Young Middle Eastern techies overcome borders by collaborating in virtual space

Starting Up Together lets entrepreneurs from Israel, Gaza, Morocco, and Syria shine bright

James Spiro 00:1813.02.21

The Peres Center for Peace and Innovation and the Edmond de Rothschild Foundation (Israel) have launched the first-of-its-kind program called Starting Up Together, in collaboration with eBay’s Development Center in Israel and the Center for Smart Cities at Bar Ilan University. The three-month program consists of a weekly Zoom meeting and includes participants from countries such as Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, The Palestinian Authority (Gaza), Syria, and Israel, and aimed at helping motivated and passionate aspiring entrepreneurs obtain the skills ‘to turn their dreams into a reality’.


“Covid-19 brought the world closed doors, but it also opened a lot of doors,” explained Danielle Aviran, Project Manager at the Peres Center. “And the fact that we can collaborate and work remotely together, create together, and give the option for them to do it... it’s really exciting.”
Amira (East Jerusalem), Mahmoud (Ramallah), and Shai (Tel Aviv) spoke with CTech. They are pictured with a fourth member, Chloe. Photo: Peres Center for Peace and Innovation Amira (East Jerusalem), Mahmoud (Ramallah), and Shai (Tel Aviv) spoke with CTech. They are pictured with a fourth member, Chloe. Photo: Peres Center for Peace and Innovation


During the course, which is held online due to Covid-19 but also because of political restrictions between the regions, young minds are offered a space to learn about the tech ecosystem and create their own app, product, or service relating to social issues such as education or LGBT representation. While the Starting Up Together program has been running for three years, this year’s cohort is the first time it opened up to participants outside of Israel and the West Bank with the theme, ‘Sustainable Smart Cities and Communities’.


Over 15 weeks, participants tune in to watch a 10-20 minute pre-recorded lecture about a topic or idea. Currently, the cohort is halfway through the course and the 65 participants have been introduced to topics such as ‘Innovation in the Arab World’, ‘Creative and Innovative Thinking’, and ‘Building, Measuring, and Learning Your Product’. These lectures are then followed by a live discussion with leading industry experts such as Eyal Feder-Levy, CEO and Co-Founder of Zencity; Leora Golomb, Head of Internal Communication and Employer Branding at eBay; and representatives from the Peres Center and Edmond de Rothschild Foundation.


Edmond de Rothschild Foundation (Israel), which funds the program, believes in creating a diverse entrepreneurial ecosystem by providing accessibility to entrepreneurial tools for underrepresented populations locally and globally. “When strategically examining the current regional ecosystems a clear need arises – to build a multidisciplinary, cross-sectorial, regional initiative designed to create a representative entrepreneurial funnel while generating sustainable innovation with measurable social and environmental impact,” it said in a statement.


Alina Shkolnikov, Impact Entrepreneurship program officer at the Edmond de Rothschild Foundation, noted that "the foundation has been supporting the Starting-Up Together program for three years - believing that every entrepreneur should have the tools to fulfill his/her vision, as this is the only way to establish a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem and sustain an economy that works for the benefit of all parts of society. The previous and current program cycle dealt with a critical social issue - urban life. This issue is relevant not only within the borders of Israel, but also for our neighbors. Therefore, this year, considering the success of previous cycles, we decided to expand the ranks for participants from other countries around the world so that together we can try to build solutions for making our habitats a safe, accessible and sustainable living space for all of us."


"As part of eBay's social activities, we believe in educating and instructing different segments of the population, by giving them tools and knowledge that can help young entrepreneurs to grow and develop. One of main methods we use to realize this vision is innovation, a wonderful means for minimizing social gaps and opening doors for unusual collaboration. With this special program we forge an exciting and unusual connection between brilliant entrepreneurs from all over the Middle East. This connection enables entrepreneurs to receive tools and proper instruction, with which they can start social initiatives, that can help different segments of the population in their countries," said Gadi Mikles, Head of Innovation and Research Product Management at eBay israel.


"The fact that I could just use Zoom in order to chat with an entrepreneur from Morocco, an entrepreneur from Jordan and a start-up founder from Egypt, and share thoughts of the different challenges they all need to face, is no less than hypnotising to me. Shared thinking, deep understanding of challenges and the search for unusual solutions - all of these are essential parts of technological and economical collaborations that can be achieved, and they are the key for a real, meaningful change," Mikles added.


When CTech met (virtually) with project managers and participants from this year’s program, the Zoom call had boxes that were broadcasting from Israel, the West Bank (Ramallah), Morocco, and Egypt. What might be a hotspot for political and historical conflict is immediately relieved by the universal feelings and experiences, such as internet connection and accidentally muting yourself when speaking to the chat. “I’ve turned my camera off so my connection is better,” said one of the participants in what might be one of the most universal sentiments of the Covid era.


The young participants seemed to brush aside the geopolitical achievements of the past year, which included the normalization of ties between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco. “When Israel had the normalization accord with Morocco, the first thing that happened in the (Facebook) group was a conversation about what they were waiting for. Of course, Israel and Morroco are like-minded and would want to be friends and visit each other,” said Shai Shalgi, one of the project managers of the Starting Up Together program from Tel Aviv. “I think this year highlights how amazing online peacebuilding programs and entrepreneurship programs can be, and what they can give us that nothing else can,” said added.


The Starting Up Together Facebook cover photo. Photo: Liat Shalit The Starting Up Together Facebook cover photo. Photo: Liat Shalit


While members of Starting Up Together started meeting online this year, the practice of video calling individuals from different regions has been going strong for 10 years through a previous program, YaLa, aimed at connecting Israelis, Syrians, Algerians, and more.


“We have really diverse participants from different backgrounds which makes it unique,” explained Souad, 27, one of the participants in the program. Based in Marrakesh, she uses the program to try to help young people be inspired by education and work. “I see myself as a beginner in the entrepreneurship world but I got a chance to meet others who had experience in the field and I got to learn from them and be inspired from them - so that’s an amazing thing about the program.”


Souad worked on a program hoping to bring youth together under the age of 30 to work on local and national projects. Speaking to CTech, she described how her program helps students discover interests and identify career opportunities. The students who participated were aged 14-24, but 72% of those were between the ages of 14-16, showing strong demand in the field of orientation. “Many reasons are because they wanted to learn about their passion, they needed guidance, and they wanted to learn about the different opportunities that exist in Morocco,” she told CTech.

Another participant from the program was Ahmad, 26, from Egypt who is working on a startup that aims to improve internet bandwidths in Arab countries by creating hubs in small villages for virtual and physical gatherings.


“We are sharing our experience of living in the region and feel like we are living this experience altogether and we feel like what’s happening in a country like Egypt is the same as Tunisia and all Arab countries,” he told CTech when asked about his experience in the program. “It’s virtual but you feel like you’re living the experience in other Arab countries, so it was eye-opening for me.”


Starting Up Together started in December and will be continuing its weekly meetings until March, where participants will learn how to network, promote their ideas, and enter an ecosystem that is currently predominantly filled with people from the same country, background, or religion.


“Our vision is to give the opportunity and option for everyone in the world to express themselves and make their voice heard,” said Peres’ Aviran, “and to give them the tools to make it the best way possible... I worked for a few years with Palestinian organizations and Jordanian organizations, but I never spoke with a guy from Syria, or Iraq. The fact it’s doable, and if have an idea I want to fulfill, and he has an idea he wants to fulfill, the fact we can do things together is mind-blowing,” she said.


The Peres Center was established in 1996 by former President of Israel Shimon Peres to help develop programs that promote a prosperous Israel and peace between her and her neighbors. The Edmond de Rothschild Foundation (Israel) works to promote excellence, diversity, and leadership through high education. It helps with a variety of innovative projects throughout the country aimed at reducing social gaps in society and fostering young leadership.