Nancy Strichman
Spotlight on Civil Society
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Imagine big

From an underprivileged community? Have a startup? Here's a leg up with the CEOs of major tech companies -- but only if you're in high school
Entrepreneurs from the Bedouin city of Rahat, presenting their start up in 2017- an application to encourage tourism to Bedouin communities in the Negev region.
(Courtesy of Unistream).
Entrepreneurs from the Bedouin city of Rahat, presenting their start up in 2017- an application to encourage tourism to Bedouin communities in the Negev region. (Courtesy of Unistream).

So imagine this. You are sitting across from a panel of industry experts, let’s say the CEO of Microsoft Israel, the CEO of Facebook Israel and the CEO of Citi Israel. You are describing the startup company that you founded and worked on for years. And if you weren’t already nervous enough, your presentation is in English — likely your second or third language.

You are competing against 60 other teams from around Israel to be named Entrepreneur of the Year. Previous winners have developed products such as a steering wheel that detects if the driver falls asleep, a clothing line for children with physical disabilities, and an allergy stick that can test individual food sensitivities.

Outside the room where you are presenting, your startup is on display in the exhibition hall, which has attracted visitors and investors from around the world. If your team wins the Entrepreneur of the Year award, your names will be announced to a crowd of over 3,000.

And your competition? Like you, they are high school students.

The exhibition hall at the Entrepreneur of the Year Event, 2018. (Courtesy of Unistream).

Welcome to Unistream, an organization that works with youth from diverse, underprivileged communities. Rony Zarom, a highly successful entrepreneur who founded Unistream in 2001, knows how to dream big, which is also what he expects of the participants. Growing up in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Ramle, Rony understands from his own experience what it means when kids have few opportunities and little exposure to the world of business, technology and entrepreneurship. Rony established Unistream with a very specific goal in mind — to create socio-economy mobility among underserved communities. How so? By empowering teens and young adults to build and manage startups and become business and social leaders in Israel.

Entrepreneurs of Year 2018 winners from Netanya, with the Keep Up start up, a steering wheel that can detect if a driver falls asleep. (Courtesy of Unistream).

High expectations are set for everyone — the youth, the organization’s volunteers, and the organization itself. This commitment to excellence seems to be paying off, as Unistream continues to attract more volunteers and supporters from the business sector, including leading companies such as JP Morgan, Citi, EY, KPMG, Facebook and Microsoft. Unistream has received much praise for its approach, even being selected by the United Nations in 2016 as one of the most influential organizations in the world working to promote intercultural innovation.

The opening of the Entrepreneurship Center in Kfar Chabad, an ultra-Orthodox community, featuring youth participants with Unistream’s founder, Rony Zarom, Spring, 2018. There are over 75 centers around the country. (Courtesy of Unistream).

What are some key components of its formula? Well of course, it all starts with great kids who sign on… And there is a serious investment here for these kids, who generally have had limited opportunities, fewer positive role models, and likely have come from lower performing schools. For three years, they meet regularly after school at their local Entrepreneurship Center, where they grow their company, while at the same time they learn about civic engagement through their own social impact projects. Then, after three years of weekly check-ins, and even after the Entrepreneur of the Year competitions, these teens aren’t done. Not even close. They may graduate from high school, but they don’t really graduate from Unistream. By design, they stay an integral part of the Unistream community.

Entrepreneurs from the Druze village of Julis with Unistream CEO Bat Sheva Moshe at an Investment Committee in 2018. They are presenting their startup — a horizontal watering system- at an event that simulates the process of pitching to potential investors and raising capital. (Courtesy of Unistream).

Then you have the adult volunteers who have been key ingredients to the success of Unistream since its early years and who have set the tone for the organization. The volunteers at Unistream are industry leaders and entrepreneurs from successful companies all over Israel. Numbering in the thousands, they are continually building a community for the youth participants. They give weekly lectures, host participants at their companies, and act as mentors and business consultants. And that is just the beginning of their engagement with Unistream, because the professional networks that have been developed create new opportunities as former participants begin to build their careers.

Entrepreneurs from Afula, presenting their start up at the 2017 event, a device to secure disposable cups in place when used outside — for environmental purposes, as well as comfort. (Courtesy of Unistream).

Unistream defines its success by the success of its youth — and if the data tells them otherwise, they are willing to pivot. A number of years ago, for example, following a study of their long term impact, Unistream recognized that they needed to make a strategic shift. It turned out that their graduates, upon completion of the intensive three year program, were not always successful in getting integrated into Israel’s leading companies. As Bat Sheva Moshe, the CEO of Unistream explains, “We want to see our alumni achieving in every way, and, whatever we can do; if it is to help open more doors, or coach for a job interview, we want to be there for them. We want Unistream to be a game changer for young people who come from underserved communities and who despite their backgrounds, are able to get to high level positions.”

So in 2016, Unistream created an alumni department, exclusively devoted to the needs of its former participants, offering ongoing career services, technical courses, vocational training, job placement and educational counseling. Unistream realized that investing in its alumni, while always a priority, had to be much more central to its work. The Entrepreneur of the Year event, as memorable as it is, now only jumpstarts its efforts as Unistream seeks to be there for the other important events in the lives of their alumni.

Unistream leadership together with the professional and lay leadership of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles at the Entrepreneur of the Year Event, 2017. The multi-year strategic partnership between Unistream and the Federation began in 2017. (Courtesy of Unistream).

The ideas of entrepreneurial success, leadership, civic engagement — these are big ideas. They require imagination, demand commitment, and are tricky to measure. But it you want to get a sense of what it looks like, you can check out Unistream and talk to some of their alumni. Like founder Rony Zarom, they dream big — both for themselves and their communities.

Entrepreneurs of Year 2017 winners from the mixed Arab-Jewish club in Acco, with the safe allergy start up that can test individual food sensitivities. (Courtesy of Unistream).
About the Author
Dr. Nancy Strichman teaches graduate courses in evaluation and strategic thinking at the Hebrew University’s Glocal program, a masters degree in International Development. Her research has focused on civil society, specifically on shared society NGOs and gender equality in Israel. She lives with her family in Kiryat Tivon.
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