Forty-five people, all entrepreneurs but otherwise having little in common, gathered last week at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation in Jaffa, set to take part in the second round of a one-of-a-kind pre-accelerator program aptly named Starting Up Together.
The goal of the initiative is to foster multicultural cooperation and entrepreneurial support for Israelis who come from different backgrounds, many of them from the geographic and economic periphery of the nation, whose residents are too often merely onlookers in the nation’s booming innovation industry. This year’s Starting Up Together program, the second since its launch in 2018, will focus on the theme of smarter cities. The first program dealt with creative solutions for the future.
Shimon Peres, the late president of Israel, established the Peres Center in 1996. The center was founded based on principles that the Nobel Peace laureate was known for during his life as a politician, interested both in promoting peace with the Palestinians and in Israeli innovation.
The uniqueness of the initiative launching last week is that it is “both a program for Arabs and Jews,” said Rachel Hadari, director of medicine, business and environment department at the Peres Center, and designed mainly “for people on the periphery,” who would not otherwise have the opportunity to be exposed to the startup ecosystem.
“There are Bedouin, there are Druze, there are Arab, there are Jews and they come from the Golan to the Negev,” she said during an interview in her office, a floor above where the newly minted class was mingling.
Of the 180 candidates who applied to the program, 45 were accepted. Fifty-three percent are Arab Israelis and 47 percent are Jews, and the gender breakdown is exactly split in half.
Another element that sets this four-month pre-accelerator apart from most, says Hadari, is the applicants are encouraged not to come with an established initiative or startup.
“I don’t think there’s [another accelerator] that really focuses their intent on having people work with each other from the very start,” she said.
This was not always the case, explains Danielle Aviran, one of the project managers for Starting Up Together.
In the first cohort of the accelerator program, “we recruited participants from all over Israel from all sectors, but the problem was, the participants came with a small startup or an idea of their own,” Aviran said.
“And what happened was that some participants found themselves working on someone else’s idea and not their own idea and it created some difficulties in the group dynamics,” she said. This year, the organizers made sure that participants came with no prior initiative; they were then split into groups of ten to work on longer-terms projects during their four months with the program.
“This year we recruited people who are in the entrepreneur world or find innovation is interesting to them, and they want to be involved, but don’t have their own startup,” she added.
The program now, Aviran adds, combines two of Shimon Peres’s main visions: peace and innovation. “And we’re really glad we have the opportunity to lead something like that.”
The twin themes are interwoven into the program’s itinerary. For instance, in the first phase, there’s a dialogue session between Arabs and Jews in which they discuss where they came from, and then later on, when they are divided into groups, they’ll participate in a one-day smart city hackathon, where they’ll tackle the challenge of finding a solution for a local municipality with a real-life problem.
There will also be bootcamps led by MassChallenge, a global nonprofit, accelerator that’s helped fast-track more than 1,900 startups, in which participants will learn how to create business models, research market trends, and practice presenting their ideas to potential investors.
Beyond the technical training, however, the networking opportunity provided through the Peres Center’s connections will prove to be an invaluable tool for almost all of the participants who are largely underrepresented in the Israeli innovative ecosystem, Aviran added.
The typical profile of an entrepreneur in startup nation is usually “white men, Ashkenazi (of European origin), of a certain age that graduated from a certain unit in the military in this industry,” she said. “Women, Arabs — the people who don’t have the opportunity to be in those special units in the army — don’t have the same options or the same networking. So this is the program to give them a real opportunity.”
Hassan Mitwalli, a 47-year-old IT worker from East Jerusalem, is excited to see what potential this program will unlock for him and his business pursuits.
“Networking is essential, not just on the business side but on the personal side as well,” Mitwalli said, adding that he believes this unique opportunity will be helpful for his endeavors, as he also works as a software developer with a team in Ramallah. He hopes the connections fostered by this program will further strengthen ties between the Arab and Jewish communities he finds himself working with frequently.
“I try to come with zero expectations, I think that’s healthier,” he said, pacing a bit anxiously as people began draining their coffee mugs and going to grab seats for the morning’s opening remarks. He added that though he’s arriving with an open mind, he does hope that this will be the launching pad of something new and exciting.
“The idea is also to get enlightenment from those around you,” he said. “And also get better at trying to develop personally, but also as a business.”
The second cycle of Starting Up Together was funded through the Edmond de Rothschild Foundation, and partners with MassChallenge and TAU Ventures, which is Tel Aviv University’s venture capital arm.