I had an out of body experience last week. A few days before Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in the Jewish calendar and a spiritual day of remembrance, I found myself in front of ten Palestinian high-tech CEOs talking about entrepreneurship. At the end of the session, they invited me to meet with Palestinian President Abbas to advise him on how to build a thriving IT sector (which now employs 3,500 across 300 companies). How did this juxtaposition come about?
It all began a few months ago, when Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick visited Israel on a trade mission. He met with numerous Israeli entrepreneurs to foster greater business partnerships and opportunities with Massachusetts businesses. While there, he met with a few Palestinian entrepreneurs as well and invited them to come to Boston to establish closer relationships with local businesses. Last week, they took him up on this offer -- coming to both Boston and Silicon Valley to meet with business leaders from the IT industry. The Boston visit was coordinated by PBLN, a business organization I co-founded, and Governor Patrick came to meet with the group to welcome them to Boston.
Honestly, when I was invited to speak to the Palestinian delegation, I paused. You see, my father is a Holocaust survivor and finished high school in Tel Aviv. My kids attend a Jewish day-school, study Hebrew, and are being raised, like I was, as ardent Zionists. I donate money to AIPAC as well as our local Jewish federation (CJP). Although I strongly support a two-state solution, I worry that anti-Semitism remains rampant in the Middle East and that the demonization of Israel and Jews is at an alarming high. And so the question I asked myself before accepting the invitation was: would a strong Palestinian IT sector be a good thing for peace in the Middle East? What if the next Skype or LogMeIn was started by a Ramallah-based entrepreneur instead of a Swede or Hungarian, respectively -- would that be a good thing?
My conclusion: 100% yes. And after meeting with the Palestinian CEO delegation, I would say 200% yes.
Thomas Friedman said recently that the surest cure to poverty was entrepreneurship. I would say the same regarding peace. If the Israelis and Palestinians are busy cooperating commercially, creating jobs and wealth for both sides, it will meaningfully reduce the tension that unemployment and a lack of opportunity for young and old represent.
I was blown away by the group of Palestinian entrepreneurs -- they had more in common with entrepreneurs in Boston, Silicon Valley and NYC than probably many of their own people. They could have stepped right out of TechStars central casting -- smart, scrappy, ambitious, hungry. I enjoyed hearing their stories of their entrepreneurial journeys to create their companies. (I joked with some chagrin with the one female in the delegation -- pictured above -- that their male : female entrepreneurial ratio matched our own.)
Traveling with the delegation was a USAID executive who is assigned to the region to foster more business development with entrepreneurial companies. I was able to enlist a Palestinian Harvard Business School student (we hosted the event at Harvard's new Innovation Lab, which is spectacular), to join us. He was raised in Bethlehem and worked at a Palestinian venture capital firm last summer, called Padico, scouting opportunities for investment.
Who knows what will happen with the peace talks, but if these ten entrepreneurs are any indication, there's hope yet for peace in the Middle East through posterity and entrepreneurship. At least that's what I was praying for in synagogue on Saturday! With the recent bombshell announcement that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has secured the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, perhaps we are a step closer.