Entrepreneurial education

A hi-tech tycoon helps disadvantaged kids put their ideas to work.

unistream888 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )

Tucked away at the end of a small residential street in Kfar Yona, the first Unistream center stands unobtrusively behind a gated garden. Inside the building, a rounded panel of desktop computers and new printers faces a shiny, parquet-floored lecture area. Equipped with a dry-erase board and an easel bearing large sheets of paper, it is intended for group brainstorming sessions, marketing strategies and leadership training.

But the Unistream building houses neither a company nor a small business. Despite its professional appearance, the central room is not an office designed for hard-working employees.

Rather, the building is a learning center for suburban high school students who have been carefully chosen to participate in a rigorous, three-year entrepreneurial business program.

The Unistream entrepreneurial program, funded and conceptualized by Rony Zarom, a successful Israeli entrepreneur and philanthropist, began nearly four years ago. Zarom, the founder of Netvision, grew up in Ramle. After serving in the Israeli army as a commander, Zarom completed his undergraduate and masters' degrees in the United States and then returned to Israel.

After founding Netvision and several other hi-tech companies, Zarom secured his fortune in the industry and moved on to venture capitalism. In seeking ways to give back to the community, he decided that educating youth who might not otherwise have the opportunity or self-confidence to enter the business world would be an ideal venture.

Zarom explains that he wanted to find a way to leverage his money when he invested in the community so that the returns would be greater. In order to do that, he decided to help the youth of underprivileged areas by funding a program to teach them leadership and business skills.

"The future of Israel is in the youth, and by investing in them, the paybacks will benefit everyone," says Zarom. "The things they are learning at Unistream now will be with them for the rest of their lives, and I'm sure they will also contribute to the community in the future."

ZAROM FOUNDED Unistream, a non-profit organization that osts the program for youth leadership and business, in December of 2001. In the three-year program, the students form their own company and perform community service projects.

After nearly a year of planning and organization, Unistream opened the first pilot center in Kfar Yona.

"We had to work out the best plan for how to implement a program that would best meet the needs of Israeli society, and then find volunteers and mentors to join us," says Iris Reff-Ronen, the CEO of Unistream. "We had a steering committee of nearly 30 volunteers from all walks of life, from psychology to education to politics, who helped establish the framework and develop a detailed syllabus."

Once the program was in place and a pilot center had been constructed, the first class of students had to be chosen. The evaluation process for selecting the participants lasts nearly four months.

At the end of the school year, representatives from Unistream visit schools in the area to present the program requirements and goals to ninth-grade students. Over the summer months, every interested child who registered participates in a series of tests and interviews designed to find the most qualified candidates.

"We consider the socioeconomic status of the kids, the heterogeneity of the group that reflects the surrounding cultural environment and the qualities of the child," says Reff-Ronen. Unistream looks for students with high levels of curiosity, creativity, an interest in business, good communication skills and those who they imagine will work well in a team environment.

"We conduct in-depth interviews with each student and we have inspectors who watch the students participate in a half-day of 'fun' activities and then make recommendations," says Reff-Ronen. "A committee then makes the final decisions about which children to invite to participate."

AT THE BEGINNING of their 10th-grade year, a group of around 20 students from all over the city meets twice a week at the Unistream center after school for lectures and workshops. The first year of the program lays the groundwork for building a company. The students learn the basics of business through a series of lectures given by volunteers throughout the business world covering finance, marketing, economics, entrepreneurship, negotiation, decision-making, communication and leadership.

David Almagor, a hi-tech engineer and manager who has been involved in the industry for nearly 25 years, volunteers at the Unistream center in Kfar Yona.

"I try to give the first-year students my business expertise in a way that will help them form their own company in the second year," says Almagor. "In the process of brainstorming when they are coming up with their own ideas for a company, we make sure they stay realistic and consider profit and practicality."

For Almagor, the final product is less important than the process the students undergo while forming it. "We are trying to teach them how to handle expenses, the meaning of profit and the economics of buying and selling," says Almagor. "These are things from the real world. They are not hypothetical models, and the bottom line is that in order to make money you have to spend less than you make."

By learning about business and forming their own company, the graduates of Unistream are exposed to principles that also help them mature and succeed in their personal lives.

"I learned how to stand in front of customers and sell a product," says Anatoli Elenberg, one of the first Unistream graduates who completed the program in June of this year. Elenberg, who was recently selected for a prestigious army program in which his college tuition is paid, says Unistream helped him attain the scholarship. "I was very shy before and I didn't like to talk to strangers, but now I am self-confident and I believe in myself."

A MONTH AGO, 19-year-old Elenberg gave a Unistream presentation to Iris and eight other potential investors in English. He says that he never could have done that before finishing the program, but as one of the very first students at Unistream, he had no idea what to expect when he started.

"I actually wasn't very interested in business when I came here and I had no motivation," says Elenberg. "I wanted to get into the program to boost my ego and I started coming because I liked a girl here. I realize now how much I've changed," he says.

Beside him, Tal Levian, a friend and fellow graduate of the Unistream program in Kfar Yona, agrees wholeheartedly. "I didn't know what I was really going to do here when I first arrived," he says, crossing his legs and straightening up in his chair. "Now I understand the metaphor of giving a hungry man a fish versus giving him a fishing rod."

The two graduates, who started the program at 15, an age when most kids prefer having a social life to learning about business, speak with conviction about taking responsibility for their lives, believing in themselves and reaching their goals. For the average high school graduate about to enter the army, those concepts have yet to be learned, and for many adults, they are never fully understood.

But as Levian and Elenberg speak about the process of forming their own company, dealing with crises between other students in the group and problems with production, they sound more like accomplished businessmen than two boys who just passed the bagrut.

The first graduating group came up with the idea of making stickers to put on serving plates as decorative items. The stickers adhere to any dish, are safe to eat on and brighten up the table inexpensively. But there were many problems with mass production, and Levian and Elenberg feel that they learned from their failures.

"We didn't succeed in mass-producing the stickers so we didn't reach all of our goals," says Elenberg. "But we did understand what went wrong and we won't make the same mistakes again."

TO RAISE MONEY for their company, the students had to plan fundraisers. Every Wednesday they held a kids' day where they created activities, provided entertainment, played games and even sold cotton candy for youngsters in the community. Each child paid 10 shekels to participate and the parents got the cheapest babysitting around for a few hours in the afternoon.

With the success of the pilot center in Kfar Yona, two more Unistream centers opened in 2002, in Ma'alot and Gilboa. One of the groups there, comprised of Jews, Arabs, moshavim, and kibbutzim, formed a company that produces cushions for backpacks to make them more comfortable to carry.

"It's very important that they are from different places," says Shirel Avram, the Gilboa mentor. "But I don't see it as being connected to the project. Once they begin, they are a team, and it's amazing to see how well they are doing."

All the Unistream centers provide computers, printers, a lecture area, and a small kitchen, and many of the students come far more than their bi-weekly requirement. "The idea behind Unistream is to give the kids a second home, a place where they can go to do their homework and research their projects on top of our program requirements," says Reff-Ronen.

Each program is based on the same three-year syllabus that starts with overall business education and community service and then leads to the formation of a company.

As one of their community service projects, which have included cleaning up the streets, planting trees, and visiting the elderly, the first group in Kfar Yona decided to ask for help.

After a lecture given by the manager of Sakal, Levian asked about a possible donation of returned toys that were being stored in a warehouse in Ashdod. The Sakal Company agreed to give Unistream 40,000 shekels' worth of toys to distribute among the needy families in the community.

"We thought a lot of the toys would be broken," says Levian, "but only five didn't work so we were able to give the majority to families in the area who could never afford to buy them on their own."

The students got a list of low-income families from the municipality and packaged the toys for those interested in receiving them. The importance of sharing success with those around you is something Unistream hopes to instill in their graduates through the community projects.

The program is supplemented by the local municipalities, and according to Dr. Nissin Messas, the head of the education department in Kfar Yona who taught mathematics for many years in the public school system, it provides an invaluable program to the communities that the state of Israel's board of education simply cannot afford to offer.

"There are no programs like this one in the department of Israeli education," says Messas. "We know that many children don't have the opportunity to learn these things, and we are excited about the huge difference we see in the kids who are participating in Unistream."

According to Messas, those students who participate in Unistream also excel in their regular school classes and on the bagrut, and he wishes more than 20 children could benefit from the program.

He hopes to implement similar programs that focus on other areas of interest, such as art or engineering, into the regular schools, but the expense and time required make it challenging to provide this type of program to every child.

LIHOD HAKAK, whose background is in education, holds a master's degree in psychology and was working as a freelance trainer before being hired full-time by Unistream to mentor the groups in Kfar Yona.

Sitting behind his desk in a white button-down shirt and black pants, he gives his long beard a stroke and explains that Unistream is made up of three critical components: successful business, personal accountability and community service.

"The kids who graduate from Unistream understand that they are responsible for their lives," explains Hakak. It was a lesson that in teaching, he took very seriously in his own life. "When I started here I had just returned from India and I had long hair. I realized that 40 pairs of eyes were watching me and seeing how I lived my life, and I decided to set the ultimate example by hazara be'tshuva, or becoming religious."

And although no students have thus far decided to turn to religion for the answers in their lives, the students respect Hakak's decision and take it as a good example of commitment. "We're not religious ourselves, but we learned a lot about it in the process from Lihod and most people weren't bothered by it," says Levian.

But most of the learning process in the program is designed to teach through experience, and for Levian and Elenberg, the lessons and insights they gained came from doing and not seeing.

"People often want to blame others for their problems or believe that things are out of their hands," says 19-year-old Levian, sitting across from a few plates covered with the designer stickers that he and his teammates produced. "But I know now that my life is up to me, and how I live it is my own responsibility. I can reach my goals, and I have the practical knowledge to do it."