At annual summit, entrepreneurs seek to rebrand ‘social good’
From a hi-tech Holy City to girls’ chemistry sets, young Jewish innovators present their visions for a better future at the 2015 ROI conference in Jerusalem
Roy Munin points out the surroundings overlooking the pool at Jerusalem’s Hotel Yehuda — the Biblical Zoo, Teddy Stadium, Beit HaLohem for injured veterans. It is hard for him to stop talking about the city. He sees massive potential in his hometown and is here at the hotel to help realize it.
Munin is one of 150 participants from 32 countries at the 9th annual ROI Summit, a conference for young Jewish leaders sponsored by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. This year’s summit was held from June 7-11.
The Jerusalem conference is a gateway into the larger ROI community, says executive director Justin Korda, and introduces attendees to the ideas the organization works to promote year-round.
ROI, says Korda, is “people, who in an entrepreneurial way, try to create a change in the world. Here the product is social good.”
Munin’s non-profit Made in JLM is working to make the ancient city a global center for tech companies and start-ups. Until recently the perception of the city as a place of conflict made it difficult for young people to succeed there, he says. But groups like Wake Up Jerusalem and Ruach Hadasha have started to change that.
“People were saying Jerusalem was like a warzone,” says Munin. “Underground there was a whole movement of people taking things into their own hands.”
Made in JLM was established three years ago to focus on the city’s tech scene. Young people were leaving to find their first jobs elsewhere, says Munin, but he realized Jerusalem had a everything start-ups needed. The group worked to connect young entrepreneurs, and then bring speakers and investors to the city.
In 2012, there were 12 tech events in the city. By 2014, the number rose to 250, says Munin. This year they are hoping to host 450. And the non-profit’s work is being noticed: Time Magazine recently listed Jerusalem as one of five emerging tech hubs worldwide.
‘People were ashamed to say their start-up was in Jerusalem, but now it’s a cool thing’
Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox and Arab populations are also getting involved in the start-up scene, says Munin, and the first tech event in Arabic took place last week.
“People were ashamed to say their start-up was in Jerusalem, but now it’s a cool thing,” says Munin.
He says Made in JLM is now trying to change the impression of Jerusalem in Israel and abroad by doing things like hosting tech tours for foreigners who have a business interest in the city.
Changing perspectives on Israel was just one of the subjects of the international summit, says Korda. The BDS movement and the fallout from Operation Protective Edge came up in discussions, but ROI is a non-political and non-religious organization, he says.
“ROI has traditionally been a place to get a dose of optimism on the Jewish world and Israel,” says Korda.
The organization gives Israelis an opportunity to connect with other Jews, he says. The group is selected from around 600 applicants, and comes from diverse backgrounds, including science, the arts, and business. About a third of the participants are Israelis. The ROI network aims to support members in their different initiatives, says Korda.
Networking was an important part of the summit for Yael Schuster, a Virginia native who made aliyah to Israel 10 years ago. Schuster has a PhD in organic chemistry and manages a laboratory for the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot.
‘The goal is to give girls the tools they need to dream of being scientists’
Her start-up, the Know-It-Alls, makes science toys for girls ages eight to 12. In both the United States and Israel, science is mostly geared to boys, says Schuster. Her company’s toy sets include a story book, a chemistry kit and a miniature jet car. Girls will build the car through the story in the book and power it with materials from the chemistry set. They will also be able to share the results through an online community set up by the company. It launches next month on Kickstarter.
“The goal is to give girls the tools they need to dream of being scientists,” says Schuster. “Science should be fun and the girls should see role models.”
She says the summit was much different from science conferences she has been to, which are more hierarchical and less interactive than the ROI activities. She hopes the connections she made at the conference will help the start-up succeed.
Her two children, both boys, love the toy already, she says.
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