By Megan E. Turner/JNS.org
Under a beautiful desert sky during a recent evening in Be’er Sheva, a new initiative presented the Negev region’s first organized class of social business entrepreneurs to the greater public.
The Lauder Employment Center, which is the brainchild of Jewish businessman, philanthropist, and organizational leader Ronald S. Lauder—chairman of the Jewish National Fund and president of the World Jewish Congress—served as the backdrop for Israeli entrepreneurs exchanging ideas for the future. The clinking of glasses and bustling, cheery atmosphere marked the debut of HaMeitz, a social enterprise and small business accelerator that is the first program of the PresenTense entrepreneurship initiative in southern Israel.
The employment center facility itself reflects Be’er Sheva’s character through a blend of tradition and modernity, featuring an architectural style that is a throwback to Israel’s era of Ottoman rule for the building’s forward-thinking tenants—entrepreneurs whose passion is instantly evident. The first words coming from HaMeitz program coordinator Maor Elkayam were, “It’s so nice to meet you—do you have any ideas for future projects?”
The introduction of HaMeitz’s 2015 Entrepreneur Class began with remarks from Be’er Sheva’s deputy mayor, Tal Elal, who said, “Be’er Sheva is the city of opportunity.”
“The Negev is the future of Israel,” Elal added, invoking the famous sentiments of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.
Member of Knesset Erel Margalit (Labor) built upon the theme of increased attention for Israel’s south by pointing out that both eBay and PayPal will be opening their development centers in Be’er Sheva.
“The time has come for a different way of thinking,” said Margalit, who added remarks on his belief that Israel should shift its emphasis from developing the center of the country to developing the Jewish state’s next hi-tech center in Be’er Sheva.
Next up were the pitches of the entrepreneurs themselves. Each individual or team summarized their socially aimed products and services in pitches of no longer than 20 seconds. An infectious sense of pride rippled through the crowd for the ideas, which were aimed at enhancing the Negev region and helping southern Israelis continue to live there in the long run.
One of the projects presented, Desert Language, is an arts studio that teaches and encourages youths to engage in creative artistic techniques using natural materials from the surrounding desert. The teenagers then take these skills and teach various after-school programs all over the region for disadvantaged children.
Another project, called Revealed – Learning to Swim in Hura, focuses on teaching Bedouin children and youths how to swim. In their pitch, entrepreneurs Yael and Arik starkly pointed out that “20 percent of deaths from drowning in Israel are from the Bedouin sector,” and that through their professional knowledge and their business model, they plan on building a public swimming pool in Hura, which is a small-yet-flourishing Bedouin community of about 15,000 people. The project also plans to give swimming lessons to Hura’s youths.
Meanwhile, the Israeli Institute for Cognitive Accessibility project addresses a security need for southern Israelis with cognitive disabilities.
“How do you explain to someone who can’t tell time that they should wait 10 minutes in a protected space after a rocket siren?” Ornit Avidan-Zeev asked in her pitch. “Try telling them to wait the length of four songs, instead.”
The institute—whose motto is “Slow and Simple is Also Accessibility”—aims to create easy-to-understand materials through the use of simple language, organization, and pictures.
Overall, HaMeitz’s first class of entrepreneurs underscored the multifaceted potential of the Negev region and the ongoing migration of power, energy, and ideas towards Israel’s south.
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