Concordia University was a partner this summer in a program that brings young Israelis and Palestinians together through their common interest in entrepreneurship.
Four budding businesspeople worked collaboratively on startups at Concordia’s District 3 Innovation Centre for two weeks, alongside a dozen Concordia students from diverse disciplines and backgrounds, before returning home earlier this month.
The Middle East participants’ identities and the details of their future co-operation have been kept confidential at the request of Our Generation Speaks (OGS), the sponsor of the program.
Founded in 2014 and based at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., OGS is a fellowship program and startup incubator whose “mission is to create an entrepreneurial generation of leaders to shape a peaceful Israeli-Palestinian future built on trust.”
It provides fellows with the skills and resources needed to launch businesses in their home communities that have both an economic and a social impact.
OGS works with Brandeis’ Heller School for Social Policy and Management and MassChallenge, a Boston-based organization that’s described as the world’s largest zero-equity startup accelerator.
Before they came to Concordia, the four fellows spent three months in Massachusetts learning about business development and conflict resolution. They attended classes taught by Brandeis professors and received mentoring from experts.
The final two weeks of their fellowship were spent at Concordia’s District 3.
OGS provides seed funding to help the ventures get off the ground and former fellows remain connected through the OGS Alumni Organization. Three startups developed through OGS have been operating in Jerusalem and Ramallah since 2016.
By the end of 2019, 100 young Israelis and Palestinians in total are expected to have completed the fellowship, people OGS hopes will form “a network of change agents” who provide a model of co-operation for the region.
OGS’s 29-year-old executive director, Ohad Elhelo, an Israeli, founded the non-profit organization while he was a student at Brandeis.
OGS is funded by Israeli, Palestinian and American donors, notably the Kraft family. Former U.S. ambassador and under secretary of state for political affairs Nicholas Burns is the current chair of the advisory board.
Concordia saw the potential for it to play a role in the program after meeting with OGS representatives last year, said Khalil Hadad, District 3’s marketing and communications manager.
Since it was launched six years ago, District 3 has earned a solid reputation for coaching over 520 high-tech startups and building an entrepreneurial community of more than 9,000 that is open to anyone, not only Concordia students and alumni.
The university also saw the benefit for Concordia students of learning from members of the Montreal business community and other experts, alongside the four Israelis and Palestinians. In addition, they would gain an awareness of the situation in the Middle East.
The Mideast visitors also got the opportunity to observe how Concordia’s multicultural students get along.
The Palestinians and Israelis were housed together in Concordia’s Grey Nuns Residence, giving them a further opportunity to interact.
The OGS-Concordia Acceleration Program, as it is officially known, was made possible with support from the Montreal-based Naim S. Mahlab Foundation. Mahlab, who was of Iraqi Jewish origin, sought to promote intercultural harmony.
The 12 students chosen and trained for the program were from different faculties, not necessarily business, and from a variety of cultural identities.
They worked on two startups together. One is involved in developing a solution for household water security; the other is interested in improving the accuracy of data used for digital marketing.
“Working in the startup ethos has been such a blessing, and I’ve grown tremendously from it. It’s been such an eye-opening experience working with these startups and seeing what is possible for our future world,” said Concordia fine arts student Kevin Lam.
Hadad said District 3 hopes to continue the collaboration in some way with the OGS alumni, and is already exploring the possibility of hosting more fellows next year.
“The OGS-Concordia Accelerator Program exemplifies how collaboration, entrepreneurship and innovation – the pillars of District 3 – drive progress and help bridge cultural divides,” stated Xavier-Henri Hervé, its executive director.