Not finding companies to employ all his students, Jehuda Haddad of Shamoon College launched a program to inspire them to launch start-ups of their own.
By YOCHEVED MIRIAM RUSSO
Throughout Jewish history, cultural bias and discrimination has served to spark Jewish entrepreneurship. When non-Jewish businesses were unwilling to hire Jews – or promote them when they did – Jews responded by starting their own businesses instead.So when Pres. Jehuda Haddad of Beersheba’s Shamoon College of Engineering (SCE) found that some of his SCE graduates were struggling with too few employment opportunities in the center of the country, he followed the traditional path: He created a program to inspire, guide and nurture his engineering students in the process of creating start-ups of their own.“SCE’s Engineer Entrepreneur Program (EEP) is the first of its kind in Israel,” Haddad says. “Entrepreneurship – business creation and development – is generally considered part of public policy departments, economics or business administration. It’s never been included in science and engineering. “But we faced a unique situation here in the south. We have 5,000 engineering students enrolled in two campuses, Beersheba and Ashdod. About 95 percent come from the south, and many prefer to stay here after graduation. That’s a challenge – at least at this point, there aren’t enough companies in the Negev hiring engineers to employ them all.”A parallel cultural issue exists, too, Haddad says. “Most of our students come from very different backgrounds than do engineering students in the center of the country. Some 28% are women – compared to 20% in other institutions; 45% are immigrants, 7% are non-Jewish minorities. Most of the Jewish students are of [Sephardi] origin. “When major companies in the center of the country set out to hireengineers, they tend to hire people much like themselves – that’s justhuman nature. That’s a big disadvantage for those of us in the south,because a lot of our graduates are ‘different.’ “So we decided to do something different ourselves – help students learn how to create their own opportunities.”Advertisement“SCE’sEngineer Entrepreneur Program came into existence just two years ago,”says Dr. Miri Yemini, Director of SCE’s Entrepreneurship and InnovationCenter. “Even within the country’s big organizations, venture creation,innovation and product development are important. So all our students,whether they ultimately join one of the big companies or strike out ontheir own, will have acquired the tools they need to innovate andsucceed.”Yemini, who holds an MBA as well as a PhD, says the EEP represents a two-pronged benefit. “Theeconomic advantages are obvious. In Israel, more than half thepopulation earns a living from small businesses. By helping ourstudents start their own ventures here in the south, they’ll be able toemploy other graduates. But beyond that, we’re also focusing onethical, social and environmentally sound ventures. The businesses ourgraduates will create will be different – we encourage projects withsocial, environmental and green agendas.“We give thempriority in fund-raising, backing and coaching. That inspires thestudents and also helps recruit mentors and other senior-levelindustrialists to become part of the program.”Freshmen studentslearn about the Engineer Entrepreneur Program the summer before theyenter, and are encouraged to apply. Some 350 students have beenaccepted for the program so far. They’re divided into multidisciplinaryteams, with a mix of members from six different fields of engineering.“Wecompose the teams. The students don’t get to decide,” Yemini grins,acknowledging that the issue has been a hot topic. “It’s not that we’retrying to give them a hard time. It’s because when they get out intoindustry, they’ll most likely be assigned to work in teams with peoplefrom different classes and cultures. We want them to have thatexperience here, to make it easier later.”Each team has five to12 members. They develop an idea, service or product for commercialimplementation and present it at an initial meeting. The staffconsiders the idea – its novelty, chance of realization, legalstrictures and intellectual property possibilities – and if it passes,it’s submitted to experts in various fields for further commentary. Asit moves up the line toward feasibility, additional help becomesavailable.The involvement of mentors, outside professionals, plays a big part. “Mentorsoffer personal business coaching based on their own experience in suchthings as fund-raising, marketing strategies and contact with largecompanies once the project becomes realizable. Over 50 leading managersin various Israeli industries are actively involved with us in thisprogram.”What ideas have been tested so far? One gadgetthat’s already achieved a measure of success is that of Zoharit Haddad,a third-year student. “Together with a group of friends, Icame up with this idea to develop digital software to tell you theactual temperature of the water in the boiler without turning theboiler on. So instead of wasting water by running it over your hands tosee if it’s hot, this device will tell you. With this device, you’dalways know if you have enough hot water for a shower.“We’realso working on software to control the heating system to heat it tothe required temperature without overheating. Several months ago, wepresented this idea in the annual entrepreneurship competition with TelAviv University – and we won!”“You can tell this is theInternet generation – they’re also looking at ways to control it fromtheir Facebook pages!” Yemini laughs.Typically, each studentwill have several ideas perking. Dror Sher-Popovich, a Beershebite inhis last year of studies who also works at AmDocs in Sderot, came upwith a plastic drink bottle recycling idea.“Today we buyplastic bottles, use them, then throw them away. What if we made thebottles out of some different material that could be reused – drinkbottles that could be individually refilled at freestanding machines?”Sher-Popovich and his team are working on designing a machine to refill reusable drink bottles.“Somekinds of refillable bottles already exist. Building the machine toprocess the bottle – clean it, refill it, recap it – isn’t all thatdifficult, individually. It’s getting it all working in one machinethat’s critical.“We’d put the machines in schools, militarybases, train stations, universities. It would give people a chance tobuy a drink – any drink, cola, orange, ice tea – at a lower price andbenefit the environment, too. It would be great for students – carryone bottle to class, and refill it as many times as you want.”Oneof Nir Yosef’s projects sounds like an instant winner. Yosef, a captainin the IDF who hails from a moshav in the Eshkol region, has a friendwho’s a runner.“He’s always wanted to run some of the world’smost famous courses. So I started thinking it would be great if youcould devise software and hardware that would allow you to duplicateworldwide running conditions locally, maybe by combining GPS with homeelectronic equipment. Without ever leaving the Negev, you could runthrough the streets of Paris. That’s one of my projects.”Hundreds of ideas have floated through the fertile minds of the young engineers.“Almostevery day I find myself checking new ideas, to see if someone has doneit already,” Haddad says. “A year ago, I wouldn’t even have known howto check.”Where do the ideas come from?“Partly from anannoyance factor,” Yemini says. “If there’s something in your life thatcauses you pain, you’ll find yourself looking for a way to change it.Another way is through technological research. You develop someinnovation, and then find yourself wondering, ‘Who could use this? Whowould buy such a thing?’“Almost every day, some student willcome into my office, close the door and say: ‘Miri! I have a great newidea!’ I really love it when that happens.“For every one ofthese students, it’s as though a new horizon has opened up. Nosocioeconomic or cultural gap can hold them back. They’re moving out ontheir own.”
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