Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Negev 'pitch night’ for new start-ups also solves local problems

The entrepreneurs on pitch night. 
By Megan E. Turner

On a balmy summer's eve in Be'er Sheva, the excitement in the air was palpable at Jewish National Fund's Lauder Employment Center as 19 entrepreneurs shared their concepts for social change with a crowd of more than 250. Each took the stage in what was billed as a local "pitch night." With only 30 seconds to sell their idea, these budding business leaders summarized the past six months of hard work on their unique ideas into just a few, fleeting moments. Even more exciting, the best pitches of the evening were awarded seed money to help get their business off the ground.

With its sweeping vision to develop Southern Israel, Jewish National Fund has created myriad opportunities for residents in the Negev Desert region including finding good jobs and jumpstarting careers. The Lauder Center also helps to guide social entrepreneurs, formulate business plans, and teaches business skills to assist budding start-ups with the means to see their ideas come to fruition. As a byproduct, entrepreneurs often end up addressing unique social problems within their communities throughout the south.

"The people coming to us have the desire to make society better," explained Maor Elkayam, director of HaMeitz in Be'er Sheva, one of the Lauder Employment Center’s partners. The ideas they are cooking up include a wide range of fields: education, culture, sustainability, health, and social housing, and they are headed up by Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, and young and old.

One of the pitches came from the Visitor’s Educational Center for Ethiopian Jewish Culture and Heritage in Yerucham, a Negev development town founded in the 1950s that hadn’t seen growth for more than 50 years. The center aims to dispel the stereotype of Ethiopian Jewish Israelis as "the other" by bringing traditional Ethiopian Jewish culture to the wider Israeli society in an accessible and experiential way, with the center itself being a traditional Ethiopian gojo village house.

Bedouin women of the Deaf Salon. 
“If you are able to bring someone into your home, they see the culture and the tradition through different eyes, with a different mindset,” said entrepreneur Matuk Almu, 33, and father of three. “It is this type of conversation that deepens cross-cultural understanding.” The center also aims to strengthen Ethiopian identity with the younger generation born in Israel. “We want our kids to feel the culture and carry it with pride.” By creating a space for dialogue and cross-cultural experience, Almu and his team are striving to tackle racial prejudice and stigmas that so sharply affect the Ethiopian community.

The Pride House of Be’er Sheva and the South also gave its pitch: to give the LGBTQ community in the Negev a safe haven for community, assistance, advocacy, and support. “I didn’t study medicine," Osnat Glikstien, 24, entrepreneur of the Pride House, said, "but I do save lives." The important work being done by the Pride House is the first step in addressing social justice issues affecting the LGBTQ community, specifically in Be’er Sheva and all over Israel.
One of the entrepreneurs of the night. 

Next up was the Deaf Salon; they made a huge impact with their pitch. While Wafa Tibi, 46, one of the Salon’s entrepreneurs, explained the concept of teaching young, deaf Bedouin women cosmetology, her colleague signed the pitch to the deaf girls in the audience who came to show their support. A staggering 5 percent of the Bedouin population is deaf, and deaf women in this society especially suffer from poor self-image and a lack of integration. 

Tibi, a mother of four from Northern Israel, moved to the south to help push this initiative. “I want these women to understand that they can take care of themselves, that they are like everyone else,” she explained, beaming with pride. “I want to bring change to the south.”

“I saw that there was a problem right under my nose – if I do not address it, then I am not fulfilling my role as an educator and community leader,” said Yaser Elsaid, 42, the principal of the high school where the Deaf Salon is based.

"Jewish National Fund believes that if there is one place for positive change, it's the Negev, and Be'er Sheva is pioneering that change," said Eric Michaelson, JNF’s Chief Israel Officer, referring to the many programs and partnerships at work that are making all of this a reality.

And what about that seed money for the best pitches of the evening? Each of the initiatives presented was awarded money as hey all exceeded expectations. And now, with the motivation and hop of bringing real and lasting change to the Negev, the entrepreneurs can begin the hard work of turning their pitches into reality.

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