What kids can teach us about peace and possibility

The PICO Ambassadors, 2020. (Photo Credit: Meidan Alkobi)
The PICO Ambassadors, 2020. (Photo Credit: Meidan Alkobi)

Following the signing of the Abraham Peace Accords, the new business horizons opening between Israel and the UAE have been the subject of countless news articles. Far less attention has been given to investing in and building bridges among Israeli and Emirati youth.

As business leaders across the region seek ways to concretize the normalization between the two countries, at PICO Venture Partners we are also looking to our kids to lead the way on the road towards peace. We believe there is a lot to learn from their dreams and aspirations. In 2012, we established PICO Kids, a social enterprise that embodies our firm’s values to impart future-facing skills, hands-on learning and values in youth, to develop the next generation of leaders and change makers.

In practice, PICO Kids is an informal, experiential education framework for STEEM (Science, Technology Engineering Entrepreneurship and Math) learning among children in 4th-9th grades. The initiative connects social and business entrepreneurs with a diverse group of young people in a technological Makerspace hub. Our ultimate goal is to raise the next generation of problem-solvers that will take Israel to the forefront of technological innovation, while building bridges across all layers of society – secular and religious, Jews, Christians and Muslims, and from all socioeconomic levels.

Since its founding, PICO Kids has trained over 4,000 students from 60 Jerusalem schools to tackle some of the worlds’ most pertinent problems. Our two most recent hackathons focused on sustaining ocean life in the deteriorating Dead Sea, and on solving recurring lockdown challenges during COVID-19.

Over the last two years, we started to expand PICO Kids beyond the borders of Jerusalem – and Israel. In an increasingly connected world, we recognized the need to empower our youth to become global citizens, to expand their bounds of creativity and to create meaningful, sustainable, long-distance relationships.

We created the Ambassadors Program, a highly selective youth empowerment initiative for international learning exchanges. Students participate in an intense preparation seminar in Israel, and receive training in public speaking, leadership and public diplomacy before heading off to a week-long “Makeathon” abroad.

Last year, 35 Ambassadors traveled from Israel to Shanghai and Hong Kong, where they met with teens who share similar aspirations, learned about their culture, and tackled global challenges together.

Next year, we plan to bring 20 of our young ambassadors to meet the next generation of entrepreneurs in the UAE, in the midst of the Dubai Expo 2020 – the prestigious universal event also known as the World’s Fair.

Preparation for this exciting exchange is well under way. Our young ambassadors are researching Emirati history, culture, innovation and current events, with a special focus on the emerging Israel-UAE relations.

As part of the training, students recently participated in a Zoom session where they learned about the historic normalization deal, and presented their takeaways to their cohort. They were excited to learn about the UAE’s Ministry of Possibilities, the world’s first virtual ministry. Under the token of “nothing is impossible,” the ministry brings together teams from the government and private sector, and encourages them to apply design-thinking methodology to find disruptive solutions for the world’s most imminent challenges.

The Ministry of Possibilities, Dubai, February 2020 (Photo Credit: Elie Wurtman)

In the Zoom conversation, one of the PICO kids, Shachar, suggested that Israel adopt the concept of the UAE’s Ministry of Possibilities and establish a similar Ministry in Israel to support its citizens. She noted that Israel might have lots of problems, but it also has lots of problem-solvers: innovative entrepreneurs driven by unbounded motivation.

Our kids are excited to meet business leaders, government officials, and, mostly, their Emirati counterparts. They will eat hummus together, play backgammon (or X-Box), and build gadgets – and bridges – together.

Our children understand the benefits of expanding business partnerships and making the Middle Eastern desert bloom. More than that, they are deeply moved by what’s possible for our people; and this excitement is contagious.

The gates of opportunity have opened and I am confident we can do this, Emiratis and Israelis, together. As we face inevitable challenges and jointly solve problems, we should listen to our wise and courageous children. In the words of Yuval, another PICO Kids participant: “People say: ‘They are kids, they won’t succeed.’ We say: ‘We are kids and that is why we will succeed.’”

About the Author
Elie Wurtman is an investor, entrepreneur, co-founder and managing partner of PICO Venture Partners, an early stage venture capital fund headquartered in Jerusalem. Since launching his first company in 1993, Elie took 3 companies from founding to IPO. Elie is the founder of PICO Kids, a social enterprise focused on 21st century skills, values and STEM education for children in Jerusalem’s diverse communities. He is an Aspen Institute Global Leadership Fellow and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary.
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