Written by: Liz Cohen
What coronavirus didn’t lock down in 2020
This month marked something spectacular for the grassroots Israeli-Palestinian coexistence community: the completion of the first cohort of a new Israeli and Palestinian ‘equal partnership’ entrepreneurship program, 50:50 Startups - against all odds, including the usual, and the unforeseen.
50:50 Startups was founded to foster “collaboration between entrepreneurs on both sides of the political barrier.” This is based on the premise that a major obstacle in developing an equal partnership model of entrepreneurship across Israelis and Palestinians is that the two groups rarely, if ever, have an opportunity to actually meet - literally. Let alone to develop joint startups.
The year’s planned itinerary included in-person workshops and courses (hosted by partners like Microsoft, AtoBe, Azrieli College and others), events (like the launch at the Swiss ambassador's residence) and the culmination of the program in Boston, hosted by Northeastern University, a major 50:50 Startups partner.
When the program opened one year ago, it saw 90 applicants, covering Israeli-Arab, Palestinian, and Israeli-Jewish backgrounds. By early August 2020, 20 participants, representing nine teams, had completed the 50:50 Startups program together. Four of the top teams displayed their year of entrepreneurial effort at a concluding Demo Day on August 4th, representing diversity in founders (aside from diverse cultural backgrounds, three out of four of the presenting co-founders were women, and half of all co-founders across the nine teams were female).
The presenting teams had developed early concepts for social impact and technological solutions across sectors, including a platform combining digital learning with tangible interactive kits; a marketplace for diversified and personalized charitable giving; and a travel tech solution automating the painful visa access process (more information about the startups can be found here). An initial investment was given to the winning team behind Avodeem, a marketplace connecting Palestinian craftsmen with project-seeking Israelis based on skills, experience and location.
With all that said, the completion of the first year in itself was a victory; whereas the potential of the 50:50 mission is palpable at the outset, the program faced many challenges. Some are obvious, as indicated below, and some no one could have predicted: the coronavirus pandemic completely altering the plans mid-year. To start, the inherent challenges of running a startup incubator program like this are clear:
Starting a company is already difficult; what is the best way to connect and inspire potential partners who are newly connected and overcoming the political and cultural barriers of their backgrounds?
There are plenty of well-funded accelerators and incubator programs; will the mentors, advisors and partners pull through to support this program in a meaningful way?
The core mission of the program is to establish connection and create a more equal playing field for partnership; can the appropriate visas for in-person weekly courses and meetings inside Israeli territory be acquired for the Palestinian participants? Not to mention, the planned Boston trip for summer residency and entrepreneur training at Northeastern University?
Then came corona, and in-person events became a non-starter for all. Mid-program, the directors, advisors and even the participants found themselves asking: Can efforts to establish inter-conflict contact and constructive resolution continue during a global crisis?
Actually, the answer is YES. With no more in-person events or the possibility of the Boston trip on the table, the program moved to weekly Zoom workshops and an online Demo Day. The same guts, drive and morale it takes an Israeli or Palestinian visionary to join a program like this one prove to be the skills needed to complete it.
“It was an eye-opener of the amount of value creation of possibilities of our neighboring countries,” said Mohammad from East Jerusalem.
“It has provided me with great networking and great tools to start this project together with the best partner,” said Elianne, an Israeli.
Omri, a Jewish co-founder of Demo day finalist GetInvolved, said in a recent i24 interview that he feels “lucky to
Nicola, an Arab co-founder of Demo Day finalist BockIT, said he feels the collaboration has to actualize as even more than partnership - “to be more like a family.”
On the whole, participants agreed that the program gave them access to new perspective, new skill-building, and even new friends - both in the context of founding companies, and also in reaching across the cultural divide to establish social impact, together.
While the internal stakeholders clearly recognize the successes of the past year, so do those on the outside. In the last two months, the team has received dozens of requests to support 50:50 Startups - as staff, volunteers, mentors, advisors and more. In July, the Times of Israel published background on the program, and in August, i24, an international Israeli news station, broadcast the 50:50 mission and Demo Day.
If you’re interested in getting involved, check out 5050startups.org. Are you located in Israel or Palestine, and Interested in applying for the 2020-21 cohort? Sign up to be notified when applications open in September.
Liz Cohen is a board member of 50:50 Startups, with 15 years of professional startup ecosystem experience in Israel.