Tel Aviv brings startup spirit to city’s seedy south with municipal incubator
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Tel Aviv brings startup spirit to city’s seedy south with municipal incubator

In dilapidated Neve Shaanan neighborhood, a swanky entrepreneurship center enlists veterans of the army’s elite Unit 8200 in bid to bridge economic gaps

The Tel Aviv municipality's new entrepreneurship center in the city's southern Neve Shaanan neighborhood on October 24, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
The Tel Aviv municipality's new entrepreneurship center in the city's southern Neve Shaanan neighborhood on October 24, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The Tel Aviv municipality is teaming up with veterans of the army’s elite Unit 8200 to promote urban-social entrepreneurship in the poorer neighborhood of Neve Shaanan, in the south of the city, which is home to thousands of migrants, generally poorer Israeli citizens, and Tel Aviv’s notorious central bus station.

The cornerstone of this initiative is a new center, known in Hebrew as Haratzif, or The Platform, which is located in the renovated ticket office of the former, now defunct, bus terminal. Over the past year, the city transformed the abandoned site into a streamlined and sparkling tech center that it hopes will provide fledgling businesses and would-be entrepreneurs with the tools they need to have an impact on society, through lectures, workshops and mentorships.

But first, the municipality had to get the word out, said Shana Krakowski, director of Haratzif.

She said the city was confident that it could attract applicants for the project on its own, but that by teaming up with Unit 8200 alumni, who come with a sterling reputation in the tech world, Haratzif could hit the ground running.

“We know that Shmone-Matayim” — as Unit 8200 is known in Hebrew — “attracts some of the best, brightest and most dedicated to social entrepreneurship,” Krakowski told The Times of Israel at the Haratzif building in Neve Shaanan.

The south Tel Aviv neighborhood is geographically close to the city’s shaded Rothschild Boulevard, where trendy coffee shops and bars are patronized by tech entrepreneurs who zip around on electric bikes and scooters. But socioeconomically, Neve Shaanan is far cry from leafy Rothschild.

The neighborhood is perhaps best known for housing Tel Aviv’s central bus station — oddly still referred to as the “new” central bus station, despite being nearly 30 years old — which is full of dark corners and an ever-present stink of dried urine, as well as oddities like a bat cave, a Yiddish culture center and an unusable nuclear fall-out shelter. Surrounding the terminal is a population that is 90 percent illegal migrants, and overwhelming drug and prostitution problems.

A sex shop located across the street from the Tel Aviv municipality’s new entrepreneurship center in the southern Neve Shaanan neighborhood on October 24, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Indeed, across the street from the new center are functioning brothels and sex shops, and narcotic users and dealers can be found prowling the surrounding streets.

“The initiative is part of the city’s effort to improve the life of its citizens,” said Eytan Schwartz, CEO of the Tel Aviv Global and Tourism company at the municipality of Tel Aviv. The idea is to give the less privileged neighborhoods of Tel Aviv a taste of some of the Startup Nation thrill, he explained.

“It is the municipality’s first entrepreneurship center, and we have decided to locate it exactly there,” he said.

The Tel Aviv municipality’s new entrepreneurship center in the city’s southern Neve Shaanan neighborhood on October 24, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The long, narrow building in which Haratzif is located overlooks a park, used primarily by the neighborhood’s African migrant families, that was built on the former bus platforms of what was once Tel Aviv’s old central bus station.

The new center occupies most of the building’s top floor, sharing the rest with a small community police center. The ground floor houses a municipal kindergarten that primarily serves the children of African and Asian migrants.

The Tel Aviv municipality’s new entrepreneurship center in the city’s southern Neve Shaanan neighborhood on October 24, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Inside, the recently renovated office looks very much like most other open work spaces. It is made up of one large room, with three smaller ones off it that allow for more intimate gatherings; the walls are adorned with chic graffiti; the kitchenette is stocked with coffee, tea, cookies and Ikea tableware; the tables, chairs and benches can be easily rearranged and never too far from an electrical outlet.

Haratzif opened its doors in August, hosting a handful of events on home finances and entrepreneurship as well as allowing some locals (including this reporter — JAG) to work out of the air-conditioned space, but is expected to remain mostly empty until the center selects the entrepreneurs who will use it.

Residents of south Tel Aviv listen to a lecture at the municipality’s new entrepreneurship center in the southern Neve Shaanan neighborhood. (Shana Krakowski/Tel Aviv Municipality)

Twelve projects, run by approximately 25 people, will be chosen to join a five-month accelerator program run jointly with the 8200 Social Program, the social arm of the 8200 Alumni Association, which aims to leverage technology to solve social problems.

The idea is to encourage initiatives that will address homelessness, loneliness of the elderly population, street appearance and the urban environment, among other issues.

Even after the projects are chosen in December, Haratzif is expected to remain open for south Tel Aviv residents when space is available. The center will also continue to host public events on finance and technology, including opportunities for local entrepreneurs to meet with mentors and experts, Krakowski said.

Eytan Schwartz, head of the Tel Aviv Global and Tourism company at the municipality of Tel Aviv-Yafo (Courtesy)

The initiative does not purport to solve the huge problem of the illegal migrants in south Tel Aviv, Shwartz said, adding that the city is implementing a number of initiatives to that end.

Instead, it is meant to make a small dent in improving the lives of locals by giving them access to facilities that could help them realize their aspirations and help close the income gaps with the residents in the wealthier northern parts of the city, he said.

The chosen entrepreneurs will receive mentorships, counseling and lectures. But, perhaps more importantly, they will have access to investors and officials from the city’s technology, infrastructure and social welfare units, as well as to representatives from other cities, including Berlin, Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam and Lisbon, with which Tel Aviv has partnerships.

“Entrepreneurship is a tool for social and personal change that is needed by all young people,” said Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai in a statement. The Neve Shaanan accelerator “will focus on entrepreneurship in urban and social innovation, and connect the local population to urban experts around the world.”

Applications will be accepted until November 15 via the 8200 Social Program website, and the program will start at the end of December.

The 8200 Social Program was founded in 2013 by the 8200 Alumni Association to make use of the experience gained from the alumni of the elite army unit and put it for the benefit of society. The Tel Aviv project will be part of the 8200 Social Program’s fourth accelerator program.

“We have no doubt that the municipality will be a key factor in advancing solutions to urban-social problems,” said Neta-Li Meiri, director of the 8200 Social Program. “The municipality has the power and ability to connect the program’s initiators to municipal authorities around the world who will be able to improve the lives of all of us. “

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