Creating advantage for the disadvantaged

Beersheba-based Shamoon College of Engineering’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center gives periphery students the proper tools.

By EHUD ZION WALDOKS
February 21, 2011 22:19
Shamoon College of Engineering in Beersheba

Shamoon College 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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What makes an entrepreneur? Is it the idea? The dream? The desire to create? While all of that might be innate, some of what shapes an entrepreneur are circumstance and natural advantage.

A Tel Aviv area-based entrepreneur has more access to money and contacts than a southernbased one. Moreover, those who grew up in the South don’t always have the educational advantages of those who grew up in the center.

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Shamoon College of Engineering is looking to level the playing field a little bit. SCE already caters to the more disadvantaged residents of the South and the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center (EIC) was the next step in giving them more tools to succeed, its director Dr. Miri Yemini, 30, told The Jerusalem Post in her office at the college’s Beersheba campus.

“More than 70 percent of the students here are from Ashdod and south. Twelve percent are non- Jewish minorities, 43% are immigrants and 28% are women (the national average is 21%). We believe the psychometric and matriculation exams are biased, so we allow applicants to be accepted not on the basis of those tests. After their first year, we reevaluate if they can continue their studies,” she said.

When she arrived at the college two and a half years ago, she started to think about what sort of competitive advantage she could give the students.

“They come from the South, there’s little access to higher education and they can’t move to the center because they’re generally older with children and families. The answer was entrepreneurship,” Yemini said.

“Entrepreneurship for marginalized populations enables them to break through the glass ceiling, to decide on their own futures.”



Even an engineering education is no longer enough of an advantage, according to Yemini.

“You need to be able to multitask in this global world. The human capital that knows how to solve equations is not enough and hasn’t been enough for a while,” she contended.

It seems that others are convinced that Yemini knows what she’s talking about. EIC has received funding from the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry for its program. Even more gratifying for Yemini and EIC, the ministry has decided to recreate the program exactly as is in the North.

EIC has also received international recognition.

Last year, it won a 1 million euro grant from the European Union’s Tempus Project and the lead role in coordinating an international study project with four other colleges here and academic institutions in Cyprus, Poland, Italy, England and Germany.

Thanks to video conferencing and an insistence that courses be taught in English, SCE students learn parallel curricula together with their European counterparts. Apple, SIT, the Council for Higher Education and the Young Entrepreneurs Association also have a role in developing the curricula and carrying it out.

The program offers tools to budding entrepreneurs but is also useful in any business environment, Yemini said.

“We teach out-of-the-box thinking [as] engineers are generally very square. We also teach teamwork, since all of the work is done in multidisciplinary teams. And we teach them to get their message across effectively both in Hebrew and in English,” she said.

HISHAM ALHALIM, 22, a software engineering student at SCE and a graduate of EIC’s program, said there were no other courses like it at SCE.

“Nowhere else are we taught business or entrepreneurship,” he said. Alhalim is working at a software company doing programming, but said that the program gave him some good ideas for the future. “I need to gain some experience first [before thinking about establishing my own start-up],” he said.

Yemini outlined the ideal end result of the program.

“The utopian dream is for our graduates to create a start-up here in the South and then hire other graduates of SCE,” she said.

To enable that, in addition to the course work, EIC facilitates contacts with industry leaders from the center of the country. The leaders come down to teach courses, for conferences and networking events.

“Entrepreneurship is about knowledge, contacts and capital,” Amir Raveh, who sold a hi-tech startup in 2003 and then founded MG Equity investment house after seven successful years in London, said by phone.

Raveh teaches at EIC and also provides mentors to the students through his nonprofit Building a Future to encourage entrepreneurship in the periphery. He was a natural fit for the program and when Yemini reached out to him, he gladly joined up.

Raveh taught two days a week at the EIC this past semester. He also helped organize a conference a few months ago that brought 100 veteran entrepreneurs to network with the students.

“We brought 100 innovators, investors, factory owners in the South, and members of my organization for a panel and mingling.

There are even two student entrepreneurs who are in negotiations for funding as a result of the conference,” he said.

The idea is to create a real connection between experienced businesspeople and the periphery, he added.

“The innovators come to a conference and you can see the sparkle in the students’ eyes. Maybe it’s as simple as giving them the self-confidence to push forward,” he said.

Alhalim agreed that the courses and program were a valuable addition.

“They were interesting and gave you a point of view and global outlook. Giving courses in the Negev is also important because the industry is not like in the center of the country,” he said.

Alhalim was given the opportunity to represent the country at an international conference in Cyprus. He and Yemini traveled to the conference on integrating educational systems across Europe to enable students to study anywhere on the continent.

They talked about the mix of Jewish, Arab and Russian populations and the difficulties when Hebrew is not your mother tongue, Alhalim said.

During EIC’s program, students are broken down into teams and have to create a product. They need to create a business plan, protect their intellectual property and carry out other tasks. In addition, all of the projects have to have some sort of environmental aspect to teach them that part of the value of their education is to give back to the community.

As part of the program, the students have to teach about entrepreneurship to local high school students.

In that way, the current generation of students is beginning to train the next generation. The Beersheba Municipality funds that aspect of the program in recognition of its value.

“What we’re trying to get across is entrepreneurship and innovation as tools for social change,” Yemini said.

For Yemini and EIC, it’s not just about making money, but about creating products that assist society and becoming engineers who work to make the world a better place.

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