THE BLOG
11/17/2016 04:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Meet The Israeli Woman That Led The First Major Technology Investment Into Palestine

What follows is an excerpt from the recently released book The Internet of Women: Accelerating Culture Change:

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Zika Abzuk is a Senior Business Development Manager at Cisco Israel, where she is leading Cisco's new initiative, Country Digitization Acceleration (CDA). Zika founded The MaanTech Program, which supports the integration of the Arab community in Israel into the high-tech industry under the auspices of President Shimon Peres. Together with Moshe Friedman, she also founded the KamaTech Program, which supports the integration of Ultra-Orthodox Jews into the high-tech industry. Prior to leading CDA at Cisco Israel, Zika led Cisco's Corporate Social Responsibility efforts in Eastern Europe, Israel, Palestine, and sub-Saharan Africa. In this role, she managed the implementa- tion of several social investments, including a $10 million commitment in five African countries, and a further $10 million commitment in the Palestinian Territories to support the development of the high-tech sector. Thanks to these efforts, the Palestinian high-tech sector went from virtually zero to creating 6% of GDP. Across many countries in the Arab world, enrollment in Cisco's Networking Academy is up to 64% female. However, in Israel, only 12% of those enrolled are women. Zika's efforts in bringing the Networking Academy to Arab communities in Israel and Palestine supported Arab youth in having technology exposure and access they had not had.

The following text is an edited transcript of an interview conducted by Rahilla Zafar.

During the seven years in which I lived in the United States, there was always a key question on my mind: whether to stay in the United States or go back home to Israel.

My family and I decided to move back in 1999 after watching Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and then Minister Shimon Peres shake hands with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat on the lawn of the White House. To me it represented a moment when we knew we wanted to be part of this new Middle East.

By the time we arrived in Israel, Rabin had been assassinated. I worried because I felt I had taken my kids from a privileged life in the United States to a place with no hope. That was depressing and a difficult time for us. We also found that Israeli society had become more polarized, which was painful.

Connecting Israeli and Palestinian Youth through Tech

At Cisco, my first role involved managing a research-and-development team. One day John Morgridge, who was Chairman of Cisco at the time, came to visit. There were hundreds of Cisco employees in Israel, and he made a point of speaking to each and every one of us. When I met him, I told him how I came to return to Israel and about my desire to foster a more cohesive society in Israel, through working with youth from different communities.

He recommended that I check out and possibly utilize the Cisco Network Academy Program. That gave me the idea of bringing Jewish and Arab students together to learn and to know each other through technology. By then, the Israeli high-tech sector was already considered a big part of the country's success. I knew that it would be tempting for teenagers to be part of that.

By 2000, I started doing volunteer work to bring the Network Academy to Israel and Palestine. It helped me forge friendships with Palestinians in universities in Palestine. Not knowing much, I had started going to universities in the occupied territories and found amazing partners to work with.

They were very excited about the Network Academy. But at the beginning, they were also suspicious. It took a year to build trust with the universities and for them to really believe that I wanted to bring the academy program to their universities, colleges and schools.

A key obstacle for me was the lack of equipment -- labs, routers and switches -- because the universities could not afford to purchase them. I started looking into options for collecting donations. I learned that Marc Benioff, the founder, chairman, and CEO of SalesForce, wanted to donate to the Networking Academy and that he was very enthusiastic about Israel. He agreed to donate the equipment needs for universities and colleges in Palestine as well.

When John Morgridge advised me to check out the Network Academy, he promised that if I made it happen, he would attend the program's launching event. We had 10 academies in Palestine and 12 in Israel. I asked him to come to the launch of both.

I still had some funding from Benioff, so I decided to create a class for teenage girls in IT. I had enough money to get a teacher and run it as an after- school program. So I went to Nazareth (an Arab city in Israel) and Nazareth Illit, (a Jewish city nearby). Almost immediately, I had 24 girls from both the Arab and Jewish cities who wanted to learn technology.

After a while, the girls wanted to open the class up to boys. They felt they needed to include boys for it to succeed. We selected 50 students -- 25 girls and 25 boys, half Arabs and half Jews -- and we mixed them to create two classes.

It was a very successful program. Orgad Lootski, a wonderful teacher, assigned them projects to do in small groups, which required them to visit each other's homes to complete the work. This arrangement helped create friendships. It was the first project ever to require those kids to work together and practice being on the same team. A lot of the prejudice melted away.

All 50 students studied together for a year and a half. Once a quarter, I would come and interview the students on how they felt about the program. Afterward, we would do something social such as bowling. We learned from them that they really felt empowered by the program and learned a great deal, but they wanted more social activities. This was before the Intifada started.

The Intifada started six months into the program. The students continued coming but they all felt they had to be very careful in what they would say as these were politically tense times. They shared that they would have liked to talk about everything and bring every bit of who they are into the program without being afraid. They wanted to discuss societal issues, and not just technology.

That's what gave me the idea to start a youth program across the country that would bring young people together for social activities. It was a youth movement, really. First, it brought Israeli and Palestinian teachers together. Next, we brought in the youth, starting with Arabs and Jews within Israel and then extending it to Palestinians living in the occupied territories. This program has been running for 12 or 13 years. Today, it has seen 5,000 graduates. There are about 1,200 current students, and it has become a real success in Israel and Palestine.

I also extended the program across the Mediterranean, using different social networks to bring kids together across the entire region. Participating countries included Israel, Palestine, Morocco, Egypt, Yemen, Turkey, Cyprus and Portugal. We recruited young people in their late 20s and early 30s who had participated themselves to help us run the program. During the summer vacation, they met in their own countries and worked with the youth on various projects, and collaborated online to bring them together.

Investing in the Palestinian ICT Sector

John Chambers, Cisco's CEO at the time and now Chairman, was asked by President George Bush to lead a delegation of business people to rebuild the south of Lebanon after the war in 2006. John made a commitment that he would invest $10 million in the country.

At the time, John had not visited Israel yet. The north of Israel suffered from the war as well, so John decided to also make a commitment to invest $2 million in Israel. Around that time, Shimon Peres became president of Israel. As a minister, he had really liked the work we did with Israeli and Palestinian youth.

We had this great idea for President Peres to invite John to launch the digital-cities initiative we had worked on, and that would connect Arab and Jewish cities. We held a video-conferencing event where John met all of the instructors in the participating countries. We also celebrated both the new program in Nazareth and the Mediterranean program, which is called MYTech.

When John arrived, I went with him to Ramallah, a Palestinian city in the West Bank, where we met with President Mahmoud Abbas. John made a commitment of $10 million to invest in what he called a new model of job creation. Our Palestinian friends were very happy about it.

We selected one representative each from the president's office, the government, the private sector and the Palestinian IT Association. This group became our advisory board and served as our eyes and ears in Palestine. They said they had watched with awe as Israel had become a start-up nation and a high-tech superpower. They also said Israel and Palestine are similar in many ways. They are both small countries that don't have a lot of natural resources. The best resource for both is their people -- entrepreneurial people who are highly educated.

Palestinians are among the most educated people in the Middle East. They wanted us to help them achieve the same type of high-tech industry as Israel has. It was an amazing challenge. I started to learn more about how the Israeli government created a successful tech sector. In Israel, Cisco had around 700 people, most of whom worked in research and development. I asked some of my colleagues to come with me to Palestine to learn the ecosystem, understand what would be required, and see what was already in place.

They agreed to come with me to Ramallah, and I set a date. A day before the visit, they approached me and said, "We're not going to tell our wives we're going to the West Bank because this is risky and dangerous. We're putting our lives in your hands, so it's your responsibility if anything happens to us."

These were men who had served in the army. I called my Palestinian friends and asked what I should do. I didn't want to take responsibility for their lives, so I suggested we meet in Jericho, at a hotel about 100 meters from the checkpoint. If something happens, I figured, they could run to the checkpoint.

When we arrived at the checkpoint, we learned it was the day before Independence Day in Israel, so there was a closure in the West Bank. No Israelis could come in and no Palestinians could go out. We grew concerned we had come a long way for nothing. A soldier at the checkpoint who had been watching us with interest pointed out a gas station about 500 meters away that was in "no man's land." Both Israelis and Palestinians could go there without a permit.

We met there, underneath a Bedouin tent at a gas station, with the leaders of Palestine's ICT sector. We met amazing entrepreneurs that day from Palestine. It was right after the elections in the West Bank where Hamas had won, resulting in the Palestinian economy almost coming to a halt. We met entrepreneurs who owned small companies with 15 to 20 employees who were working on several local projects.

A few of the CEOs had studied in universities in the United States and Europe. They told us, "We know Cisco is such an important company and we want you to help us change the image of Palestine as a place that's open for business."

I suggested we should do it ourselves, with Cisco starting to outsource work to Palestinian companies. That was really a worthy challenge. Our team had been outsourcing work to India, which was a few time zones away and had a completely different culture. The advantages of working in Palestine included being in the same time zone, sharing a similar culture, and even a similar accent (many Palestinians speak Hebrew). We thought it could be a good start, but we had to send it to our research-and-development department.

I went to Tae Yoo, head of Corporate Social Responsibility for Cisco, and asked whether we could move forward if we funded the work. They agreed that Cisco would fund it for the first year from John Chambers' $10 million commitment. If they were happy with the Palestinian work, they would continue to employ them and pick up the cost.

We started with 12 engineers. The research-and-development team inter- viewed around 20 companies, and we selected three. Each business unit selected a different company and started outsourcing work to them. A year later, 35 Palestinians were working for Cisco, and the research-and- development team picked up the cost and are still employing them. The Palestinians are now part of the core team. It's a great success story.

Building a New Image for Palestine

We promised to change the image of Palestine, as a place that's open for business, so we started knocking on the doors of multinationals. We went to Microsoft, Google, HP, and Intel. Together with our Palestinian partners, we shared with them our success story.

Dave Harden of USAID offered to fund the initiation of these projects, which allowed Microsoft and others to get started outsourcing work to Palestinian companies as well. We eventually created over 1,000 new jobs in Palestine. I also worked with Yadin Kaufman and Saed Nashef to help start Sadara, the first venture-capital fund in Palestine.

We also developed a capacity-building program for the companies that had not been selected for outsourcing opportunities. We worked with people from the high-tech industry in Israel to conduct workshops. The high-tech ecosystem is like a contagious disease. When you infect others with it, you can open up to the world. It's something you can teach, introduce, and make happen in other places.

As Israelis, we are not allowed to enter Gaza in the way we can go to the West Bank. As a result, it's more difficult for us to support Gaza's high- tech sector from Israel. This is part of the reason why Google partnered with MercyCorps to launch the first accelerator there, Gaza Sky Geeks.

When we started working in Palestine, we were hopeful for political change. Today, the situation is very depressing. You need courageous leaders who can make the change or do the type of work we've done. If we have more momentum, more people will demand that their leadership work harder for peace negotiations.

I'm optimistic, because I know people on both sides. We've had great partners to work with, who became our friends. Even though the situation is political, it is up to us to change it, and eventually the governments will follow. I truly believe in this: the Palestinians are entrepreneurial in spirit and highly educated. They can develop their own ecosystem for the digital world if they are empowered to do so.