John Morgridge, president and CEO of Cisco, the largest company worldwide in the development and manufacturing of internet infrastructure, visited Israel earlier this month to inaugurate the NETA program.In Israel and around the world, government and business leaders have expressed concern regarding the “Digital Divide” — how the gap in knowledge of the Internet and computer skills has the potential to widen and worsen social, cultural, and economic gaps.

Now a new and unique partnership between the U.S. and Israeli business world together with non-profit charitable organizations is taking steps to close those gaps in Israel, bringing knowledge of computers and the Internet to communities far from the hi-tech centers of the country, giving all sectors of society the tools to move ahead, and working to make technology the democratizing force it should be.

The program is called NETA — Youth, Technology and the Future — an initiative whose goal is to train youth in the periphery of Israel for high tech professions at the highest level, while pursuing social goals and developing local leadership, education for excellence and contribution for the community.

The new initiative is backed by $1.6 million donated by Cisco, the computer networking giant which supports programs such as this around the world. Partnering with Cisco is a local Israeli organization called Tapuach, a non-profit funded by Israeli corporation IDB and Lean Recanati, along with veteran non-profits Keren Hayesod and the Jewish Agency.

The project is an expansion of work that Cisco has been sponsoring for four years, in its international program “Academica” which it sponsors in more than 100 countries worldwide. In Israel, the program has trained 450 students from eight cities: Carmiel, Nazareth-Illit, Acco, Hadera, Ramle, Kiryat Malachi, Sderot and Beersheba.

“Internet and computer education contributes to socio-economic stability,” declares Zika Abzuk, who heads the NETA project, and oversaw “Academica” as well. “This it is the second industrial revolution. The first was for people to lay railroad track, today, we must lay Internet infrastructure, from the Negev and in the Galilee. In this program, youth, many of whom dropped out of school before they came to us, learn to build and maintain computer networds, and are able to obtain international level professional training which can can earn them a good salary anywhere in the world.”

Abzuk, 46, a mathematician, Tel Aviv mother of three and a senior administrator in the development group of Cisco Israel explains that the new program — NETA — will go a step further than “Academica,” with the explicit goal of translating the achievements of the individual students into benefits for their communities as a whole.

The students will begin participating in the program as they begin high school, attending classes twice a week in centers of their community, learning about the structure of computers and the basics of Internet access, as well as intensified English studies. From there, they will learn how to fix computers, and how to put together networks. When they have gained enough expertise, they will open centers in their communities, where anyone can bring a malfunctioning computer for repair, or receive instruction from the young experts on operating their computers.

“This way, everyone gains and everyone gives back,” says Abzuk.

Throughout high school, the program participants will continue to study computer networking, and will begin mentoring and teaching younger students.

A major part of preparing the project has been training the staff that will be teaching the students. “75 percent of our workers were unemployed when we recruited them. We taught them the technology and the skills to teach it to the students. It was important to us to create a team spirit in which everyone feels connected to one another. Teachers burn out quickly when they are lonely and there is no support system. We made sure there was one in place.”

John Morgridge, chairman of the board of Cisco Systems, the largest company worldwide in the development and manufacturing of internet infrastructure, whose personal wealth is estimated to exceed $50 million visited Israel earlier this month to inaugurate the NETA program. In addition to his role at Cisco, Morgridge lectures at the Management program at Stanford University, and devotes much of his time to educational endeavors aimed at reducing the “digital divide.”

“Economic and educational gaps hurt everyone. For the rich and for the poor, they are dangerous to society. A growing gap turns a society in to one that is increasingly at odds and violent.” Morgridge said during his visit.

The inspiration for formulating the NETA program was Abzuk and the rest of the Israeli teams desire to expand the training offered in “Academica,” based on their observations as to how the technical training can be a tool to further other goals.

“Part of the computer studies entail learning to work in small groups and collaborate. When we went to Nazareth, we put Arabs and Jews together in the same classroom — who initially didn’t want to be together in the classroom. As they worked together in teams, we watched as their prejudices melted down.”

In addition, she said, they were excited by the fact that the program gave many of the students the motivation and the confidence to take matriculation exams that would allow them to go on to higher education.

Abzuk and her team developed the model for NETA, and then went to Morgridge for sponsorship and to the other agencies for additional support.

“The Jewish Agency brings to the table their expertise regarding the communities, bringing in the municipalities as partners to advance the project.”

In true hi-tech style, she notes, an external company is charged with measuring the success of the program at every stage, to make sure that the program is not only ambitious, but effective as well.