By common sense standards, the timing was terrible. Israel and Palestine were in the middle of a war. But that didn't deter this venture capitalist.

Yadin Kaufmann--whose work at Veritas Venture Partners and Sadara Ventures in Ra'anana put Israel's tech scene on the map--had been working for months to launch a nonprofit called the Palestinian Internship Program (PIP). The goal: to bring Palestinian graduates across the border as interns, where they would be exposed to the Israel's thriving tech scene

Kaufmann needed to secure tech companies who would host the interns. So in June, despite the unfortunate timing, he approached Omri Shor, the Israeli founder of MediSafe, a medication management app.

Shor, who calls himself "pro-peace," was intrigued, "but I had to think twice." Even though he's based in Haifa, nearly 100 miles from the conflict in Gaza, he wanted to be cautious. "You're starting to develop a project with the intern, and who knows what's going to happen one day?" 

About three months into the internship program, Israel and Palestine agreed to a ceasefire, but tensions remain very high. Bystanders have had to negotiate where they stand in this conflict, and negative stereotypes on both sides of the border are rampant. The promise of PIP, Kaufmann says, is a chance to change those perceptions and help nurture a nascent tech community in Palestine. 

Beyond Borders 

The internship program or PIP, as Kaufmann calls it, began around October last year, with backing from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), a Palestinian foundation, and another Palestinian institution. (Kaufmann declined to divulge the amount of funding, calling it "significant," or name either organization due to the sensitive nature of the conflict.) Kaufmann registered PIP as a U.S. nonprofit in January.

PIP gained traction through Kaufmann's deep Rolodex of contacts, which include VCs, startup incubators, accelerators, and nearby universities. "USAID has a pretty robust setup in Ramallah [in the West Bank]," Kaufmann adds, and this also spurred applicants' interest. 

"This is part of a strategy to develop the Palestinian information and communication technology sector by strengthening the Palestinian human resources and exposing it to international standards and practices," said a USAID spokesperson over email. "The program is also beneficial as it developed and fostered more than 12 partnerships between Palestinian and multinational firms in Israel," which will hopefully lead to new partnerships.  

PIP's pilot program launched in June with four women and and four men who've been out of school for up to five years and are in their mid-20s. They came from all walks of life and religious backgrounds, and attended prestigious STEM universities: the Jordanian University of Science and Technology, Palestine Polytechnic University in Hebron, Arab American University in Jenin, and Al-Quds University. 

After soliciting applicants, Kaufmann and Zach Fenster, PIP's program manager, evaluated 25 candidates based on their resume and responses to questions about career and life goals. Over the course of about a week, they met with eight finalists. Then after those finalists met with the companies, who made their own intern selections, the interns received their assignments. Upon completing PIP, they're expected to return to Palestine for two years, with the hope of improving its tech ecosystem. 

For 10 weeks, interns receive hands-on training in a field of their choice at companies such as Intel, MediSafe, and Freightos, a freight quoting startup in Israel. "We wanted to make sure that we were offering internships in the range of fields that are relevant to a successful industry in tech," explains Fenster, and "we wanted to provide internships to future programmers and those who want to be on the investment side or the sales side or the marketing side." 

To further enrich the program, interns attend workshops taught by business professors from Harvard and other American colleges, and meet leaders in their field. Recently, the group visited Freightos to hear founder Zvi Schreiber discuss his career. 

Depending on where they are interning, participants receive temporary work visas for Israel, along with an undisclosed stipend for transportation and food, should they need one. Those working in cities away from home, such as the MediSafe developer who came from Hebron but interns in Haifa, receive housing provided by PIP or their host company.

Despite obvious safety concerns, the pilot has gone "remarkably smooth," Kaufmann says, and no intern has been near the war zone. Fenster says he routinely checks in with interns and host companies to keep the lines of communication open. The companies are also protective of interns, to the point where one even hired a private car so an intern would feel "comfortable and secure" commuting to and from work, he says. 

'Not About Politics'

Though they admit the pilot launch was trial by fire with the timing, Kaufmann and Fenster deeply believe in the power of PIP's mission. A venture capitalist for 27 years, Kaufmann helped launch Israel's first venture fund in 1987 and now mainly focuses on early-stage tech startups. Fenster, who is fluent in Arabic and Hebrew and calls Jerusalem home, came to the Middle East after graduating from Middlebury College. Networking brought the two together.

Fenster recognized Palestine's fledgling startup scene and how it's been overshadowed by the conflict. "There was potential to do a lot of good," he says. For his part, Kaufmann saw a lot of untapped talent. "Talented young Palestinians [are] coming out of universities in the West Bank, [with] many of them having no opportunity to get exposed to successful large tech companies." If they could show them how a tech startup works, Kaufmann says, "that could do a lot for their own personal development and the tech community." 

In short, the talent and enthusiasm are there, and now more of a startup infrastructure is starting to materialize. Fenster says over the past five years he has noticed an uptick in projects working to grow Palestine's tech scene, such as local incubators and accelerators. "What all of that reflects is that there are Palestinian entrepreneurs, and they're entrepreneurs who are interested in and passionate about building and growing the Palestinian tech sector." 

"Almost everybody here and on the other side recognizes that this is about building a tech sector in Palestine, which is ultimately good for everyone," adds Kaufmann. "And it's not about politics. It's about providing opportunities to young, talented people who can go out and do great things."

In the future, Kaufmann hopes to put PIP on a semester rotation, with each intern starting at the same time, unlike the pilot group, which staggered the start times. He's also anxious to work with more companies and perhaps bring the interns to startup hubs such as New York and Boston so they can get a taste of the culture.

It's too early to tell if PIP will achieve its end goal of strengthening Palestine as a tech startup hub, but Kaufmann says he's pleased with what he's seeing. "In a couple cases, we've had companies ask these interns to stay on, which is just an indication of how talented these interns are." 

Shor's developer is one of them. "He's been doing a tremendous job," says Shor. "I would even dare to say that he is more persistent than some of my older team members."

Published on: Sep 2, 2014