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Northeastern students help Israeli and Palestinian entrepreneurs succeed together

Northeastern psychology student Reem Quais and Theo Govaers, remotely, presents their start-up venture ParaPark to the Bridging Conflicts class. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

When you think of founding partners of a tech startup, you probably don’t think of Israelis and Palestinians working together. And when you think of their marketing consultants, you probably don’t picture college students. 

But in the summer course “Bridging Conflicts, Creating Diversity: An Entrepreneurial and Marketing Experience,” that’s exactly what’s happening.

Co-led by professors Amir Grinstein and Daniele Mathras of the D’Amore-McKim School of Business as part of a partnership with tech accelerator 50:50 Startups, Bridging Conflicts pairs Northeastern students with startups that are co-founded by Israeli and Palestinian entrepreneurs. 

50:50 Startups brings together startups that are co-led by Israeli and Palestinian entrepreneurs and helps them develop through courses and mentorship. For the ventures, the Northeastern course is the “icing on the cake” of the months-long program, Grinstein says. Over the course of seven weeks, Northeastern students are marketing consultants for their assigned startups, giving the entrepreneurs valuable feedback to help them succeed in their ventures.

The course also serves the larger purpose of helping to build relationships across the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as entrepreneurs work together to achieve a common goal. “It’s not taking away from the conflict,” Grinstein says, “but it just gives another perspective for people who are open-minded and interested in getting to know the other side, and are passionate about entrepreneurship.”

This year, nine different startups and 14 Northeastern students took part in the course, which emphasized collaborative, experiential learning. The students, who joined from as far as Oman, Columbia and Japan, had the unique opportunity to apply what they learned to real-life ventures.

“As we’re teaching things in class, they’re doing that right away on these projects,” Mathras says.

It’s also a mentorship opportunity for the entrepreneurs, who will leave the course with a market research report and a refined pitch deck. In the students, the founders had project managers and market researchers, as well as important sounding boards for testing assumptions, asking questions, and making sure they were communicating clearly. 

“Sometimes when you’re so intently focused on working on your own venture, you don’t have anyone there challenging you,” Daniele says. Here, though, students act as a “third party” to ask tough questions.

Most importantly, it was all real. 

“I’ve never had a real chance to join a venture. We always have school projects, but they’re not for real, so I don’t have pressure,” says Wenbo (Tacit) Li, who is graduating this fall with a business administration degree, and is concentrating on entrepreneurship and innovation. “But for this, it’s a real venture. I have to put all my effort into it.”

Li partnered with Cloe, a health and wellness startup that helps people access nutrition plans. Cloe’s mission is to allow nutritionists to better manage their clients and have a closer relationship with them via a downloadable app.

When the class visited Microsoft headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Li pitched the venture on behalf of the founders and got real-time feedback from professionals. On top of getting to apply what she was learning to real-life scenarios, she says, the course taught her to “trust yourself and express what you really think.”

Where did this unique course come from? 

Grinstein, who was born in Israel, developed the idea four years ago when he realized that he could use his talents to make a difference. “I could find a way through this program to bring my skills in the marketing and entrepreneurship areas and really take advantage of them and do something good,” he said. 

He teamed up with Mathras and they ran the course as a virtual pilot in the summer of 2021. This year, it was run as a hybrid model, and Mathras hopes that the next time the course runs, it can be done entirely in person, in line with its uniquely collaborative format.

Surprisingly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not had much impact on the course. When people come together to solve a problem, Grinstein found, they discover that they love the same soccer team, the same foods, and have the same goals. When ventures fail, “95% of the time, it’s not because of the political conflict,” he says. “I actually love to see when they fail like that … it’s normal failure.”

The project isn’t without its challenges, though. Grinstein struggled to get visas for the entrepreneurs to come to Boston, and last year, two people had to drop out of the course due to bombings in Gaza. All of the participants in the course need to navigate different cultures, languages and time zones, but, as Mathras said, this is valuable experience in itself. “It’s the real world. You’re going to be working on mult-national teams when you’re out in the real world,” she says. “You’re going to be dealing with those time issues. You’re going to be dealing with cultural differences.”

In the long term, Grinstein and Mathras have high hopes for the program’s social impact. They would like to see similar programs that pair people based on their differences: skin color, country, social status, gender, political party, etc. They speculate that having diverse founders will help create more diverse companies overall. “They won’t shy away from hiring people very different from them,” Grinstein says.

When thinking about the impact of the program, Daniele is reminded of the echo chamber of social media. “You’re in your little bubble. You see what you see, and you don’t see things outside of that,” she says. “This model really opens a dialogue between groups that might not otherwise have that dialogue.”

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