What can Israeli and Palestinian students learn from a Denzel Washington movie? If that movie is Remember the Titans, the lessons are numerous. The film is one of my favorites and is based on the true story of a racially integrated football team in Alexandria, Virginia. At a time when integration was an unpopular and explosive issue, the Titans learned to cooperate, worked toward a common goal, and emerged victorious as Virginia’s 1971 state champions.
This summer, I have been leading a diverse group of 44 students through a program called Bridging the Cultural Divide through Entrepreneurship. My Babson College classroom is a neutral zone where these young people—17 Israeli Jews, 20 Palestinians, and 7 Israeli Arabs—have the opportunity to learn alongside one another and work cooperatively. In the spirit of Remember the Titans, my dream is that the relationships formed on campus this summer will foster hope and understanding within the group that they will carry back home with them.
At the end of the seven-week program, these students, broken into two mixed groups, will emerge with two sustainable business plans. An adaptation of Babson’s first-year Foundations of Management and Entrepreneurship (FME) course, each team will have a product, supply chain, accounting system, marketing plan, e-commerce site, and up to $5,000 in seed capital to implement their plans. As with FME, all initial profits will be donated back to the community—fittingly, the recipient in this case is The Joseph Storehouse, an international charity that provides aid to Arabs, Christians, and Jews.
From Dream to Reality
This program has been a labor of love—I’ve taken five trips to Israel and the Palestinian territories over the past 14 months to meet with officials, administrators, and students and work out the program details. In addition to organizing logistics, we secured funding. Grants from Cisco Systems Inc. and contributions from private foundations and individuals provided $400,000 in needed capital for this summer, and we hope to continue the program for at least two more years, using this year’s students as mentors for future students.
The participants were selected via an application process, and each attended an intensive orientation session in their home country prior to their arrival in the United States. For many, this is the first time they’ve been to the US, so we included content showcasing Babson and American culture. The students live on campus for seven weeks, and the program involves coursework in entrepreneurship and business. Additionally, we’ve created opportunities for cultural enrichment, incorporating weekend trips to Cape Cod, New York City, and meals at local churches, mosques, and synagogues.
Entrepreneurial Thought in Action
This is not the first program to take up this mission. Organizations such as Seeds of Peace, MEET, and other NGOs strive to empower youth from conflict regions to work for a better future. What makes Bridging the Divide different is that the journey is only beginning by the time participants return home. Weekly international video conferences will be held to support the fledgling business owners, and the two groups will reunite in January at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa, Israel, to present updates. The potential for what these students can accomplish goes beyond creating a business; they are creating employment and building valuable long-term relationships.
Entrepreneurship, of course, is the key that will open this door. It is naïve to think that young adults, raised in an environment of perpetual unrest, can overcome generations of conflict in one short summer. But with the introduction of an economic element and by developing personal relationships with one another, the seeds of partnership are sown. Students who sit next to each other in class as peers today may be business partners, trading partners, or customers tomorrow; it is vital that they be able to trust and understand each other if they are to successfully do business together.
At its core, entrepreneurship is about opportunity recognition, taking advantage of the opportunity, creating a business, and, ultimately, making a difference. My hope is that the students’ experiences will open their eyes to the opportunities of a two-state solution so that they can successfully conduct business together; serve as living examples of the power of entrepreneurship; and help bring understanding, trust, and peace to their region.
Ted Grossman is a senior lecturer in Information Systems and 26-year veteran professor at Babson College in Wellesley, MA, where he helped create Babson’s signature first year Foundations of Management and Entrepreneurship course. Previously, Grossman was founder of TRG Systems, Inc., a computer software and processing company for the retail industry.