Birthright program joins top Israelis, North Americans to build start-ups

The Excel Ventures program is a 10-week fellowship part of the larger Birthright Israel Excel program, a business internship framework that has been operating for seven years.

Participants of the Birthright Excel Ventures program. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Participants of the Birthright Excel Ventures program.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In a swanky, shared workspace in Tel Aviv equipped with hardwood floors and soda fountains, American and Israeli innovators huddle together and etch their ideas on frosted glass windows with dry-erase markers.
“Here we have this huge support network,” Tori Seidenstein, 21, told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
Along with nine other North Americans and 10 Israeli peers, Seidenstein has spent the last several weeks in an entrepreneurial boot camp through the Birthright Excel Ventures program.
The innovators have three weeks left in their 10-week fellowship as they work in six multinational teams to get their own start-ups off the ground.
“I wanted to do this program to actually have the experience of starting a company, not just work in an existing structure,” said Seidenstein, a recent computer science graduate from Cornell University.
Birthright Excel Ventures is in its second summer and is part of the larger Birthright Israel Excel program, a business internship that has operated for seven years. Israel Excel includes 54 students and recent graduates from 29 top universities in the US, Canada and Mexico – 44 are in the internship program and 10 are building start-ups at Ventures.
“Birthright Excel is the business branch of Birthright,” said Noa Meir, executive director of Israel Excel. “It’s one of the most selective programs in the Jewish world.”
The 44 interns are spending two months working at leading Israeli companies, primarily in the cybersecurity, finance, consulting, venture capital and biotech industries. Over the course of the program, they meet with heads of leading Israeli corporations and are paired with Israeli students or IDF officers in related fields. Support for Birthright Excel comes from the Steinhardt Family Foundation, Charles and Lynn Shusterman Family Foundation, Paul E. Singer Foundation and, most recently, the government of Israel.
The North Americans in Ventures work alongside 10 Israeli peers – graduates of elite IDF technology units – to incubate new technologies and startup ideas, becoming partners in the initial development stages of their own companies as they work on projects at Mindspace on Ahad Ha’am Street.
While the Israelis receive $2,000 scholarships for their participation, the North Americans are given roundtrip flights and accommodation in Tel Aviv. Financing for the scholarships comes from Amdocs, LeumiTech, Ernst & Young, Rise by Barclays, the Meitar Liquornik Geva Leshem Tal law firm and other donors.
“We’re going for the best and brightest, identifying who we think could be future Jewish leaders,” Meir said.
“We’re beginning with a cadre of very talented and motivated young adults.
We’re giving them that connection and enhancing their professional capabilities and helping establish that connection to Israel.”
At the start of the Ventures program, the 20 North Americans and Israelis begin getting to know one another by engaging in daily mini-hackathons, working with different people and taking part in icebreakers, according to program manager Adam Lazovski.
After two weeks – once fellows have had the opportunity to work with everyone – they choose teams for the rest of the summer, he said.
Lazovski, a Birthright Excel Israeli peer, co-founded the Ventures program.
By the end of the summer, participants should be capable of launching an early-stage product, he explained.
After last summer’s inaugural session, five teams continued operating and two officially incorporated their activities as companies – one in the US and one in Israel.
One of those companies is still active and is pilot-testing radiation-protective fabrics with a large Israeli clothing retailer. Meanwhile, another group, called Sourcify, is about to incorporate its marketplace that connects entrepreneurs to manufacturers in China.
Out of this year’s six teams, Lazovski said he is optimistic that at least four will continue working together once the summer is over. Regardless of whether they continue to operate as a team, the fellows from both Ventures and the larger Birthright Israel Excel program all become part of an active alumni association.
For Shira Gold, a 27-year-old software developer originally from Safed, the Ventures program provided a unique opportunity to work on ideas independently.
After serving in the IDF’s elite 8200 Intelligence Corps unit, she completed a computer science degree at Tel Aviv University, then moved on to work as a full-stack developer at a security company, followed by a role as a senior developer with a start-up.
“I kind of wanted to try on my own, but also needed the framework to do it,” she said.
While Gold’s team still has not decided on a final product idea, it is working in the area of food waste and how to reduce that waste at home – particularly for young singles who are not typically sharing food with others.
“We understood that people buy more than what they usually eat and end up throwing it away,” Gold said.
In both Gold’s group and the others, Israelis and Americans are working side-by-side, which she described as “fascinating” due to the different cultures and approaches the others have to solving problems.
“Before we even go out of the building, we have to pass the barrier of letting our team members share the same problem,” she said.
Seidenstein echoed Gold’s sentiments, discussing the diverse backgrounds that the participants bring to the table, and stressed the importance of mentorship opportunities and the drive for innovation among all the participants.
“It’s totally changed the way I look at entrepreneurship,” Seidenstein said. I didn’t know that there were methodologies to it, that there were best practices.
We’re gaining a lot from hearing from people who already went through the process.”
The emphasis on teamwork and taking ownership of what she and her fellows create together has also been critical to Seidenstein. Thus far, her group has been focusing on an idea in care of the elderly, but has not yet decided if that will be its final direction.
As a Birthright Israel alumna, Seidenstein said she appreciated not only the experience in honing her skills as an entrepreneur, but also the education she was receiving on Israel, as participants travel together on weekends and partake in a variety of Israel-related activities.
“I think it’s really valuable that we also get so much programming on Israel – the politics and the economy more generally, [rather] than just start-ups,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity to understand the context and the environment in which we’re working here.