David and Laura Merage: Philanthropists supporting Israel

he Merage Foundation Israel has been actively working to increase the prosperity of the Jewish state for over two decades.

David and Laura Merage (photo credit: Courtesy)
David and Laura Merage
(photo credit: Courtesy)
David Merage is a successful entrepreneur and venture philanthropist who lives with his wife, Laura, an accomplished artist, in Denver, Colorado. The Merage Foundation Israel they established has been actively working to increase the prosperity of the Jewish state for over two decades.

In 1977, David Merage and his brother, Paul, founded Chef America, Inc. best known for developing the popular microwavable snack, Hot Pockets. They expanded their product line and employed some 1,900 people before selling to Nestle in 2002 for $2.6 billion.

Today, Merage runs Consolidated Investment Group (CIG), a Denver-based company strategically investing in real estate, capital markets and private equity. According to the David and Laura Merage Foundation, the family “takes a hands on approach to their philanthropy, bringing their business acumen, entrepreneurial spirit, and creativity to each and every project.”

Tell me about your professional path and how you incorporate your business experience in your philanthropic work.

From an early age, I knew I was destined to be an entrepreneur. My father, Andre, an entrepreneur himself, encouraged us to build a family business as a strategy to foster personal and familial strength. Throughout my college career, I pursued opportunities to learn about real estate investment and management, and quickly became adept at identifying and capitalizing on market trends as I built my real estate portfolio in southern California.

Soon after arriving in California, with absolutely no experience in the food industry and equipped only with ambition, drive, and the support of my brother and father, we founded Chef America, Inc., a frozen food manufacturer in 1977. Building on our early success, we soon began research and development of a frozen lunch product which we called the Hot Pocket and sold to schools, catering and vending companies. In 1983, Hot Pockets were introduced to retail supermarkets and, within a short time, was a household staple. The company created a considerable workforce – employing 1,900 associates in three states, and generating over 6,000 national jobs through the supply chain.

Today, I am principal of Consolidated Investment Group, a Denver-based investment firm, focusing on Wall Street and real estate investments. CIG holds one of the most diverse portfolios in the country in terms of product type and geography, investing in public equity, hedge funds, fixed income and real estate, both domestically and internationally. CIG’s permanent capital base allows the company to take a disciplined, long-term investment perspective.

At CIG, I have created a culture that fosters an environment of respect, integrity and tolerance of others. There are four rules that I absolutely live by without compromise. These are: honesty, integrity, determination and commitment. I always wanted to take my knowledge of business and management, to give back to the communities that directly affected my life. Along with my wife, Laura, I formed the David and Laura Merage Foundation, whose mission is to promote self-sufficiency through education and community involvement. By incorporating real business experience, an entrepreneurial spirit, and a passion for social impact, we provide the best services and quality no matter what we do, and we go where not many people are willing to go.

You and your wife Laura are known for your philanthropic involvement. In what areas are you involved?

Our foundation works in two ways – first through direct philanthropic investment and, secondly, through partnerships. This model allows Laura and I to be truly diverse in the types of programs and endeavors in which we become involved. The Merage Foundations have positively impacted hundreds of thousands of people’s lives both in the US and globally.

Our foundation, headquartered in Denver, Colorado, is centered on the belief that education is the gateway to optimal life outcomes. In the United States, the foundation concentrates its efforts in promoting Early Childhood Education, Arts and Culture and Community Development.

• Early Childhood Education: The foundation is leading Early Learning Ventures, an initiative to enrich education for children ages birth to five years old. Early Learning Ventures is building a network of over 600 high-performing child-care providers, making quality child care more accessible to American families. I am also leading an effort to engage business leaders in early childhood education advocacy.

• Arts and Culture: Our foundation invests in public and private arts organizations throughout the US. With Laura’s leadership, the organization founded RedLine, an urban art laboratory promoting the creative expression of resident artists. Laura is also the founder of Black Cube, which works with artists to produce pop up exhibitions in unexpected places while helping artists further their professional careers.

• Community Development: The foundation founded Equitas in December of 2013, to raise public awareness and to implement sensible programming and policy for managing mental and behavioral health challenges.

• Merage Israel: In 2000, together with Laura and my mother, Katherine, we began our philanthropic work in Israel. The mission of our Foundation in Israel is to empower individuals and communities; we incubate and accelerate circles of change – those who are strengthened, strengthen others, and lead the way to promoting the prosperity of Israel and the well-being of all its citizens. Over the years we have supported hundreds of initiatives, benefiting hundreds of thousands of individuals throughout Israel.

Tell us about your special connection to Israel and more specifically to the Israeli-Iranian community

My parents have always been involved in supporting Israel and the Jewish community in Iran. My mother encouraged my interest and love for Israel from a young age. However, I did not visit Israel until I was in my early 40s. Sometimes, an unexpected incident in life presents itself. If you walk through that door you find that there are many new doors that begin to open up. Each door leads to a new challenge that brings joy and a renewed sense of accomplishment. In 1979, my mother put me in touch with a family friend. She was a young Jewish woman in Tehran, who was trying to escape from a very abusive husband with her two young daughters. She wanted to run away to Israel and asked me for help. She did not speak any Hebrew, she had no contacts, no money and was completely lost. My research into her case showed me this was a very typical situation for most Iranians who immigrated to Israel. I was able to help her, and I began actively supporting hundreds of Iranian-Jewish families on their struggling path to Israel. I hired a local team in Israel and our goal became to empower proud Iranians to stand on their own feet, integrate into society and become productive citizens of Israel. They would often arrive to Israel in the middle of the night with children and grandparents, exhausted and confused. Upon arrival, a wonderful Farsi speaking partner would meet them at the airport, help them fill their paperwork, arrange for transportation and give them supplies and a Hebrew dictionary. My team would continue meeting with them and helping in any way they could. For the past 22 years, we have created a variety of programs that have improved the life trajectory of hundreds of Iranian-Israeli families, creating multi-generational change.

What initiatives does your foundation support in Israel?

My vision for Israel is a prosperous and cohesive society that is committed to the well-being of all its citizens. We believe in the power of empowerment, leadership development and community building. The Merage Foundation Israel (MFI) has two main areas of focus: Community Development and Negev Development.

As part of our Community Development division, we are leading four major programs.

• Iranian Community in Israel: For more than 20 years we have promoted the advancement of the Iranian community in Israel mainly through women leadership programs and the exposure of the Persian culture to Israeli society. The program has helped Iranian immigrants become an essential part of every aspect of Israeli life, including Israeli culture, education, military, business, and politics. Over the years, the program has evolved to become a unique empowerment framework for women, which includes over 10 Iranian women’s clubs throughout Israel.

• Wings: For the past 15 years, the Wings Program has been providing immigrant youth and lone soldiers with the tools they need to enter Israeli society as confident and active citizens. More than 3,000 of these new immigrants serve in the IDF each year. These young people have made significant sacrifices by leaving their homes and families to move to Israel and protect our Jewish homeland. In partnership with the Jewish Agency, Wings offers a continuum of services, from the time they first arrive in Israel and years after their release from the IDF. Wings ensures that these courageous, young individuals do not “fall through the cracks” of Israeli society, it offers a supportive safety net and helps them achieve their personal goals and aspirations.

• Connected to Life: This program supports and trains senior citizens to use smartphones as a means of strengthening their social and familial ties. The program matches senior citizens with hundreds of high school and university students from around the country who coach them on using key tools and apps such as Whatsapp and Moovit, as well as apps that allow them to make doctors’ appointments, do online shopping or communicate with their banks. It has been shown that youth teaching technology to seniors fosters generational connections while promoting happier, more confident lifestyles. This program has proven to be ever more relevant during this pandemic and I am very happy to see that our platform is expanding its services throughout Israel.

• Pakal: One of the young leaders of our Iranian Community Program, who is an active reservist commander, raised the issue of the lack of social cohesion and disconnect among army reservists. After interviewing dozens of reservist and army officials, we understood that this was a widespread problem. We understood the great need create an opportunity to build a renewed sense of community and solidarity among army reservists. This is how Pakal was born, two years ago. Through a rigorous selection process, this program works with reserve companies that demonstrate a high degree of leadership and commitment to community building. Company leaders receive ongoing support in team building, empowerment training and practical assistance for events, activities and volunteering opportunities. Reserve companies are also supported by a digital platform that allows them to manage and mobilize their communities for action.

• Negev Development Division: For the past 15 years, I have been actively involved in the Negev, supporting a variety of projects, from employment and entrepreneurship programs, dozens of festivals and cultural events and supporting local municipalities in the development of strategic plans for demographic growth, urban development, economic growth, health and transportation. We also supported through capital projects such the establishment of a Rehabilitation Center in Sderot, and the Dimona Medical Center, which covers over 20,000 patients a year and offers the community10 dialysis beds and emergency support after hours.

Most recently, we have completed a new model focused on promoting regional economic development. Our goal is to strengthen key economic clusters where the Negev has a significant competitive advantage. In order to create opportunities for economic growth and high-quality jobs, the foundation acts as an integrative body to convene and mobilize the key stakeholders and nurture an environment where these clusters can mature and flourish. Specifically, we are currently working on two main programs: • DeserTech: Our program aims to support the development and commercialization of climate change and desert technologies (such as AgTech, WaterTech, renewable Energy, and other sustainable innovations). Part of our work includes promoting the emergence of early-stage DeserTech startups, mobilizing the “entrepreneurial capital” in the region, and spurring innovation by bringing together technology, information, specialized talent, competing companies, academic institutions, and high-quality jobs.

• Negev Agritourism: MFI is working with key regional partners to transform the Negev region into a flourishing agritourism destination, attracting a flow of international and local tourists in their quest for an authentic desert experience, a growing curiosity about where our food comes from, and a stronger connection to the land. The Negev is rich in a wide range of agricultural sites and is a fertile ground to turn these into tourism attractions. Our plan includes developing the ecosystem of agricultural tourism in the Negev, by improving the quality of existing agritourism products, supporting the establishment of new ventures and creating jobs.

How do I decide what to invest in? As a venture philanthropist, I always look for the highest social returns on my investment. Following these guidelines, our Israel team develops programs and nurtures partnerships that bring about systemic, sustainable and bold results. We constantly look for opportunities that tap into existing networks and infrastructures that avoid duplication. This allow us to remain lean and to scale rapidly in order to reach our full potential and benefit as many people as possible.

Why do you invest in the Negev?

Decades ago, a vacation in the South of Israel inspired a big question in my mind: ‘Why is Israel concentrated in the center while a huge land in the South remains empty?’ I wondered how is it that this small nation has not developed this vast area, while the cities in the center are crowded, and the housing prices are out of reach for most young Israelis. How can such a small nation forget about this huge part of the country’s territory? I saw in the Negev, Israel’s land of opportunity; a blank piece of paper to write the next chapter of the new Zionism. In my quest for answers, Shmulick Riffman, then-mayor of Ramat HaNegev, and a great Zionist dedicated to the Negev’s development, became my mentor. Arik Sharon and his administration encouraged my organization to embrace this challenge. Also, throughout the years, Shimon Peres supported our work and later became the Minister for the Development of the Negev and the Galilee.

With the support and encouragement of my mother Katherine and my wife Laura, we agreed this would be another great project for the Merage Foundation. For almost 15 years, with the support of a dedicated local team, we granted millions of dollars in hundreds of projects, that touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, and turned the Negev into an attractive place to visit and live in.

What do you think is the role of philanthropy in the world today?

I think philanthropy’s role is to empower people so that they realize their full potential. Through our Merage Foundation initiatives we create opportunities that increase well-being and positive life outcomes. I believe that philanthropists must also know that things change, evolve, advance, and that they certainly don’t have all the answers about the needs and solutions of the communities they serve.

I also believe it is my responsibility to contribute greatly of my time, my network and my business acumen. It is a way of life that is transmitted from generation to generation and it is our hope that this approach to giving back is more widely embraced by Israelis. My family represents three generations of philanthropists that began with my parents, and we are now working on a fourth generation: my grandchildren! Since they were young, my children have been actively involved in our philanthropic work, and now they are leading their own foundations, and are promoting their own endeavors with great success. It is my greatest joy to see our philanthropic commitment to Israel extend through three, and now four generations, of my family.