If they won’t hire you, start your own business
Throughout Jewish history, cultural bias and discrimination has served to spark Jewish entrepreneurship. When non-Jewish businesses were unwilling to hire Jews – or promote them when they did – Jews responded by starting their own businesses instead.
So when Pres. Jehuda Haddad of Beersheba’s Shamoon College of Engineering (SCE) found that some of his SCE graduates were struggling with too few employment opportunities in the center of the country, he followed the traditional path: He created a program to inspire, guide and nurture his engineering students in the process of creating start-ups of their own.
“SCE’s Engineer Entrepreneur Program (EEP) is the first of its kind in Israel,” Haddad says. “Entrepreneurship – business creation and development – is generally considered part of public policy departments, economics or business administration. It’s never been included in science and engineering.
“But we faced a unique situation here in the south. We have 5,000 engineering students enrolled in two campuses, Beersheba and Ashdod. About 95 percent come from the south, and many prefer to stay here after graduation. That’s a challenge – at least at this point, there aren’t enough companies in the Negev hiring engineers to employ them all.”
A parallel cultural issue exists, too, Haddad says.
“Most of our students come from very different backgrounds than do engineering students in the center of the country. Some 28% are women – compared to 20% in other institutions; 45% are immigrants, 7% are non-Jewish minorities. Most of the Jewish students are of [Sephardi] origin.
“When major companies in the center of the country set out to hire engineers, they tend to hire people much like themselves – that’s just human nature. That’s a big disadvantage for those of us in the south, because a lot of our graduates are ‘different.’
“So we decided to do something different ourselves – help students learn how to create their own opportunities.”
“SCE’s Engineer Entrepreneur Program came into existence just two years ago,” says Dr. Miri Yemini, Director of SCE’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center. “Even within the country’s big organizations, venture creation, innovation and product development are important. So all our students, whether they ultimately join one of the big companies or strike out on their own, will have acquired the tools they need to innovate and succeed.”
Yemini, who holds an MBA as well as a PhD, says the EEP represents a two-pronged benefit.
“The economic advantages are obvious. In Israel, more than half the population earns a living from small businesses. By helping our students start their own ventures here in the south, they’ll be able to employ other graduates. But beyond that, we’re also focusing on ethical, social and environmentally sound ventures. The businesses our graduates will create will be different – we encourage projects with social, environmental and green agendas.
“We give them priority in fund-raising, backing and coaching. That inspires the students and also helps recruit mentors and other senior-level industrialists to become part of the program.”
Freshmen students learn about the Engineer Entrepreneur Program the summer before they enter, and are encouraged to apply. Some 350 students have been accepted for the program so far. They’re divided into multidisciplinary teams, with a mix of members from six different fields of engineering.
“We compose the teams. The students don’t get to decide,” Yemini grins, acknowledging that the issue has been a hot topic. “It’s not that we’re trying to give them a hard time. It’s because when they get out into industry, they’ll most likely be assigned to work in teams with people from different classes and cultures. We want them to have that experience here, to make it easier later.”
Each team has five to 12 members. They develop an idea, service or product for commercial implementation and present it at an initial meeting. The staff considers the idea – its novelty, chance of realization, legal strictures and intellectual property possibilities – and if it passes, it’s submitted to experts in various fields for further commentary. As it moves up the line toward feasibility, additional help becomes available.
The involvement of mentors, outside professionals, plays a big part.
“Mentors offer personal business coaching based on their own experience in such things as fund-raising, marketing strategies and contact with large companies once the project becomes realizable. Over 50 leading managers in various Israeli industries are actively involved with us in this program.”
What ideas have been tested so far? One gadget that’s already achieved a measure of success is that of Zoharit Haddad, a third-year student.
“Together with a group of friends, I came up with this idea to develop digital software to tell you the actual temperature of the water in the boiler without turning the boiler on. So instead of wasting water by running it over your hands to see if it’s hot, this device will tell you. With this device, you’d always know if you have enough hot water for a shower.
“We’re also working on software to control the heating system to heat it to the required temperature without overheating. Several months ago, we presented this idea in the annual entrepreneurship competition with Tel Aviv University – and we won!”
“You can tell this is the Internet generation – they’re also looking at ways to control it from their Facebook pages!” Yemini laughs.
Typically, each student will have several ideas perking. Dror Sher-Popovich, a Beershebite in his last year of studies who also works at AmDocs in Sderot, came up with a plastic drink bottle recycling idea.
“Today we buy plastic bottles, use them, then throw them away. What if we made the bottles out of some different material that could be reused – drink bottles that could be individually refilled at freestanding machines?”
Sher-Popovich and his team are working on designing a machine to refill reusable drink bottles.
“Some kinds of refillable bottles already exist. Building the machine to process the bottle – clean it, refill it, recap it – isn’t all that difficult, individually. It’s getting it all working in one machine that’s critical.
“We’d put the machines in schools, military bases, train stations, universities. It would give people a chance to buy a drink – any drink, cola, orange, ice tea – at a lower price and benefit the environment, too. It would be great for students – carry one bottle to class, and refill it as many times as you want.”
One of Nir Yosef’s projects sounds like an instant winner. Yosef, a captain in the IDF who hails from a moshav in the Eshkol region, has a friend who’s a runner.
“He’s always wanted to run some of the world’s most famous courses. So I started thinking it would be great if you could devise software and hardware that would allow you to duplicate worldwide running conditions locally, maybe by combining GPS with home electronic equipment. Without ever leaving the Negev, you could run through the streets of Paris. That’s one of my projects.”
Hundreds of ideas have floated through the fertile minds of the young engineers.
“Almost every day I find myself checking new ideas, to see if someone has done it already,” Haddad says. “A year ago, I wouldn’t even have known how to check.”
Where do the ideas come from?
“Partly from an annoyance factor,” Yemini says. “If there’s something in your life that causes you pain, you’ll find yourself looking for a way to change it. Another way is through technological research. You develop some innovation, and then find yourself wondering, ‘Who could use this? Who would buy such a thing?’
“Almost every day, some student will come into my office, close the door and say: ‘Miri! I have a great new idea!’ I really love it when that happens.
“For every one of these students, it’s as though a new horizon has opened up. No socioeconomic or cultural gap can hold them back. They’re moving out on their own.”
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