College students are rarely exposed to Israel outside of hearing political or divisive narratives about the country. As such, they are quick to draw negative conclusions without ever interacting with Israelis. Adam Shapiro wanted to change that. During his sophomore year at Cornell University, he founded Start-Up Nation Mentorship (SUNM) – a mentorship program that pairs non-Jewish college students with Israeli mentors, allowing young people around the world to form long-lasting positive relationships with Israelis.
“I was shocked that I was meeting so many students who didn’t know anything about Israel but, when asked to come to an Israel event, would not want to come in fear of losing friends or jeopardizing their career,” Shapiro said.
“I thought, how do we change that? How do we get them incentivized to learn about Israel? That was through career mentorship.”
“I was shocked that I was meeting so many students who didn’t know anything about Israel but, when asked to come to an Israel event, would not want to come in fear of losing friends or jeopardizing their career. I thought, how do we change that? How do we get them incentivized to learn about Israel? That was through career mentorship.”Adam Shapiro
Start-Up Nation Mentorship
Last week, Start-Up Nation Mentorship hosted its first-ever event in Israel at the Tel Aviv Port, inviting both current and potential mentors to an evening of food, drinks and discussions on how the organization has grown, as well as its plans for the future.
Supported by the World Jewish Congress (WJC), SUNM is an initiative of NextGen, WJC’s program for young leaders, and is the product of a collaboration established in 2018. Despite starting with only 10 mentors and mentees at Cornell, the organization now has a presence on 20 campuses across the globe and matched close to 250 students with Israeli mentors this past academic year.
Outgoing CEO Ben Spilg was a major factor in SUNM’s expansion in recent years. Having had success as a campus director at McGill University, Spilg realized that the model he used in Canada could be extended globally. “For the last two years we’ve been taking our organization global to be able to institutionalize and improve the efficiency of our operations, creating more opportunities for our organization,” he said.
“We’re on about 20 of the best colleges around the world right now. We have a few Jewish students at each school who are our representatives. They identify the most impressive student leaders. Once selected, we look into their career interests, and then try to create a perfect match between the student and the mentor. It’s a tailor-made solution for the student.”
A large part of the organization’s success is tied to the fact that its mentorship system considers the busy schedules of both mentors and mentees. “What do these two people have in common?” Spilg asked. “Neither have much time, so we created a model that doesn’t take much time from either.” The only commitment required for both parties involves two 30-minute phone calls over the course of a semester.
However, the relationships formed in these two short calls often develop further, Spilg explained. “The relationship doesn’t end there. Many students stay in touch with their mentors, and many students even end up working in Israel.”
Judith Chang, who is currently spending her summer in Israel, is a prime example of the impact that SUNM has on students. Following her initial two meetings, the cognitive science student at Yale University has continued to meet with her mentor on a biweekly basis. “This program has really given me a connection to Israel,” she told the audience at the event.
Mentors also enjoy speaking with young men and women who, in many cases, are unfamiliar with Israeli business and culture before the first meeting. “I chose to become a mentor for the mission,” shared Mark Cook, head of product at Trax and a SUNM mentor.
“The experience is straightforward. I look at mentorship as helping people make choices. The choices that students have to make are similar to the choices that professionals make. Choosing courses, choosing internships… These relationships continue beyond the two meetings; you get random calls asking for advice.”
Of course, mentors are aware of the organization’s goal to improve mentees’ perceptions of Israel. Cook expressed that he enjoys demonstrating that students can have the same type of relationship with an Israeli as they can with someone from their native country.
SUNM IS achieving its goal, as is evident from metrics that the organization has gathered. On a scale of 1-10, mentees begin with an average understanding of the Israeli tech space of two and finish at an eight – a substantial increase according to Jaime Leo Mizrachi, a student at Stanford University who will be a co-leader of SUNM’s operations next year along with Samantha Chussid.
As these students gain a better understanding of Israel, they realize that the country is a global leader in several influential fields. “Part of my motivation for joining was to try to reimagine the way that non-Jewish students see Israel,” remarked Dean Meyer, the SUNM chief growth officer who made aliyah from South Africa.
He noted that “Israel is completely outperforming almost every other country in fintech, agriculture, quantum computing, and the list goes on. How do we expose people who don’t know about this country, but who can benefit from its fruits, to this amazing place? That’s what we’ve been working on. The impact is very serious.”
Meyer highlighted the need for excellent mentors who can make an effective impression on students in order to open their eyes to the many positive aspects of Israel. “These mentors are the light that shines from Israel onto these students; it’s essential that every mentor is of the highest caliber,” he said. “We need the best mentors to best expose the quality and potential of Israel.”
At the event, Gad Ariely, chairman of World Jewish Congress Israel, expressed his optimism for SUNM’s future. “Our target is to expand this project,” he told the crowd. “In the next few years, we will have thousands of students all around the world.”
The organization hopes to match more students like Tarika Vohra. Vohra spoke in detail at the event about her experience being mentored by Chaim Meir Tessler of OurCrowd, an equity crowdfunding platform headquartered in Jerusalem.
“I was introduced to SUNM by my close friend at Columbia [University],” she remarked. “When he told me about the process, I promptly applied. I learned so much about the Israeli ecosystem, and I wanted to learn about how venture capital works here. I learned about what companies do here, and I took a lot of that knowledge and have applied it to my internship in Israel this summer.”
Originally from Mumbai, Vohra’s appreciation for Israel has developed even further this summer, during which she has been commuting daily from Florentin to Herzliya for her internship.
“Being in the Start-Up Nation, every conversation has been magical, whether it has been learning a new Hebrew word or learning how to use more of my chutzpah. Chaim Meir helped me nurture my passion,” she said. “I like how the environment here values raw talent. With SUNM, you get a mentor for life – someone you can reach out to for advice about anything. After the first two meetings, it’s just the beginning. People in Israel echo my energy and value the notion of being connected for life.”
Vohra is but one of the hundreds of students whom SUNM has caused to develop a greater understanding of and appreciation for Israel. Eventually though, the mentees graduate college. To keep the momentum, the organization plans to incorporate programming for alumni, such as networking events, to ensure that they maintain the connection to Israel that they established during their participation in the mentorship program. Internally, SUNM will continue to be led by students who experience campus climate firsthand and can react accordingly, explained Dani Springer, the organization’s incoming CEO.
Thanks to the hard work of its executive team, SUNM has consistently grown since its founding. The organization’s first event in Israel marked a significant milestone for the team, which plans to make it an annual occurrence. Nevertheless, the organization has remained humble and determined to continue fulfilling its mission.
“This [event] is about the Israelis here who are doing good work for their country, putting in hours,” Justin Shapiro, SUNM’s co-founder and Canadian director, said proudly. “So many of them came to show support, and we’re just so grateful for what they’re doing and happy to be a part of this amazing story of the miracle of the Start-Up Nation.”