An Israeli-American academic has initiated a program that may both advance disadvantaged women from Israel and Jordan and build peace among nations.
They arrive with ideas for waste management, new media, health clinics and environmental education, speaking Arabic or Hebrew. Funded by the US federal government, 10 aspiring women entrepreneurs – five from Jordan and five from Israel – are heading to the United States this month to engage in a mini-MBA experience that will hopefully, ultimately advance peace in the Middle East.
Prof. Meir Russ, an Israeli-American academic living and working in the US at the University of Wisconsin, came up with the idea that may both advance disadvantaged women and build peace among nations.
“We focused on women first because there is a social impact. They are changing the social fabric of society,” he tells ISRAEL21c, emphasizing that the ultimate goal from the US side is to promote business development and improve trilateral relations among the US, Jordan and Israel.
Russ secured funds for the Young Entrepreneurs Program (YEP) so that deserving women will be able to benefit from the MBA-type experience at the University of Wisconsin in two stages of leadership training. Their program is to include workshops, job shadowing, site visits and cultural activities in the Green Bay area.
Coming from Israel, Russ knows that despite the official peace treaty, nothing much has been done to encourage relationships between the citizens of Jordan and Israel. After meeting a colleague who was bringing Jordanian students to the US to learn entrepreneurial practices, Russ conceived a joint project that would forge connections between the US and both Israel and Jordan, and worked to convince the State Department to provide funding.
“I know how entrepreneurial Israel is,” Russ says, “and I know that there are pockets of women from Ethiopia [in Israel] and Arab Muslim women who are not getting the same opportunities as others, and thought about bringing some of them to the US.” Not to mention that connecting Israel to Jordan through entrepreneurial activities, also, “serves a bigger purpose,” he adds.
Jordan is considered a moderate country in the Middle East, and is already involved in ongoing projects with Israel in areas such as emergency preparedness, water technologies and the environment. Organizers and funders hope that the YEP program will expand the opportunities, and enable Jordanians and Israelis to know each other a little better.
A first focus on women
It was easy for the organizers to find willing participants from Israel, including women from the Israeli Arab sector. It was a tougher job finding qualified candidates in Jordan, but with the help of colleagues there, Russ managed to find them and is now looking forward to meeting the women next month in the US.
As a professor of management who earned an MBA in Israel and started a business in the country many years ago, Russ believes that there is more to entrepreneurship than just starting a business.
“We looked at the women’s personalities, more than their business ideas,” says Russ, explaining that the priorities were to determine whether the women could “use our help, and whether their backgrounds lead to an entrepreneurial way of thinking, and maturity of business ideas.”
The selection process is underway, with projects being chosen based on merit and the feasibility of connecting between the enterprises in Israel and Jordan. Among the businesses that the young women aspire to set up is a health clinic for the poor, an environmental education center for young people, a family magazine and a studio for graphic design.
“Some already have academic and professional backgrounds related to business, while others have little business background but good entrepreneurial ideas,” says coordinator Jay Harris. “All of them have been able to explain how they can benefit from our training program.”
Russ wants to help the participants to grow their own ideas and work together. “Hopefully a group of us will go back to Israel and Jordan later in the year. We are looking to develop some kind of network,” he explains. And it seems that with the two-year grant from the State Department amounting to nearly $300,000, and Russ’s expectation that the project will run for at least the next six years, there’s ample time for a network to take root.
Businesses with social impact
Business people from the Green Bay area and faculty members from the university will be involved in the training process. Support will also come from the Wisconsin Department of Commerce, the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs Network and the Green Bay Area Chamber of Commerce.
On the Jordanian side, partners include the American Chamber of Commerce in Amman and the King Abdullah Fund for Development; while in Israel, the Israel-American Chamber of Commerce and Industry along with the Bengis Center for Entrepreneurship at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev will help to coordinate ongoing activities.
Co-sponsors include the BIRD Foundation of the United States and Israel, and TRIDE (Tri-lateral Industrial Development) – an alliance promoting investment, research and development by bringing together US, Israeli and Jordanian interests.