The summer of 2014 marked a defining moment for 3 Day Startup (3DS) and our understanding of how powerful of a force entrepreneurship can be. It was during the height of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, when both sides were sending bombs across the border –– forcing this intense violence even further into the foundation of their societies. And it was in this climate that 3 Day Startup began an engagement to help bring those groups together.
Through the interconnected web of 3DS participants and mentors that so often yields new programs and new ideas, 3DS entered into a partnership with the MIT affiliated non-profit, Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow (MEET).
MEET is one of the most dedicated agents of change and progress in Israeli-Palestinian relations. At its core, MEET is an organization whose mission is, at the core, to use the experience of Israeli and Palestinian students working together as a tool to create positive social and political impact as leaders in their communities. And, for their summer program in 2014, they asked to partner with 3DS on their efforts.
The potential impact was immediately clear to program manager, Maia Donohue and board member and facilitator, Ruchit Shah. It was a program designed for MEET’s alumni –– to keep them engaged and their relationship with MEET and with each other alive.
One of the magical components about 3 Day Startup is that the connections made in one place transfer across the world. No matter how ideologically, culturally, or geographically separate our students and our communities are, there is a shared perspective and an understanding that 3 Day Startup alumni develop. But we had yet to fully adapt that from the nature of the program itself supporting connections between participants, to using to program as a tool to specifically forge a bond between participants from traditionally opposing or dissimilar societies.
At the time, it was an opportunity for 3DS as an organization to take entrepreneurship education to a place where we hadn’t been before: using entrepreneurship to help students living in conflict create something greater than their divide.
How did this program help to navigate that climate?
MEET and 3DS teach students how to make this progress by embedding the importance of constructive disagreement. The conversation is rarely about cultural borders once they enter the program. Pretense and conflict dissipates in favor of dedicated, creative students trying to start companies and form ideas that can change their worlds. In this program, once the modules were over and the teams set loose to work, the room filled with the familiar sounds of company disputes –– that the market validation wasn’t strong enough, that no customer would pay that much or the venture couldn’t survive by charging so little.
Through entrepreneurship education and time constraints during a three day program, any disputes or disagreements are centralized and constructive: always pushing towards a better solution and a better team. Conflict and competition are used constructively to push the participants to become better, more efficient versions of themselves.
When students experience a 3DS program, we see a transformation across countries, ages, and cultures. We consistently observe our participants realizing just how much potential they have and how much they can really get done in three days. And more often than not, what they can accomplish is orders of magnitude higher than what they thought they could accomplish in even a year.
And in this capacity, our Israeli and Palestinian participants were no different. Introducing students, particularly those in unstable ecosystems, to this kind of model is an empowering force.
But, there was also a transformation more specific to these students and this program. The fruits of their hard work and creativity served as a demonstration that they could actually make real change as Israelis and Palestinians. Of course, at their age we all struggle somewhat with a feeling of helplessness, like we are swept up in a wave of outside forces that we can’t control or tame. For these students, however, who truly do live in an environment, particularly during that time, where exacting control over your situation or the trajectory of your life can seem difficult — if not impossible — being able to feel a degree of agency and control can have an even more amplified effect.
And part of that realization of autonomy, comes from the opportunity to cross that cultural and physical barrier to work on something greater than themselves.
So why is entrepreneurship the best vehicle for this kind of change, this kind of impact?
Well, the short answer is: creation and teamwork.
At 3DS, through our programs and our partners, we know that championing entrepreneurship leads to increases in creative problem solving and constructive, team-oriented learning. As humans, it is in our very nature to create things –– to analyze a situation or a problem and create a solution or a tool to alleviate it. There is joy in that type of creation.
What most people lack is an adequate outlet. And, social creatures that we are, we have a desire to share what we make. Even in the cases of now mythical geniuses like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, there is a pattern of collaboration, a mentor, a teammate, a co-founder, or a right-hand man who helped to push their innovations and solutions further than they ever could have done alone.
No society can put too much emphasis on these qualities. And even if one disagrees with this premise, it is difficult to deem it insignificant when one sees the kind of energy and excitement that students get when they make progress towards their solution, when they see their idea taking shape and come to the overwhelming realization “I can do this.”
More than that, however, putting the focus on entrepreneurship and creation helps students to move away from negative aspects of society that distance them from each other. When we shift this focus, students are able to overcome their differences and capitalize on their unique skills and talents
The creative problem solving that comes with an emphasis on entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship education also helps to foster empathy. We saw this tendency particularly come to light in our MEET programs, where one of the ideas (called Sweepus) was essentially an “uber for trash-pickup” that catered predominantly to a problem that only the Palestinian participants faced.
The Israeli participants on this team might never have come to this idea by themselves; it was not a problem that was part of their reality. But realizing that the lack of an organized, institutionalized trash-pickup service impacted the lives of their Palestinian counterparts opened them up to an understanding of a world outside their own.
And this project was one of many social-innovation projects that we saw at our MEET, Israel-Palestine programs. However, supporting these programs and fostering these connections isn’t always easy in a country or society wrought with conflict.
MEET faces barriers of their own simply administering programs and bringing people together. Just because they (and we) know that something works, doesn’t make it easy. As the on-the-ground representatives and advocates of their programs, partners, and methodologies, MEET faces all the daily difficulties that come with trying to make change in a region torn by conflict. The issues they face with just getting the permits and transportation to get the Palestinian students to their programs alone would be enough to make many stop trying. But if we can help show that it’s worth it and that progress can be made, then we are doing our job.
Because it’s a job worth doing. Engaging people of different backgrounds, cultures, and viewpoints in a constructive way is a step towards building bridges and forging positive relationships.
What makes entrepreneurship an ideal vehicle for this work is that it builds these bridges and relationships while actively solving problems that the groups face.