Business Management

Tech leader takes on Palestine-Israel 'Mission Impossible'

When dating app Verona was launched recently to connect Israelis and Palestinians and promote relationships, it achieved worldwide media coverage and acclaim. With slightly less fanfare, serial entrepreneur Hani Alami (founder of several telcos in the areas) is seeking to spread the love in the communications and technology communities, bridging the Israel-Palestinian divide.

While Verona (named after the setting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet) aims to bridge the divide for people seeking love and friendship, JEST (Jerusalem Entrepreneurs Society Technology), seeks to heal rifts through commercial relationships and a venture located on the border that, until the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, separated east (predominantly Arabic), and (predominantly Hebrew) west Jerusalem.

Verona might promise “World Peace, one swipe at a time” but the rationale for JEST has a more readily achievable objective.

Founder Hani Alami was born and raised on the Mount of Olives in the eastern part of Jerusalem. He studied at the American University in Cairo, Egypt but he never really wanted to live anywhere else. He returned to his beloved homeland to work for Motorola, initially building projects using two-way radio systems.

Attractive offers of postings elsewhere couldn’t tempt him away.

“I couldn’t bring myself to leave Jerusalem,” says Alami. But when he decided to set up his own business at home he discovered the huge challenge of creating a positive environment for trade.

“A new technology company in East Jerusalem is less of a disruptive journey than a Mission Impossible. You meet challenges that Tom Cruise never faced,” he says.

In investment terms, you’re scattering your seed funding on very stony ground. Nobody with talent seemed to stay in East Jerusalem when Alami was setting up. And everyone with any get up and go seemed to have got up and gone, rather than try to start a business.  

“If I wanted to talk to an old friend I had to dial an international number,” Alami recalls. “Everyone seemed to have left the city and succeeded. People from East Jerusalem can do brilliantly - any place but here.”

The number of startups created by East Jerusalem talent is impressive, but the number of startups actually based in East Jerusalem was close to nil. Alami wanted to halt the brain drain. The best and brightest of future generations should not have to go on an epic journey elsewhere to express their talents. They should stay and be successful here, he reasoned.

When he gathered engineers from the eastern side of Jerusalem to present these arguments the meeting turned into the inaugural conference of JEST. Inhabitants of this region are characteristically forthright – partly as a consequence of the challenges that face them – and Alami says many a home truth was spoken. As the founder of JEST, he challenged his new followers to name the obstacles that blocked startups and drove inventors away. It was to become their mission to dismantle each of these.  

East Jerusalem now has a co-working space and canopy for the new business ‘ecosystem’ designed to nurture local startups. Having established roots, it intends to grow in all directions. JEST offers pre-accelerator and accelerator programmes, soft skills and innovation courses tailored to a local population suffering high levels of unemployment, especially among women.

Structured and funded as a Corporation for Public Benefit, JEST aims to attract top ICT graduates along with existing and aspiring entrepreneurs. The aim is to connect their knowledge and skills and the needs of the market.

Israel might be a technology hotbed but the East Jerusalem region is barren, says Halami, possibly because there were no serious initiatives in place to support startups. Programmes at JEST will develop and launch startups and assist them in reaching angel or next-round funding.

Along with the usual training, funding, connecting and hackathons that go on at most business mentoring schemes, there will be a strong emphasis on encouraging more women into the industry and inspiring those with ICT skills to reach their full potential.

“The programme should encourage them to dare to dream - and follow their dreams,” says Alami.

Lack of movement of capital assets is a severe handicap for any market, but the consolidation of talent in East Jerusalem should provide the continuity needed for the growth. Meanwhile, in Gaza, there is the opposite problem. Along with power cuts, political disruption, visa issues and plummeting currencies, there is a stagnation of human capital. Many Gaza residents have never travelled more than 20 miles from home as a result of the travel restrictions imposed on them.

There have been positive signs such as Gaza’s University of Applied Sciences (UCAS), where an innovation lab for new tech was developed. Eager entrepreneurs soon came in to work on new projects, but last year most of the university was destroyed by shelling, with 16 staff and students killed. The power grid and networks were destroyed and classrooms, labs and offices damaged. All student projects were wrecked, reports Dr. Hani Khousa, the University’s Deputy Head of External Affairs.

Despite this, Gaza Sky Geeks recently became the region’s first startup accelerator after a crowdfunding campaign that exceeded its target by 189%.


Also read:

Meet the Palestine networker who bought an Israeli firm


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Nick Booth

Nick Booth worked in IT in the UK’s National Health Service, financial services and The Met Police, witnessing at first hand the disruptive effects of new technology. As a journalist and analyst, his mission is to stop history repeating itself.

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