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Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Israeli nonprofit gives youths a leg up in growing their business savvy

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Let me ask you something,” Yehuda Ben-Uziel said, spinning to face the audience. “What is a hero? A hero is someone willing to save another person’s life.”

Three years ago, Ben-Uziel, now an Israeli high school junior, couldn’t have delivered this five-minute presentation about an important product he’s helping to design, or about anything else. Back then, his confidence lagged and he had few friends. Ben-Uziel tended to observe classmates bantering, not participating himself, considering being an outsider to be normal. When the school day ended, he would head home to read and listen to music.

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But getting involved with Unistream, a nonprofit organization that cultivates entrepreneurial skills in Israeli youth living in remote areas and coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, has given Ben-Uziel the self-worth he lacked.

And so, there he was, late in the afternoon on June 8 in the northern Israel coastal town of Akko, talking to 19 American visitors — members of a delegation from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles — and his Unistream peers.

He spoke assuredly and in flawless English about Doclock, a wristwatch that stores medication and alerts its wearer when to take the pills — something he and seven other Akko high schoolers developed in the igloo-like structure that serves as their innovation center and hangout den. One-third of Israelis fail to properly ingest their prescriptions, including a glaucoma sufferer who lost an eye as a result, a female in Ben-Uziel’s cohort explained.

The speakers passed around a Doclock prototype they had assembled. Another group of students presented its project: strips that enable diners to test food for ingredients they’re allergic to.

The members of the Federation delegation were visiting Israel to see some of the difference-making projects the organization supports, including Unistream. Akko is one of Unistream’s 13 youth-entrepreneurship centers throughout Israel.

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Federation’s involvement with Unistream began with a $45,000 donation in 2015; by this year, the allocation increased to $1 million, Aaron Goldberg, the director of Federation’s Israel office, told the Journal. Representatives of the two bodies speak daily and jointly attend meetings with municipal officials, he said.

Federation’s role arose from its decision to embrace grass-roots organizations striving to improve Israelis’ lives — particularly efforts combatting poverty, Goldberg said. In January, the two bodies announced a strategic partnership.

“To us, the dollars are inconsequential,” he said. “We have a shared mission. We’re committed to bringing additional resources to the table: government, municipalities, philanthropists.”

Unistream was founded in 2001 by entrepreneur Rony Zarom to expose Israeli youth to the business world and thereby boost their prospects in life. The organization’s programs serve 1,500 adolescents annually, and local governments provide the centers free of charge.

Students commit to coming to the centers two afternoons per week, three hours each day, throughout the three-year program. Corporate executives volunteering with Unistream serve as mentors and teach the youth to identify market opportunities, write business plans, build prototypes, seek investment and market products. Participants must raise their competency in English to prepare for careers. The program also involves leadership training and voluntarism. 

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Local and national competitions sharpen participants’ focus. Unistream’s national entrepreneurship competition will be held July 19 in Tel Aviv.

“Our goal is to narrow the gaps in Israeli society by educating kids to be entrepreneurs and business people. They learn everything about business, about finance,” said Batsheva Moshe, Unistream’s CEO. “They have a chance to be part of the Startup Nation and to better their future.”

Aiming high isn’t limited to the youth. At the Akko event, Jay Sanderson, Federation’s president and CEO, announced that the 13 entrepreneurship centers will grow to 50 in the next few years.

“It’s a long-term partnership we have at Unistream,” he said. “We spoke with a number of economists in Israel who said we can only reach our goals if we stayed in it for years. We are in it for the long term. … Resources are the least problematic piece. When you see the cost-effectiveness of it, it’s very appealing.”

The head of the “I Have a Dream” Foundation, an American organization that was a pioneer in showing youth the possibilities of a better future, sees the value of Unistream’s work, as well. That New York-based nonprofit was launched more than three decades ago by industrialist Eugene Lang, who mentored students in the Manhattan school he had attended and pledged to fund their college tuition if they graduated from high school. Lang died in April at age 98.

“A big component for him was having a personal relationship with these dreamers. The whole idea of engaging them and exposing them to resources around social capital is critical because they don’t have these opportunities in their communities,” said Donna Lawrence, the foundation’s president and chief executive officer. “It’s very important to give them real work experience and get them ready for the jobs that will be out there.”

The Akko youth already envision those possibilities. They introduced themselves to the Los Angeles visitors by presenting their titles, acronym-style, in the startup ventures: CEO, COO, VP. The Americans were startled by the precociousness in their midst — and came away impressed.

“They’re an inspiration,” Valerie Salkin, a Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge, said afterward. “It’s something when you see teenagers doing presentations that are better than some lawyers I see in my court.”

“These kids are doing real product development and business plans. I know college graduates who couldn’t do these presentations,” Sanderson said to the group. He later told the Journal that Federation will raise funds to triple Unistream’s annual budget to $9 million.

As part of the event, the Americans and Israelis collaborated in an exercise, dividing into five groups. The challenge: Devise innovative ways to connect Diaspora and Israeli youth.

The groups brainstormed for 10 minutes, then made short presentations on their ideas, including an app, a website and virtual-reality glasses.

The hosts walked the visitors toward their chartered bus. On the lawn, group photographs were taken, and back inside, the youth stacked the white chairs and put away the refreshments.

Ben-Uziel was among the last to leave this place where he already has become a fixture. Instead of three hours each day, he usually stays six. The boys and girls here are his friends. Even when not collaborating on their startup projects, they enjoy one another’s company. That means hanging out in the igloo to talk, playing cards and computer games, and studying for class. Other times, they go out for coffee and take walks.

Ben-Uziel, with an endearing smile and ponytail bun, folded one leg over another and sat Buddha-style, projecting confidence.

“Unistream helped me a lot in understanding who I want to be. I realized that I want to be a musician. What school doesn’t do, that Unistream has done, is to develop one’s creativity and thinking. In Unistream, searching for solutions [in business] developed the creative side of me,” he said.

“It took me out of my small box and placed me in society.” 

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