Israelis, Palestinians build bridges by joining forces in tech

50:50 Startups is an initiative that creates startup collaborations between Israelis and Palestinians to show they can create ‘partnerships of equals’

'50:50 Startups’ first cohort at Azrieli College of Engineering in March (Courtesy)
'50:50 Startups’ first cohort at Azrieli College of Engineering in March (Courtesy)

Amir Grinstein, an Israeli native and an associate professor of marketing at Northeastern University in Boston, has always been passionate about peace-building between Israelis and Palestinians. His new initiative 50:50 Startups seeks to continue in that vein by fostering collaboration between entrepreneurs on both sides of the political barrier.

The idea took root two-and-a-half years ago, when Grinstein was approached out of the blue by his future co-founder, Eran Heyman, an Israeli living on the East Coast and founder of Ericom Software, a New York-based software firm.

Heyman had an idea based on both Israel’s startup culture and the talent and potential he saw in Palestinians; the only issue was that Israelis and Palestinians were not meeting each other. He wanted to build a platform that would have Israelis and Palestinians develop startups together with equal ownership.

Grinstein loved the idea — both in its simplicity and its underlying equality, which firmly fit in with his view that politics can drive change. The duo was joined in the initiative by other Israelis, Palestinians, Americans and a European who all saw value in the concept.

Amir Grinstein, co-founder of the 50:50 Startups (Ilan Assayag)

“Regardless of any political resolution, this trust-building mechanism, collaboration, equality through startups makes sense for everyone,” Grinstein said of the nonprofit. “Instead of throwing rocks or rockets at each other, they try to develop relationships, get to know the other side and even be successful in creating economic value and social value to their communities. That’s huge.”

It took about two years to build the ecosystem that makes up 50:50 Startups today, comprising three groups: Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians from East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The feat was not small: donors, mentors, investors, entrepreneurs, and a leadership team all needed to get on board, plus they needed government support and approval.

“We took something that Israel is very good at — which is tech, acceleration, innovation and investment — and something Israel is very bad at, which is its relationship with its Arab neighbors and its Arab citizens,” said Ely Sandler, a board member of 50:50 Startups and a senior team member on the ground in Israel. “We’re trying to use the fact that Israel is a startup nation to do two things: to build companies that show positive examples of Israelis and Palestinians working together in a way that is a partnership of equals, and also to try and bring more wealth and stability to the Palestinian economy.”

The first cohort of Israeli and Arab entrepreneurs has been underway since fall 2019. Out of 90 applicants, 30 were admitted as entrepreneurs. Of the original 90 applicants, 50 percent were Palestinian, from East Jerusalem or the West Bank, 25% were Israeli Arabs and 25% were Israeli Jews. About a third of the applicants were women.

The first three months of the program are all about mix-and-matching and team-building events to eventually form diverse teams, paired with a mentor to help develop an idea. Participants then start an incubation program, where they meet for entrepreneurship sessions at the Azrieli College in Jerusalem.

Coronavirus scrambles plans

The original plan was to then have the best teams attend a fully-funded six-week bootcamp at Northeastern University to learn how to build a successful company — consisting of leadership training, business model development and marketing plans — while getting exposure to both Boston’s innovative ecosystem and the US market.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, the Boston part of the program didn’t happen. Instead, teams have remained in Israel and the West Bank, working over Zoom meetings and engaging in workshops. They will then continue to develop their startups with more advanced accelerator programs, like Microsoft for Startups and Google for Startups — programs which already have a relationship with 50:50 Startups.

Ely Sandler, a board member of 50:50 Startups and a senior team member on the ground in Israel (Courtesy)

All in all, there are nine teams that will finish the program, and four teams have been given the green light to pitch over Zoom to a community of investors on August 4, where two teams can win prize money. The plan is to then help the teams reach the next level, with more advanced accelerators and potential early-stage investors.

The four startups currently preparing and rehearsing their pitches are BlockIt, an educational toy to improve the learning experience, Get Involved, which provides a platform to personalize charitable involvement, Visalution, technology providing less-burdensome ways to acquire visa requirements and E-Visa issuance, and Avodeem, which connects mainly Palestinian craftsmen with work opportunities in Israel.

Grinstein noted that of these four teams, three have a woman co-founder.

One of the challenges of running 50:50 Startups amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced lockdowns and grounded flights, has been the lack of face-to-face meetings, which Grinstein said are critical in developing the relationship and brainstorming ideas. He said when the Jerusalem-based part of the program began in March, as the pandemic was surging, people urged him to postpone the first year and refocus the attention on the next cycle.

“It took me five seconds, and I told them, ‘Guys, nobody is stopping this program,’” he said. He wanted to show the entrepreneurs that even when facing the most challenging situation in the world, it’s important to not give up.

“After one year, when we’re about to be done with the first cycle, we can at least say, ‘You know, it was a dream,’” Grinstein said. “Yes, there’s a lot of challenges but yes, we are making it happen.”

He hopes the program will help facilitate connections to investors who would be willing and open to consider an early-stage investment, though it may not be easy.

The startups are not the typical, mainstream startups which Israeli or American investors will generally look at, Grinstein said, and that creates more of a roadblock, even if the idea is solid and the co-founders are talented.

There have been other challenges throughout the way, like issues with permits and access across borders, with the coronavirus compounding the difficulties of the Israelis and Palestinians working together in person. Sandler said many fledgling entrepreneurs are having to plug away at their startup in less than ideal conditions, like lockdowns in crowded homes which can be a distraction and a nuisance.

But Sandler said he is particularly impressed with the continued engagement of the founders, despite having not met in person for months now, and the long-term transition to Zoom meetings and lessons.

“The biggest challenge has actually been really practical in terms of how, even if [the founders] want to and get along really, really well, what does it look like for a Palestinian to work with an Israeli in a productive way?” Sandler said. “That’s in part why we’re trying to do this, because no one really has before.”

Grinstein said the program will help unleash lots of potential and that there’s talent among both Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, who typically don’t have access to the Israeli startup ecosystem. He said there is value in long-term relationships between co-founders of different backgrounds, facing failure and success together.

“To think about Israelis and Palestinians, you always hear about the negative aspects. You have a young generation of people across the border — across the aisle — and they are willing to work together to create value and innovate,” Grinstein said. “We’re bringing them together and it’s like real diversity. It’s really bringing folks with totally different backgrounds and skills, and just an opportunity to benefit from it, dramatically.”

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