How to turn disadvantaged kids into innovative entrepreneurs – ISRAEL21c
As a 17-year-old from blue-collar Ramla, the only decent summer job Rony Zarom could find was selling books door to door in Tel Aviv, about 12 miles from home.
“I went all the way to Tel Aviv by bus, and they told me I would get a very minimal salary, but if I did well, I would get some percentage commission from the sales. It turns out I was a really good salesperson, and I made quite a lot of money for a young person during the summertime,” recalls Zarom, an accomplished entrepreneur.
The following summer, before starting his army service, Zarom founded his own book-selling company.
“I was really shocked about the amount of trust I got from businesspeople who provided me with inventory and guidance and whatever I needed. If you have an experience like that, you feel you can do anything in the world.”
Zarom went on to serve in the paratroopers, earn a master’s degree in computer science in New York, and return to Israel to establish the country’s first Internet provider.
After helming several successful ventures, he felt a calling to help young Israelis from disadvantaged backgrounds find their way in the business world just as he had.
Founded in 2001, Unistream now works with 3,500 male and female high school students each year and has thousands of alumni from across the country from all sectors – Jewish, Arab, religious, secular.
“There are so many different streams in Israel, so many different colors, religions and cultures. But when kids come to our organization, they become united and they become one stream,” says Zarom, explaining the name he chose for the organization.
“These are the people who are left behind. They don’t have mentors; they don’t have the courage and self-confidence to go and break the glass ceiling,” he tells ISRAEL21c.
“At Unistream, they all receive tools and skills from the worlds of entrepreneurship and innovation, which allow them to dream big, raise their self-confidence, fulfill their professional aspirations and succeed in life.”
Unistream has close ties to Israel’s business and education communities as well as government ministries.
“We operate 22 entrepreneurship centers in a three-year program for ninth, 10th and 11th graders. Three of them are ‘shared society,’ meaning they have Arab and Jewish participants collaborating together on startup creation,” Unistream CEO Ifat Bechor tells ISRAEL21c.
“And we have a one-year program called SUN (Startup Now), which has allowed us to bring the entrepreneurial DNA to over 85 municipalities as an informal afterschool program.”
In 2019, the Israel Innovation Authority and Israeli Ministry of Education awarded a five-year contract to Unistream to operate a Young Entrepreneurs program through SUN for seventh- to 12th-graders in northern and southern periphery communities.
Key figures from industry, academia, startups, incubators and entrepreneurial labs help SUN participants transform their tech ideas into products with commercial value.
The culmination of the yearly program is a Youth Entrepreneur of the Year competition where the teams present their projects in English.
Bechor notes that achieving English fluency is difficult for many of these kids but it’s an essential asset for anyone starting a business or aspiring to work for multinational corporations like Microsoft, Meta or Google.
At last July’s Youth Entrepreneur competition, involving 110 youth startups, a team from Netivot won first prize for “EasyWake,” a smart mattress that wakes the sleeper with pleasant sounds and gentle vibration — and interfaces via IoT with smart home devices such as window shades, lights and heaters. A mattress company is developing the concept.
Bechor said Unistream screens applicants recommended by high schools. Not everyone is accepted.
“If you have the spark in your eyes and you’re willing to make the commitment, we want you. Even if you are a shy person, in one year you will pitch your idea — in English — to the best businesspeople in Israel. This is the most amazing impact we can make,” Bechor says.
Bechor has been approached by business leaders in several other countries who are interested in replicating Unistream’s model to enhance informal entrepreneurship education. In addition, Unistream teens get to dialogue with peers in other countries to improve their communication skills and broaden their horizons.
Along with technical and soft skills, Unistream strives to give participants the ability to believe in themselves.
“We want them to understand that even the most successful entrepreneur in the world heard ‘no’ many times and it’s not about where he was born. It’s about persistence, confidence, feeling comfortable in an uncomfortable zone.”
At last year’s Young Entrepreneurs competition, an alumnus came over to Zarom and said, “I have to tell you something: Before Unistream, I was on the verge of becoming somebody totally different. And now I look at myself and I say, ‘Wow, thank God that I was saved by Unistream.’”
As a young teen, he had hung out with the wrong crowd. Now he’s finishing his service in Unit 8200, the army’s elite technological corps that has spawned a large proportion of Israel’s startup founders.
“He’s planning on studying in Tel Aviv University and working as a computer programmer in parallel with his studies,” says Zarom.
“So you see the immense shift that you can create in one person. And there are so many examples like that.”
Bechor remembers a girl who sold sandwiches to make enough money to put food on her family’s table. At Unistream, she was encouraged to take a more difficult track in mathematics at her high school, which proved pivotal to her success. “The math itself helped her but it was more about not giving up and going the extra mile.”
Another girl used notes from her Unistream sessions as a guide to starting a business with her single and unemployed mother, making pizzas and selling them door to door. She later became vice president of marketing in one of the largest companies in Israel.
Amazing human resource potential
Unistream participants are charged a nominal fee to show their commitment, but the fee is waived if they can’t afford it.
“The last thing we want them to think is that the barrier will be money,” says Bechor.
Unistream receives about 20% of its funding from various government agencies. The rest comes from the companies that provide volunteer mentors and sponsor its entrepreneurship centers, as well as from Jewish federations, foundations and private donors.
“The business sector has an understanding that their investment in Unistream is symbiotic,” says Bechor.
“It’s not ‘we give and you take.’ They understand that investing in our kids is really planting the seeds of their future employees and entrepreneurs of Israel and that there is an amazing human resource potential in the periphery if you just give kids the right tools at the age of 15 and 16.”
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Abigail Klein Leichman is a writer and associate editor at ISRAEL21c. Prior to moving to Israel in 2007, she was a specialty writer and copy editor at a major daily newspaper in New Jersey and has freelanced for a variety of newspapers and periodicals since 1984.