When Yaron Binur walks into a coffee shop near Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., it’s hard to distinguish the 34-year-old Israeli from the students. With his boyish face and well-worn knapsack, one wouldn’t necessarily take him for a successful entrepreneur. But he is — with both a Silicon Valley start-up and an innovative Israeli educational non-profit that he started while still in college himself.
“I’m a little extreme. I like doing things all-in,” Binur said of his apparent indefatigability.
The Herzliya native has been busily expanding the operations of his company, Redbeacon, which was acquired in January by Home Depot. He mentors new start-ups and organizes TechAviv, a bi-monthly Silicon Valley gathering for Israeli entrepreneurs. All the while, he actively works with the executive board of Middle East Education Through Technology (MEET), which he co-founded as an MIT undergraduate in 2002.
When Binur started working in 2005 at Google, where he led the product development of Google News, he told his boss he planned to start his own company within a few years. True to his word, Binur left Google in 2008, at the height of the recession, to co-found Redbeacon, a website that matches consumers seeking home services with home-repair professionals.
In July, Redbeacon launched a pilot with Home Depot in four American markets (Dallas and Austin, Texas, and Atlanta and the San Francisco Bay Area). In the three months since, the company has seen a 350 percent increase in the number of job requests from consumers, and a 450 percent increase in the number of service professionals who’ve signed up.
Redbeacon, which operates as an independent subsidiary of Home Depot, will continue to grow quickly, and expects to go national in 2013. It currently has 30 employees, but is opening a new office this month in San Mateo, Calif., that will add 150 additional workers.
Binur’s risk taking, at a time when most entrepreneurs avoided starting new ventures, paid off. “I believe you need to get out and do, and think a lot less. I don’t think you should overanalyze risk,” he said.
‘We decided not to be a dialogue program,’ says Binur. ‘The idea was not to have the students sit in a room and talk about their feelings’
“I and others told him he chose a very risky path,” said Sol Gradman, an Israeli hi-tech executive who has backed him. Binur listened, “but decided to continue in his way, and succeeded,” Gradman said.
The MIT grad is “a brilliant strategist who can plot victory in a seemingly insurmountable battle,” echoed Raj Kapoor, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who has invested in Redbeacon.
Binur took a similar approach as an college student back in 2002, when he co-founded MEET, which brings together teens from Israel — both Jews and Palestinians — with Palestinian teens from the West Bank to learn technology and business skills. Distressed to hear from family and friends at home that the second intifada had left them without hope for peace, he felt compelled to act, even before securing partnerships on the Palestinian side or completing fundraising.
Based on the success of a project he was involved with that brought MIT students to Africa to teach computer science, Binur believed he could adapt the model to make a difference in the Middle East. He recruited his sister, Anat Binur, now a venture capitalist in Palo Alto, who was then studying in New York, and his friend Assaf Harlap, the Smart Israel brand manager at Colmobil Corp., who was then a student in London. He also convinced his professors at MIT to support the project.
The idea was to bring together 14-year-olds from East and West Jerusalem for an intensive five-week program to learn computer programming, problem solving, teamwork and leadership skills; the teachers would be MIT students who traveled to Israel specifically to work with them.
The focus on technology was deliberate. “We decided not to be a dialogue program. The idea was not to have the students sit in a room and talk about their feelings,” Binur explained. “That would happen, but it would not be the core of the program.”
Rather, the intent was for the students to bond over common interests and goals. By working together, they would get to know one another and appreciate the other side.
“Dialogue programs are almost dead across the board. They haven’t been able to make it through the ups and down of the Middle East conflict,” Binur reflected. “We’ve gone through the Lebanon War, the Gaza War. We’ve gone through everything and sustained our students because of how our program works.”
MEET, which eventually gained Palestinian partners and financial backing from a wide variety of funders, has developed into a three-year program, during which student teams develop products for corporations like Hewlett Packard and Google, and even develop their own products and launch their own start-ups. Students come together for intensive summer programs in the computer labs at Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus, as well as for weekly sessions during the school year in Jerusalem or Nazareth. There are plans to expand to other hubs in the future.
Now in its 10th year, MEET looks for the most intelligent, talented and motivated students, who pay no tuition or fees. “That was intentional,” Binur said. “We wanted the best of the best, independent of financial need.”
Students come from refugee camps and Jewish settlements, and from every point in between in terms of family background and political outlook.
The program, which currently operates on a $1 million annual budget, receives more than 700 applicants per year, but admits only 40. “We have a 7 percent acceptance rate. It’s hard to get into MEET than into Harvard,” Binur said, half-jokingly.
MEET’s devotion to the students does not end after three years. A new alumni program supports students as they move on to universities and careers. Binur continues to personally mentor and serve as a role model for MEET students.
“I learned a lot from working with and observing Yaron over the years, and I still do to this day,” said Wissam Jarjoui, a MEET alumnus from the Old City of Jerusalem who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from MIT. “To me, he is not only an example of how to have a successful career, but also how to lead a satisfying life and make an impact in the world around me. I consider Yaron a personal mentor, and I take his advice on many of the issues I face in my life.”
‘People need to learn how to work together toward solving common issues. I want MEET alumni to take a leadership role in this when the time comes’
MEET also serves as an incubator for several alumni teams launching their own start-ups. “Our goal is to support projects that actually have an impact toward our vision. We want our students to be financially successful, but we also want them to do something significant and big that will solve a problem in their community, or perhaps help solve problems between Israelis and Palestinians,” Binur explained.
“I fundamentally believe that at some point — I don’t know when it will be, but it will happen — the Israelis and Palestinians will sign an agreement at the governmental level,” he continued. “If you want a lasting, long-term peace between these two nations, you have to create a relationship, and people need to learn how to work together toward solving common issues. I want MEET alumni to take a leadership role in this when the time comes.”
Binur views his work with Redbeacon and MEET through the same lens. “They are both start-ups, and I run them in similar ways. Obviously we don’t measure success exactly in the same way, but a lot of my learning from MEET helped me at Redbeacon, and vice versa.”
While it would seem to anyone else that Binur is very focused, he insists that directing his passionate nature can be challenging. There is so much he wants to do to, but not enough hours in the day.
“We have limited time in this world,” he said, “and I really want to have an impact and make it a better place.”
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