January 18, 2019

Teens turn CEO for a week to learn about Israel and tech

Ten startups recently took the stage at American Jewish University (AJU) to pitch their ideas for how to implement Israeli water technology in the United States at an event hosted by the Israeli-American Council (IAC).

Within the supercharged, high-tech world of Los Angeles, it would have been a perfectly unremarkable event — except that many of these entrepreneurs were not far removed from their bar and bat mitzvahs.

The June 30 Demo Day showcase, coming on the heels of a five-day boot camp, was the culmination of the first year of a new IAC youth program called Eitanim, a leadership seminar series that took place in seven U.S. cities, including Los Angeles. The youth series grew out of Mishelanu, the IAC’s college outreach wing.

“We got the notion that we need to meet those kids earlier,” said Tali Brauman, IAC’s director of NextGen Engagement.

Starting in February, Eitanim engaged 120 high school students from across the country in monthly, three-hour, project-based learning sessions that cover entrepreneurship topics such as branding and gamification. 

Then, on June 26, just more than 100 youngsters — about half were participants in the monthly seminars, while others were recruited by word of mouth — gathered at AJU’s hilltop campus overlooking the 405 Freeway for a “hackathon,” where they were divided into 10-person teams that acted as “mini-startups,” Brauman said.

Each team designated a CEO and developed a product to pitch at the Thursday evening event to a panel of judges — Israeli tech entrepreneurs who also acted as mentors throughout the hackathon. The teenagers stayed in the AJU dorms for the duration of the five-day program.

The products they came up with included an app to measure water flow from household appliances, a video game where players use Israeli technologies to bring a parched society back from the brink, and a website that shows farmers how much they could save by switching to drip irrigation.

One startup, an e-commerce site for water-saving gizmos, went so far as to offer the audience (mostly parents) a stake in its company: 8 percent at $250,000, valuing their company at just over $3 million.

The four winning teams will present their products at the IAC’s September conference in Washington, D.C., to an audience of about 2,500. They were the doomsday game, the water usage app, a social platform for sharing water-saving tips and a website to connect water innovators with investors.

“Some of the presentations here could really raise a lot of money in Silicon Valley,” said Amir Shevat, one of the mentors and the Israeli-born director of developer relations at the messaging company Slack.

Shoham Nicolet, a co-founder of the IAC and its current CEO, concurred. “Some of the companies here, if you look at real life, are companies that really could make millions,” he said.

Before the pitch event, high school students roamed the campus, nervously preparing for their presentations by delivering pitches to the air in front of them. Others gathered in circles to shake their limbs and spout nonsense words — a technique they learned during the boot camp for dispelling stage fright. 

Once onstage, they were all well-manicured professionalism, standing in neat semicircles around a projector screen.

“The connection of Israeli chutzpah and American proficiency creates a really great combination,” said Shevat, who traveled from the Bay Area and stayed in the AJU dorms to participate in the program.

The IAC’s mission is to unite the Israeli and American Jewish cultures, using Israeli Americans as a “living bridge” between the two communities. The students who took part in the program were selected to be a mix of second-generation Israeli Americans and non-Israeli American Jews.

Eitanim was launched in response to what Nicolet called “a growing gap between young Jewish Americans and the State of Israel,” which he described as a “huge threat” to both.

Nicolet said the program was inspired by a summer youth camp he attended in 1992 in Israel that tasked youngsters with developing water solutions to the drought that plagued the country at the time. He said that experience “changed my life” by helping him to develop “soft skills” such as organizational communication.  

The Eitanim course was designed around a learning-by-doing model: “Instead of teaching them about Israel, give them a task to teach about Israel,” he explained.

It got its name from Nicolet’s commander in the Tzanhanim (paratroopers) division of the Israeli military, Maj. Eitan Belachsan, who was killed during the Israeli invasion of Southern Lebanon in 1999. Nicolet said he hopes the teenagers will carry away Belachsan’s legacy of “ultimate giving.”

Pnina Tofler, a 13-year-old from Los Angeles, said she was nervous upon learning on the first day of the conference that she would be the CEO of her group.

“I found this news extremely daunting,” the ninth-grader told the audience of the prospect of managing a group of kids, some of whom were older than her.

Soon, though, she was put at ease.

“Then the second day came, and I had an epiphany. I realized my group actually knew what they were doing,” she said. After that, she said, “The rest of this conference was a breeze.”

“We formed lasting friendships and bonds and had the experience of a lifetime,” she said. “I hope that the IAC continues this program and I can see you all next year.”

As for their tech careers, Yarden Efraim, a 17-year-old from New Jersey, was confident that the boot camp was just a beginning.

“This isn’t the end,” he said at the Demo Day. “The past few days were just a taste.”