July 8, 2016

Essential Question: What must we learn from someone who does not come from the same background as us?

If investing in hope could be trademarked, two Israeli entrepreneurs – Forsan Hussein and Ami Dror – would hold the patent.

The two cofounders and managing partners of Zaitoun Ventures– a hybrid investment firm that invests in companies with diverse human capital – say their strategy is proving to be a winning formula.

“We wanted to create a business that inspires hope but also fulfills its mission to make money. It’s an investment company with values, with a soul,” Hussein tells ISRAEL21c. “People like us have a responsibility to do something big.”

In 2014, Dror and Hussein, who knew each other for years, decided to join forces and create Zaitoun Ventures. They have raised $5 million and invested some $17 million in Israeli startups so far.

The name of the company translates from Hebrew and Arabic as “olive tree.”

“The olive tree is a symbol. It’s a story of peace. We Arabs and Jews have a Mediterranean connectedness. There’s something that bonds us. Maybe this is the symbol for the future,” says Hussein.

Hussein and Dror are hardly the only ones tapping in to Israeli high-tech. But their focus on diversity — in terms of faith, ethnicities, lifestyle – is unique.

“Corporate studies show that diversity is beneficial to a company,” says Hussein.

“We believe innovation comes from diversity. The more diverse your company is, the more powerful it is,” says Dror.

Zaitoun requires all portfolio companies to implement its “30in3” rule. That is, within three years of investment, the companies must strive to reach 30 percent diversification in human capital.

Dror and Hussein say their outline to include everyone is already rubbing off on others in the high-tech arena. They excitedly discuss how a CEO of a big Israeli company was so impressed with their idea that he actively set out to hire Arab engineers.

“It’s common wisdom these days that creative thinking comes from diverse populations,” says Hussein.

Trust and investments

Cynics can step aside. Hussein and Dror aren’t just promoting the diversity platform for show. They constantly complimented one another during their interview with ISRAEL21c, and the photos they chose for publication depict the two of them hugging in different locations around Israel.

Mutual trust is what emanates from these business partners.

“Initially, when we started Zaitoun, our investors saw a conflict of our wish to do good and yet make money at the same time. The investors didn’t really understand what we’re talking about. But they still invested because they believed in us,” says Dror.

Dror previously cofounded XPAND 3D, a multibillion-dollar company specializing in state-of-the-art 3D technology for cinema, home entertainment, professional environment, education and medicine. He is an angel investor and a member of the 2014 Class of Henry Crown Fellows at the Aspen Institute.

Hussein, profiled by ISRAEL21c when he was CEO of the Jerusalem International YMCA, has been involved since the age of 10 in organizations that promote Mideast peace, social entrepreneurship and social finance. Holding degrees from Brandeis University, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Harvard Business School, Hussein is a Kauffman Fellow and recently was selected as a Young Global Leader for the World Economic Forum in Davos for the next five years.

“We feel so lucky that we get to do something that we really love,” says Hussein.

Zaitoun attracts both companies and European, American and Asian investors with its social message.

“We believe innovation comes from diversity. The more diverse your company is, the more powerful it is.” 

Portfolio companies include Comedy Break – the Tel Aviv-Ramallah startup using facial detection to personalize comedy for users; Myndlift – the Arab-Israeli startup with an app that can improve attention disorders without negative side effects; Ninispeech – the app that is changing the world for people who stutter; Sidis Labs – wearable technology for alleviating motion sickness; Teramount — a Muslim-Jewish startup company providing optical connectivity for the next generation of chipsets; and others.

“In the last year, we proved it’s working — we’ve provided phenomenal, off-the-charts return on investments to our investors,” says Dror.

Eighty percent of their investments come from China, including Alibaba and Tencent Holdings.

“The Chinese investors found working with a values-oriented company as something fresh and new, and they love it,” says Dror.

Dror is moving his family – wife and three kids – from Tel Aviv to Shenzhen in the next few months. “We’re planning on doing something big, to be behind massive success,” he says of Zaitoun’s near future.

The business of hope

Hope is also a key aspect in their success, they say. “If you don’t have hope you cannot start your business,” states Dror. “If you do not have hope you cannot start your country. So we have the business of hope.”

In order to become part of the Zaitoun family, would-be investors need to come to Israel for a week of touring hosted by Hussein and Dror.

The investors visit Jerusalem, the Negev, Bethlehem and Sha’ab, the Arab town in northern Israel where Hussein grew up. Hussein, 38, now lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and young son.

“We want them to understand the region and the real situation. It’s not only about the innovation. Yes, we have amazing innovation but you need to understand the complete story of Israel — the good and the bad,” says Dror. “Those people that get into it and learn, they become our friends, our investors, our partners.”

“We’re not going to partner with anybody who doesn’t see eye to eye what we’re doing and try to get to know the people,” says Hussein. “We’re creating a circle of trust which that in itself will be the mechanism in sustainable success of the future.”

“That’s the secret: the people and trust,” says Dror. “And we know how to obtain trust.”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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