Those who have come to know Talpiot as Jerusalem’s sooty industrial zone, cluttered with garages, warehouses and auto repair shops in the southern reaches of the city, would find it hard to believe that it has in fact become one of the new centerpieces of the capital’s booming tech ecosystem. In the span of a few short years, dozens of new startups have popped up in the neighborhood like mushrooms after the rain, sandwiched between small workshops and car dealerships along Yad Harutzim Street.
The grassroots movement of entrepreneurs that spontaneously kindled a vibrant start-up scene in Talpiot would not have coalesced without the pioneering example of PICO Venture Partners, which effectively planted its flag there by opening two workspaces now housing over 40 startups. Elie Wurtman, managing partner at PICO and serial entrepreneur, had personally insisted on setting up shop in Talpiot in the face of overwhelming advice to the contrary from the Jerusalem tech community, soon proving the critics wrong.
The PICO Group – which stands for People, Ideas, Community and Opportunity – was founded in 2012.
It has set out to nurture a nascent tech scene in Jerusalem and play a key role in the capital’s resurgence as a global center of innovation. Not content with doing so one-dimensionally through their investments, Wurtman and the PICO Group have since ventured into other playing fields, instead taking a proactive role in the shaping of an entrepreneurial culture in Jerusalem from the ground up.
The initiative that conspicuously ignites Wurtman’s passion is the PICO Kids project, which aims to strengthen STEEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Entrepreneurship & Math) in Jerusalem’s schools and fundamentally change the way these subjects are taught, moving away from conventional rote-learning to more experiential, hands-on education.
PICO Kids leads both in-school and after-school programs teaching children robotics, 3D printing and programming, even investing in educational tech labs in the process. Guided by students and professors from the Hebrew University, they conduct scientific experiments and are exposed to the hottest fields of research; build their own DNA map, design rockets and much more.
All in all, over 2,000 kids from 34 schools from around Jerusalem are enrolled in the PICO Kids program, including some 200 from the haredi community.
Its ultimate goal is to raise the next generation of entrepreneurs that will carry Israel to the forefront of global technological innovation, across socio-economic, ethnic and religious sectors.
“Knowledge is readily available to anyone in this generation,” Wurtman explains. “What schoolchildren need is a strong set of skills to prepare them for the future global economy and to develop their creativity, which peaks at a very young age. A kid’s mind has not yet been polluted by failure or a loss of confidence.”
At times their imagination can bear real fruit.
Recently a fifth grader enrolled in one of PICO’s afternoon programs came up with a creative design for an exercise machine meant for disabled kids, which was then actually built and installed at the Alyn Hospital in Jerusalem. Fitted with a music box, handicapped users would hear their favorite music played so long as they kept working the pedals of the machine by hand.
Sam, among PICO Kids’ first enrollees and now a student in the 11th grade, attests to the indispensable tools he acquired in the program.
“I often learned more in an hour of activities with PICO than in an entire day of school,” he recalls.
“Beyond the set of technical skills that I picked up along the way, what’s more important is the confidence I learned here; to speak in front of an audience, to learn any subject or skill on my own, to take an idea and build something with my own hands.”
PICO Kids is trying to impact education in Jerusalem not merely by providing schoolchildren with complementary programs, but rather by working with the schools themselves to mold and improve their STEEM content and teaching methods. Recently, more than 30 teachers from participating schools gathered at the PICO workspace in Talpiot as part of a training program, teaching them how to teach robotics to kids.
“We are trying to influence the attitude of teachers as much as we are imparting a rigid set of skills,” Wurtman explains. “The key role of a teacher is to encourage her or his students to imagine, to dare.” What started as a private initiative to bring change to the educational experience in Jerusalem is now transitioning into systemic change by working with the formal education system in the city.
PICO Group’s success in pushing for reform in Jerusalem education has as much to do with its ability to support and cooperate with other agents of change in the local ecosystem as with its independently run programs.
“There is an abundance of talent, passion and creativit in Jerusalem,” Wurtman points out. “What young entrepreneurs need is not merely funding but actual hands-on mentorship, and with the right guidance we will see a lot of social initiatives flourish in Jerusalem.”
Perhaps one of PICO’s most resounding success stories is its collaboration with the QueenB initiative, a homegrown Jerusalemite project that aims to promote programming proficiency in teenage girls. Yasmin Dunsky, an undergraduate student of computer science at the Hebrew University, founded the project in 2016 after being struck with the relative scarcity of female peers in her class.
“The problem begins much earlier, back in school,” Dunsky explains. “Most girls grow up with a general lack of confidence in their ability to learn math and programming, and so never even bother to try. On a personal level, this is a wasted opportunity, but on the macro level it adds up to a huge squander of human potential. The Israeli economy is missing out on thousands of great programmers and entrepreneurs that may come from half of the population.”
Over the past year, 27 female students of computer science joined the QueenB project to teach eighth-grade girls around Jerusalem the basics of programming, both in and out of school.
These lucky middle schoolers, more than 40 in the previous academic year, not only learn how to program their own smartphone application but ultimately “a fundamental belief in themselves and their capacity to excel in any area they choose, be it programming or anything else,” highlights Noga Mann, a leading member of the project.
With more than 120 eager participants poised to join the QueenB program in the current academic year, word of the project’s success is echoing in the tech community and has drawn funding from enthusiastic startups and social funds alike. Last week the QueenB initiative was awarded NIS $250,000 at the WeWork Creator Awards event in Tel Aviv in recognition of the extraordinary impact they have made thus far.
All in all, the PICO Group has been particularly effective in leading the charge in the effort to raise the next generation of entrepreneurs, and in creating a cohesive community that exceeds the boundaries of the local tech ecosystem to achieve this. A network of relationships the world over serves as the blueprint model for a similar community on a global scale.
Last week the PICO offices hosted an exclusive roundtable gathering of Aspen Institute Fellows, an organization that brings together successful entrepreneurs and encourages them to take their skills and expertise on a journey from success to significance in order to build a better society. The United States, China and South Africa were only a handful of countries with “representatives” at the table.
Dele Olojede, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and social entrepreneur from Nigeria, summed up the lively evening.
“Many people have tried to explain the Israeli tech phenomenon, citing everything from the army to the famous Israeli chutzpah.
But in the end, it’s quite simple: Israelis are committed to making their country bloom, and are giving their all to make that happen. This is what I have learned from visiting Israel.”