When Italian-born Astorre Modena started work in the high-tech sector after immigrating to Israel in 2001, he was immediately struck by the huge gap between the haves and the have-nots of Israeli society.
“Driving to work in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem, I remember being perplexed by the level of poverty of some areas and the number of teenagers walking around aimlessly on the streets,” the 45-year-old Modena said. “On the one hand you have the successful startup nation, with all its amazing tech entrepreneurs and billions of dollars in VC funds”; on the other hand, he saw children from disadvantaged communities, who barely had access to a computer or an internet connection.
The dissonance spurred him into action using the only tool he knew: technology. So he set up Machshava Tova – which means good thought in Hebrew, and is also a play on hte word for computer — together with a partner, Daniel Weil. The nonprofit organization aims to bridge social gaps by making technology more accessible to underprivileged populations.
Using his friends as volunteers, he set up a tech room in a community center in Jerusalem that catered to low-income Ethiopian children.
“It was one of the most difficult neighborhoods of the city. We were actually the only real activity at that center,” he said. “And with the cooperation of the managers of the center, we started to provide the children of the neighborhood basic computer skills. The idea was to enable them to be touched by technology before they fall too much behind.”
At the end of the year the center awarded two used computers as prizes to the two top students. “The children worked hard all that summer for that prize,” he said with a smile. Two 13-year-old Ethiopian boys were the winners.
That was in 2003. Today Machshava Tova has expanded its activities and has over 12 centers spanning the country, from Afula to Beersheba. The computer centers work with teenagers and children, job seekers and people with special needs, and provides them with basic and advanced PC literacy skills for work and recreational purposes and hands-on experience.
The organization today employs 70 workers and has a network of more than 100 volunteers — former students and members of the high-tech industry — who teach classes, hold mentorship programs and have one-on-one sessions with students. Over the years Machshava Tova has introduced more than 30,000 children, women, senior citizens and people with disabilities to the world of technology.
“We don’t distinguish based on gender or race, Arabs or Orthodox Jews, immigrants from Russia or Ethiopia,” said Ornit Ben-Yashar, the nonprofit’s 31-year old director, said. “Today people need computers in whatever they do.”
Because flexibility is of the essence, Machshava Tova has also set up mobile computer classes, with trainers moving from center to center in two vans armed with 20 laptops, cellphones for internet access, a projector and a screen. The mobile units can reach populations that are unable to attend classes in a center, like abused women in shelters and people with disabilities in treatment centers or in nursing homes.
“The hardware is not the issue,” Modena said. “All you need is motivation.”
One of the program the nonprofit runs is the Eco-tech program in which teens learn to upgrade old computers which are then donated to needy populations. At the end of the course they get an IT technician certificate from Cisco.
“We give them the skills and ability to also give back to the community,” Modena said.
Another course teaches entrepreneurship skills, in which the participants need to come up with an idea for a project, set out a prototype and come up with a business plan.
The level of classes today is already higher than it was initially, Modena said, with courses now including website-building, robotics and 3D printing. “Technology moves extremely fast and we always need to keep our finger on the pulse to provide these kids with content that will give them real value,” Modena said.
Machshava Tova has strong partnerships with local community centers and other nonprofit organizations. Entrepreneurs and high-tech companies, including Cisco, Google and Microsoft, have pitched in as well. Some provide office space, some money; others teach practical tools to help students find a job and a chance to gain experience of being in a technology company. These companies work with groups over a period ranging from few months to two years.
There was a learning curve for all involved.
“There was a complete clash of cultures among one of our groups of children and a high tech company that offered to mentor the group,” Modena said. “In the beginning it was a bit of a shock for all sides. The children were noisy and disruptive and the company workers were thrown into a bit of a tizzy. But then things smoothed out and the two teams worked well and successfully together.”
The children get training at the companies, but also, and especially, a good lunch.
“Lunch in the company canteen is the part they love the most,” said Modena. “And being in that environment exposes them to a whole new world. They can see what they can achieve if they work really hard. They often ask us: ‘What can I do to work here?’ We help them take small steps upward.”
Modena, who is a managing partner of Terra Venture Partners with an investment portfolio of 20 medical and clean technology startups, says the organization is set to open three new centers in the next six months and is on the lookout for partners who can help with ideas, initiatives, money and mentorships.
The organization gets new ideas all the time from its partners but also from the children and adults it educates. “They see the need, and we want to give a solution to the need they see,” Modena said.