Could a cluster of startups incubate peace in the Mideast?
Growing up in Palestine and Israel means that, from an early age, we became aware of our enemies on the other side of the conflict. Now, living in Boston, we work alongside each other every day toward our goal of building shared prosperity and trust between Israelis and Palestinians.
Meet us: Ohad Elhelo, a 27-year-old from the city of Ashdod in Israel, and Sinan AbuShanab, 29 from Bethlehem, Palestine. Our childhood homes are only an hour away, but we are not allowed to visit each other. In 2014, Ohad founded Our Generation Speaks, or OGS, a Boston-based fellowship program and incubator where emerging community leaders from Israel and Palestine create socially driven startups together. Last summer, 22 highly motivated OGS fellows — half Israeli and half Palestinian — lived together as they learned about startups, and then put their training into practice. Five new startups are now operating in the region; they are creating jobs in Israel and Palestine and making a growing impact. With alumni from our first cohort, and a larger second class that will arrive next month, we are building a community of change agents that work together across ethnic and political lines.
Life in Israel and Palestine takes place in a stagnated conflict, now more than 69 years old. We endure unbearable human loss and deepening skepticism — on both sides — toward the ability of current governmental leadership to deliver political solutions. In this atmosphere, there is little trust between the two peoples. While it is impossible to build trust among the 12.5 million people who live in our region, we believe that focusing on the most promising young leaders will have an exponential impact. With more than 500 applications a year, we have reason for our optimism.
Our work is a deliberate, direct response to the bleak reality and unsteady future in our home communities. It takes coming together in Boston, under the auspices of Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management and the startup accelerator MassChallenge, to deliver our model of venture development in a safe, trusting environment. OGS got started thanks to a generous grant from the Boston-based Kraft family. Since then, we have raised more than $4 million for the next three years of our work from dedicated philanthropists, mostly in the Boston area. Boston provides our fellows with a safe haven away from their region’s conflict, where they can turn their venture ideas into sustainable, socially impactful endeavors.
Today, more than half of our alumni are employed by the startups they created. In Ramallah, an OGS venture has created job opportunities for unemployed IT engineers, and in Jerusalem, programmers from Palestine are providing their services to Israeli startups and invigorating the local entrepreneurial community through another OGS startup. Bedouin towns in the Negev will now have multiple two-hour sessions led by trained medical students about genetics and innovative ways to prevent the hereditary illnesses that have affected their communities for decades, thanks to a nonprofit that emerged from our inaugural fellowship.
These efforts use a model that we have not seen applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: entrepreneurship. Finding a real, just solution to the conflict drives and motivates us and our alumni. Entrepreneurship enables us and our fellows to enact cooperative efforts on the ground in the region, in ways that dialogue alone cannot fully accomplish.
We believe that entrepreneurs can win where politicians have failed. We see this every day in the work of our alumni, as they serve disparate communities together. We hope that working together, learning about each other, and developing a shared future will effectively catalyze the stalled movement toward peace. Yet, while joint Israeli-Palestinian-led initiatives are gaining more momentum among young people, we see that this ecosystem is still fragile and remains under constant threat of distortion by polarizing powers within our home communities.
Our goal is to create a sustainable and prosperous future in Israel and Palestine, for this generation and for generations to come, before it is too late.
Ohad Elhelo is the founder and executive director of OGS. Sinan AbuShanab is the OGS program manager.