Elie Wurtman has been ahead of the curve most of his professional life. As the founder of PICO Ventures Partners, one of Israel’s most successful early stage start-up investing firms, he saw an opportunity in Israel’s tech sector before anyone else – a gamble that paid off.
He has now shifted his focus toward a bigger challenge – peace.
PICO Kids, Wurtman’s newest initiative, connects exceptional Israeli youth with similar youth in the other Abraham Accord countries. The story starts at home, which for Wurtman is Jerusalem. He sat down with The Jerusalem Post, in his office in the Talpiot area of the city, to discuss his initiative.
“PICO stands for People, Ideas, Community, Opportunity. We are mission- and community-based in Jerusalem. I have always thought that if, under one roof, we can do business but also focus on doing good, we will be successful.”Elie Wurtman
What is Israel's PICO Kids initiative?
“PICO stands for People, Ideas, Community, Opportunity,” he explains. “We are mission- and community-based in Jerusalem. I have always thought that if, under one roof, we can do business but also focus on doing good, we will be successful.”
Wurtman decided to make his company’s office “an interesting environment, where people working to do good, and people working to make money, sat next to each other.” This was played out by social- and profit-motivated entrepreneurs, who rented space in PICO’s office, which is based on the WeWork model. Sitting together allowed uncommon ideas and initiatives to spring into being.
This comes from a place that Wurtman described as “Jerusalem DNA,” adding that he is a huge believer in the city. Elaborating, he says that “people who grow up here are exposed to very different things from a young age… This is the most diverse city in the world – all religions, backgrounds, rich and poor – with so much history. Those that are here and called to make their mark in history. Jerusalem brings big things.”
Pointing to the success of Israel’s tech and business scene, he says, “Jerusalemites are among the biggest outcomes… The biggest Tel Aviv companies have Jerusalemites at the helm. Jerusalem prepares you like no other city.” The data backs this up, as the largest tech companies in Israel’s history have been Jerusalem-based or Jerusalem-founded companies.
Wurtman jokes that American singing legend and outspoken supporter of Israel and Jewish causes, Frank Sinatra, was deeply inspired by Jerusalem. He even released an album of his 1975 concert in the city, Sinatra: The Jerusalem Concert – and in his famous song “New York,” where he sings “if I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere,” he is, in fact, referring to Jerusalem.
Jokes and theories aside, Wurtman is clear that in Jerusalem, “big thinking and creativity” are not only commonplace but also encouraged. With this in mind, Wurtman says that “if you care about the future of the city, which I do, and you believe it is a well of creativity, the obvious move is to make PICO Kids.”
“If you invest in people, especially from a young age, it will drive the city going forward. Israel’s strength is that it is fundamentally dependent on prosperity – economic prosperity.”Elie Wurtman
He continues: “If you invest in people, especially from a young age, it will drive the city going forward. Israel’s strength is that it is fundamentally dependent on prosperity – economic prosperity.” Jerusalem in particular needs this strength for the future, he says.
PICO KIDS works by teaching select high school students important 21st-century skills. These include hard skills such as tech, science, coding and robotics – commonly known as STEM; and soft skills such as creative thinking, design, public speaking and values. “We teach these kids skills development and how to become a positive change maker.”
Founded 10 years ago, the organization works with approximately 60 schools, offering both before and after-school programs. In addition it hosts hackathons (day-long events where participants work through technical and engineering problems in a time-sensitive manner) and makeathons (similar events where participants make physical things together – in PICO’s case, through 3D design) every six to eight weeks at their center down the road from PICO’s venture office.
Wurtman says, “If you open the heart, you open the motivation.” He also states that where schools are normally pushing content, “we want them to pull.” This approach allows kids to tackle skills and initiatives that they are passionate about, in an open and inclusive environment.
The most prestigious thing for PICO Kids, or the “peak” of their achievements, is to become a PICO ambassador. Wurtman points out that pico means “peak” in Spanish, though this is unintentional. Being a PICO ambassador means “to represent Jerusalem and Israel to the world.”
To help them accomplish this, a cornerstone of the program is English-language instruction. According to Wurtman, roughly 70% of PICO’s participants come without an English background, but by the end of the program they are required to give a “TED-like talk” in English. He speaks proudly of a young Ethiopian girl who knew no English prior to the program, but at the end delivered the best presentation of all in flawless English.
Ultimately, these ambassadors go to foreign countries to interact with exceptional youth living there. Starting with partnerships in Shanghai and Hong Kong, the program was seeing great results. On these trips, the students are exposed to new cultures, ideas and people. For many of them, it is their first time leaving Israel. They return with the exposure and experience to drive their careers and lives forward.
THIS WAS going great, and then the Abraham Accords were signed.
Signed in September 2020, the Accords brought formal peace between Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan. Wurtman was there from the start, helping to organize the first business conference among the initial signatories only a month after their signing. Moreover, the Accords presented an opportunity for PICO Kids to make a deep impact on the state of affairs in the region.
He sees the next chapter as “building bridges between Israel and the UAE.” To that end, he saw a “historic opportunity to bring kids together, working on issues such as water scarcity, food security, and agriculture – becoming positive problem solvers.”
To date, PICO Kids has led three groups on trips to the UAE and most recently to Bahrain – the first of its kind. Wurtman expresses gratitude for how the program has been received. “Our group met with four ministers and the crown prince… These kids were acting as the true ambassadors for what is possible. This is why we signed the Accords.” He speaks of conversations with his counterparts in the Arab states, who have told him that this is where real peace is achieved – not from business but from the ground up.
The children who join PICO Kids are generally in grades nine to eleven and are already writing a new chapter in the region. “We lit hanukkiot in Bahrain in the oldest functioning synagogue in the Gulf – the kids got to see siddurs in Hebrew and Arabic… There is so much hope in all of this.”
PICO Kids is open to all types of kids from across the Israeli demographic spectrum – religious, secular, haredi and Arab. They host some bilingual classes in Hebrew and Arabic, teaching coexistence in the city.
The program is also reaching across the line and dealing with business. “The Bahraini ambassador told these kids that if they had a great idea, he would seriously invest,” Wurtman says.
Alongside Wurtman on the trip to Bahrain was Aharon Horwitz, the CEO of Jerusalem-based start-up AutoLeadStar, in which PICO is a major investor. It is through these interactions that these kids see a strong, tangible future in the world in which they are engaged.
Wurtman is enthusiastic about this work, seeing it as empowering the next generation of Israeli leaders. “Everyone has the creativity inside of them; this is the secret weapon.” Channeling this will enable the best attributes of these children to shine forth, leading the country and the region forward.
PICO Kids is eyeing more cross-border activities in the coming months and years, with Morocco in the works for the next cohort. This is alongside plans for multilateral events that will bring together kids from many different countries to participate in their programming. Who knows, maybe this will take place in Israel.
All of this aligns with Wurtman’s vision for peace, which he believes will not happen overnight but will take time. For if the younger generation learns to respect their neighbors, peace will be a natural consequence for future generations. ❖