of us who care about Israel,” Cohen told JNS.org.
The event hosted 300 American, 200 European, and 200 Middle Eastern and African young entrepreneurs and game-changers. Through a variety of lectures, panel discussions, and hands-on experiences, participants strived to foster new world-changing ideas and collaborations.
“There are 40 countries represented here, and the common language is entrepreneurship,” Lane told JNS.org. “People here are so optimistic. These people will help run the world for the next 50 years. It is great to see them get together to talk about that future.”
Among the lineup of pioneering speakers were former Israeli president Shimon Peres; Waze navigation app co-founder Uri Levine; Better Place founder Shai Agassi, whose company developed battery-charging and battery-switching services for electric cars; Startupboat founder Paula Schwarz, a half-German and half-Greek serial entrepreneur who brings together different stakeholders to develop scalable and technology-based solutions for the refugee crisis in Europe; and ModLi co-founder and CEO Nava Brief-Fried, whose company aspires to empower women through fashion.
On April 6, the summit’s events took place at the Israel Museum. The museum’s director, James Snyder, said the venue demonstrates – through its ancient location, modern exhibits, and narrative stretching from 1.5 million years ago to today – that all things connect across time and place. This was one of the messages of the Forbes event.
Much of the afternoon program on April 6 was devoted to how, in regions that suffer from conflict, the best diplomacy can be entrepreneurship. Gai Hetzroni, founder and CEO of GeoFree Software/Ma’antech, spoke about his work training and recruiting Palestinians and Israeli Arabs in the high-tech sector.
“When you raise the Palestinian middle class and give them more opportunities, and have the start-up nation help train them, that will ease our way toward peace and conflict resolution,” said Hetzroni, who in a previous role at Cisco Systems helped maintain at $10-million company grant to the Palestinian Authority for this purpose. Similarly, he has focused on recruiting Israeli Arabs. Currently, only about 5 percent of Israeli Arabs work in high-tech, despite the fact that they constitute more than 20 percent of Israel’s total population.
There have been some wins on this issue, but Hetzroni said one of the greatest deterrents is fear – not of terror, but “fear of difference, of people you don’t know.”
“Until we have a critical mass of Arabs in the industry, or Palestinians working with us, it is very hard to bring them in,” Hetzroni said. “It’s not discrimination. People are very open. But high-tech is rough. You cannot make a mistake. You have to bring in the best people, and the best people for you are people like you – it’s just easier to judge and recruit them.”
Another young entrepreneur, Nino Nanitashvili, the lead adviser for the Elva Community Engagement program in the Eurasian nation of Georgia, spoke about the development of the “Peace Park” online game.
“I was born when the conflict [between Georgia and Abkhazia] already began,” said Nanitashvili, 23. “The borders are closed. No one from my generation in Georgia knows anyone on the other side and vice versa. When you grow up in this situation – and with another conflict in 2008 – you realize that young people cannot connect. There are barriers between you.”
Nanitashvili said that at first, she questioned why politicians didn’t take steps toward coexistence. But soon she realized that these types of initiatives would start in the hands of young and optimistic individuals. Peace Park is an online game that allows youths on both sides of divisive conflicts to interact with each other through the Web, collaborating to win different challenges that they encounter through the game.
“It gives you a different virtual reality space where you can get together and talk and meet,” said Nanitashvili. “This is the kind of talking we can do.”
This type of game could work in conflict zones outside of Georgia, predicted Richard Behar, a contributing editor at Forbes Magazine. He noted that a company named Bandura last fall announced the creation of a “peace game” designed for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that Bandura is suggesting the game could also ease tensions between China and Taiwan, India and Pakistan, and even Democrats and Republicans in the U.S.
“Yeah, good luck with that. Fat chance,” Behar quipped regarding the latter group.
In the Middle East, there is a separate online platform developed by millennials that serves a similar purpose: the YaLa Academy Citizen Journalism Program. Moriya Rosenberg, an alum of the academy and a member of the YaLa Peace Movement, said that during the 2014 Gaza war between Israel and Hamas, she felt helpless as she watched her social media feed get clogged with incitement and racism. Those radical views weren’t representative of the majority of the population.
YaLa, said Rosenberg, “gives you the skills to use social media and technology effectively—to give a voice to the voiceless.”
“Of course, we all belong to this state or that people – but as important as that state story is, there is an even more important one. There is a greater group that we all belong to: one human family, and that family deserves to see a better world,” she said.
Rosenberg explained that technology transcends the physical borders and boundaries that keep people apart. While YaLa was not the first time Rosenberg had met an Arab or Palestinian, she said it was the first time she was able to take a serious look at preconceived social paradigms and break them down.
Monica Lewinsky, who spoke at the Forbes summit, said that social media and technology are often used to harass, shame, and troll. The former White House intern is on a mission to reclaim her dignity and reputation almost two decades after her sex scandal with former president Bill Clinton during a less tech-savvy era.
“I came to be interested in the topic of bullying because of experiences that I had in the late 1990s. And if you do not know what I am talking about, please do not Google it,” Lewinsky said, noting that she believes the right question to be asking is, “How can good people who have different views engage in civil dialogue?”
For Rosenberg, YaLa is a technological vehicle for dialogue and creating social change.
“I think what happens so often is that the voice of sanity goes unheard,” said Rosenberg. “We see the venom online and we think it is too big for us – what can we do about it? We need to be each other’s reinforcement … YaLa has more than 1 million members and we boost each other’s voices.”
Forbes’s Lane said that because the younger generation was raised on technology, it is wired to think globally when trying to solve problems.
“We are building a community here,” said Lane. “Hopefully, they will stay together their entire lives.”
The Schusterman foundation’s Cohen argued that Israel is the ideal place to build that community.
“Over the next 50 years, these individuals are going to face even more dynamic and complex challenges,” said Cohen. “What better place to learn how to be better versions of themselves than in a country that is always striving to be a better version of itself?”