The business of higher learning

A mini-MBA program at Tel Aviv University is giving Palestinians a step up in the global market.

PALESTINIAN ENTREPRENEUR Sereen Sabi speaks to the group participating in the mini-MBA program at TAU                    (photo credit: SABRINA BELHASSEN COMMUNICATION)
PALESTINIAN ENTREPRENEUR Sereen Sabi speaks to the group participating in the mini-MBA program at TAU
In 12 days, 24-year-old Sireen Sabi from Kalkilya in the West Bank, and 29-year-old Mohammad Abu Khaizarn from Tubas, completed their mini- MBA at Tel Aviv University’s Recanati Business School. In the midst of the American Studies Association boycott of Israel, this course is unique in that it is specially tailored to Palestinian executives who can’t, or don’t want to come to the university for the normal two-year MBA program.
The idea for the intensive, two-week program arose from a Palestinian MBA graduate’s observation that there are many Palestinians – particularly those working in the information and communications technology sector – who work mainly with Gulf states but would like to increase their reach globally.
The project is a joint venture of the Lahav Executive Education program at TAU and the Kellogg School of Management at Chicago’s Northwestern University.
Financially supporting the initiative is the US Agency for International Development, through its Compete project. The program has two tracks: one for ICT managers, and the other for agricultural managers. It aims to help young Palestinian executives think as managers and to give them Western higher-level education. The courses are taught in English by a prestigious set of lecturers, some from Kellogg’s business school. “We want to increase the potential of the labor force in the West Bank,” Lahav CEO Udi Aharoni explains. He believes that a flourishing economic situation would reduce political conflict but stresses that “we leave politics outside the fence. When they [the Palestinian students] enter the university, they are like every other Kellogg/Lahav student.”
The lecturers, Aharoni continues, are “very committed – they see it as an opportunity to narrow the gaps. No one talks politics even for five minutes. We see it as an opportunity to take their education to the next level.”
Aharoni describes the participants – who range in age from 24 to 50-something – as enthusiastic students who always ask for more materials and reading.
Although men dominate the program, there is also a handful of women, including one who is an orthodox Muslim.
IN EXCELLENT self-taught English, Sireen Sabi explains that her family name, spelled “Saba’a” in Arabic, means lion, and she certainly lives up to that name: She exhibits fierce determination and has racked up an impressive list of achievements for someone her age.
Sabi did a business major at Bir Zeit University, near Ramallah. In her third year, she won a university competition with her idea for an online e-commerce business in the West Bank – an initiative she called “Click and Pick,” which enables people to make hotel and restaurant reservations. Eventually she hopes to expand her website to sell other products – “not like [online shopping giant] Amazon,” she says, but perhaps a smaller- scale regional version.
After graduating in 2012, she dreamed of getting a master’s at a top university.
“I’m a big fan of brands,” she laughs.
“Harvard, Stanford, Kellogg – the biggest.
I don’t dream small.”
She recalls that she “Googled Kellogg and found out it is just across the street, in Tel Aviv, just 30 minutes away.”
She learned more about the mini- MBA from a USAID contact, whom she met at one of the panels in which she used to participate. They were discussing entrepreneurship and the level of education in Palestine, and Sabi was expressing the feeling that she didn’t have as many skills as graduates from elsewhere did. Now she describes the mini- MBA as “a dream come true.”
“They don’t give a solution, they give us a way to find a solution, and this is applicable to every problem,” she says.
Until taking part in the mini-MBA, Sabi hadn’t been in Israel since the age of seven.
She says her family and friends were against the idea of her studying in Israel – they were worried she would be in shock after not having set foot in the country for so long. She was hesitant herself, but decided it would be worth it.
“It’s all about education, and it’s a well-known university and a really good college,” she says.
“The funny think about Palestine is, we don’t have anything against Israelis or Jewish people – we have Palestinian Jews, Christians, atheists... but we have a political issue with the soldiers’ side,” she adds.
“When you come here, you find people who come here for education. You can find many Arabs here who have come for education. It’s really normal. I feel comfortable; we are just sharing experiences.”
ON THE agricultural track is Abu Khaizarn, who owns a company for exporting fresh herbs to the US, Europe and Russia, and had previously studied at the Arab American University in Jenin. He says his experience at TAU has given him more specific information that he can apply to his business strategy.
“Our target is international markets abroad, so it is very important for us to know all skills about marketing, accounting, finance,” he says.
Like Sabi, he is eager to stress that Palestinians do not have a problem with the Israeli people: “We are two peoples...
everyone is looking for peace. [The conflict] is not an issue between the people, it’s between the governments.”
He notes that he works with customers and companies in Israel, and has closer relationships with them than with others in the West Bank. He says, however, that the governments sometimes affect the people’s viewpoints, and that negative experiences waiting at checkpoints for several hours give Palestinians a bad image of Israel. He opposes the signs placed outside West Bank areas warning Israelis that it is dangerous to enter.
“It is not right that Israelis are afraid to go to the West Bank,” he says regretfully, noting that he has hosted Israeli friends in his home and that they receive a warm welcome from other Palestinians.
“We just have to cross this wall; the wall is just in the mind.”
He acknowledges that there are a few people on both sides who think “in a terrorist way,” but says they are a minority and that most people want peace.
Meanwhile, the course remains strictly business. Aharoni says he believes the first two years have been highly successful, and the university means to continue with the program long-term.