03/06/2012 05:06 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Great Person #1: From Tel Aviv to the Academy Awards, Saving Children With Karen Tal

My connection with Karen Tal:
Some of you may or may not know, but Israel is one of the hottest tech hubs in the world. My company has a large software development office in Israel, and last year I had the pleasure of being introduced to Yossi Vardi. You could say that Yossi is the godfather of Internet companies in Israel because he sold his first company, ICQ, to AOL back in 1998. I only point this out because the sale of ICQ created a lot of excitement for many of Israel's technology entrepreneurs.

Yossi and I hit it off pretty fast as we shared thoughts around not only building companies, but also helping people. As the meal ended, he asked, "Why don't you meet me for breakfast tomorrow at the Bialik-Rogozin School in Jaffa?" The next morning I innocently headed over to the school, and when I walked in I was instantly taken back by the diversity of the children. It looked like a living Benetton advertisement. I was then introduced to Karen Tal, the principal of the school, and was instantly struck by how passionate she was about helping these children.

Many of the children were refugees from about forty-eight different countries and, in many cases, were without any citizenship. As she told me more about the school, I could see that she was taking on the huge task in helping children who had experienced, in some cases, really horrible things in their own countries -- for some, even genocide. When you meet someone like Karen Tal, you can't help but think how much better the world is to have people like her living in it. I can certainly say the same thing about Yossi Vardi whose passion I found honest and inspiring. Since meeting Karen, our Israel employees have been committed to volunteering at the school and mentoring these children.

(On a side note, a documentary called Strangers No More was filmed about the Bialik-Rogozin School and it won the Academy Award for best short documentary last year. If you haven't yet, I really encourage you to watch this incredibly movie.)

I had the opportunity to sit down with Karen Tal and ask her a series of questions with the hope of giving you insight into what makes a person like her tick. Read on as Karen discusses overcoming bullying, her personal heroes and the defining moments of her life.

(We are in a corner room of the school library and you can hear children and music outside the door.) Download MP3 Audio To Hear Rob and Karen Speaking.

Robert: So I've got ten questions to ask you.

Robert: First question: what's your purpose in life?

Karen: Wow...

Robert: These are going to be hard questions...

Karen: Yes, hard questions.

Karen: To give hope to children. That it doesn't matter where they come from, it just matters what they want to do, and to give them the help to do that.

Robert: When you were a child, did something happen in your life that made you think the way you think today or influenced you? When I was a child, I had things happen in my life that made me think about caring for people. I had a close family member who had depression and grew up undiagnosed, so I saw a child that was suffering and I lived with that. And I realized people suffer, even as children. Is there something that happened in your life?

Karen: Yes, my parents emigrated from Morocco to Israel when I was a little child and I grew up in a very difficult neighborhood in Jerusalem. I saw too many hundreds of young children drop out from school and some of them became criminals. When I saw this, I thought how it's unfair. It's not right that if they had an opportunity to get a good education, their life would be completely changed and that's the reason, perhaps why instead of being a lawyer, I became an educator. The other picture from my childhood that I saw was that some kids always beat up other kids in the neighborhood.

Robert: Did you see [this happen]?

Karen: Yes. They would say, "This is my territory" and I was a very thin and a little kid and I felt that it's not just their territory. I also had a right to go into those streets, and they will not beat me. I don't know from where I took the courage to look into their eyes and instead of walking on the other side, I decided to pass directly in front of them, and just to say, "Hello, have a nice day."

Robert: So you would go and actually approach the people and say, "Have a nice day?"

Karen: Yes.

Robert: Wow, that took courage as a child.

Karen: Yes, and I remember they were completely in shock because normally all people, all children were so afraid of them that they would take another route to not be near them so they would not get beaten up. However, this kind of reaction from me to them made them completely shocked. This made them decide not to beat me up.

Robert: Because you were friendly to them, you smiled?

Karen: Yes. I smiled and was friendly. Also, even though I felt at that very moment on the inside that I would have a heart attack, on the outside I looked like I was really confident. My body language and that decision to approach them was something I decided to do. It was my right to be in this neighborhood and nobody will beat me.

Robert: Was there a failure in your life that gave you a great lesson?

Karen: Yes. My divorce. I am the mother of two wonderful children and I don't know if it's ok to say but [I have to make] a big commitment to my work and I wasn't able to find the balance. I think that divorce is always a kind of failure, but it's a place that you also can grow from.

Robert: Yes, I've been divorced, too, so I know...

Karen: Oh, really? Ok. Welcome to the club.

Robert: We're all passing through life. I guess divorce is an experience. It's a lesson.

Karen: I don't know if I learned so much because yesterday I worked until midnight, so where is the lesson exactly?

Robert: If we wrote your obituary, what would you want it to say?

Karen: She really tried to do whatever she believed that is right to do.

Robert: Is there a hero in your life? Someone who you admire that we don't know about? For me, my grandfather was a hero when I was growing up. He always said to me, "Don't be a follower."

Karen: I don't have just one hero. My first heroes are my parents. Even though they were in a bad social economic background, they always found the way to give charity to others. And when I was a child, I didn't like it because I'd say, "Why give to other[s], when our family needs?" From this I took a big lesson because it's always important to figure out how you can help others. When you give more than you can give, you get back and it builds you. That's one lesson that I took from both my parents. The other [lesson] is it doesn't matter what is your work, because my parents worked very hard from morning until the evening. You should do everything that you can to change your reality. When I see difficulties, I don't say, "Wow, I cannot do anything about this." I always try to make things work, to enter from the door, from the window, from the other place. The other hero for me is Yossi Vardi, but he will kill me [if I mention his name.]

Robert: I know. He wouldn't come to do this interview with you. He didn't want to be recognized with you for the work at Bialik-Rogozin.

Karen: For me, he's important. If I will say [the word] mentor, he will kill me because he doesn't want to be public [about his support]. He supports, not just me, but a lot of other Principals. He also created a huge following of people that want to help. It's like a gift for all of society. So please find the way to say his name.

Robert: I'll just say YV. Not Yossi Vardi, just YV. He'll kill me if we mention his name.

Karen (laughing): He will not kill us. He will try.

Robert: He'll try.

Karen: I don't care. I just say it and you will write it. Then you say, "I'm sorry it's not me, it's Karen."

Robert (smiling): It's Karen, she forced me.

Karen: She forced me and then he will kill both of us.

Robert: What are your core values?

Karen: The most basic is that we are just human beings. You should think about others, because that's the only way that we can get meaning in this world. We can't just do for ourselves, but we have to be tolerant to others. Be tolerant to others!

Robert: If you could go back and do just one day differently, what day would it be and what would you do differently?

Karen: The day that the government decided the criteria in which children will stay or not stay in Israel. I said, "Don't do that because [of] the criteria; there should be no criteria. All the children are students, so give all of them IDs to be able to be citizens in Israel." I said something, but not in a strong enough voice. I would go back to that day and maybe open the door to all the [government] ministers and say, "Don't create this criteria."

Robert: What would have to happen to the world for you to think it's a perfect place?

Karen: I think that if more women were in all the different governments, the focus would not be war. It would be more peace. Maybe like in Scandinavia, in Sweden and other places that there are more women [in government], it gives kind of a good balance.

Robert: If you could get one question answered by God, what question would you want answered?

Karen: So if you created a world and human beings, why do you give them the ability to kill each other?

Robert: You talk about change and changing people's focus, so what's the best way to make change?

(Karen came to Rogozin six years ago and at that time, it had one of the worst graduation rates. Today it has one of the best in Israel.)

Karen: First of all, I think to create the ability to see like a movie the picture of the future, because the way that I started to change this school, it was by describing another picture. I think that in the moment that people see reality, but in the same time to see another picture of the future, then you can start to make the change. That's number one. Number two is to build trust between people. Trust the people and give them the feeling of being creative. Not to just limit themselves around surviving, but to use their imagination to innovate. Have them get out from the box.

Robert: Now for the last question, is there one fable that you tell people that describes something that you think is important in life?

Karen: It was something that my grandmother, even though she was illiterate, told me. She told me about a king that had a daughter that he loved very much and he asked her, "How much do you love me?" She said, "I love you like a salt that you put in the food." And he said, "That's it? You love me just like salt?" And from this story, I take that in life we should have a little bit of sugar, a little bit of salt, a little bit of all the spices and that is what makes the world have colors and taste. This gives the twist to life and we must celebrate this difference of tastes.

Robert: That's fantastic. Thank you, Karen.

Karen: Thank you.


Karen with her students at Rogozin

In my next article, I interview Shai Agassi, Founder and CEO of a Better Place. Shai shares his obsession with electric cars and getting the world off oil.