On March 20, day 5 of their Spring Break trip to Israel, 35 students from Gies College of Business and six chaperones and staff rode a bus into a small Bedouin village of Lakiya in the Negev desert of southern Israel. They were on their way to visit the Sidreh Center to witness a demonstration of traditional Bedouin weaving methods.
If the students and chaperones thought that they were going to be simply attending a craft demonstration, they were mistaken. When Khadra Alsanah from the Sidreh Center talked about their work, she told the students that the goal was to provide a way for women in the Bedouin community to make some extra money, gain an education, and improve the lives of their families and their community.
And she talked a lot about topics very familiar to these business students: the supply chain of their raw materials, how they developed their business plan, how they marketed their goods, how they worked to expand their domestic market, and how they work to get their products into the international markets.
In the end, most of Alsanah’s talk was about how to run a business. The demonstration of how they make their traditional rugs and other weaving products seemed almost incidental to what she wanted to share with the visitors.
Gies Business junior Hunter Honeg said, “One thing I found incredible about our visit to Lakiya and the Bedouin weaving business was the strength and innovation that the women leaders displayed in getting their products overseas despite the challenges they faced. It showed that hard work and a clear vision can pay off no matter where you are in the world.”
On this trip to Israel, Gies Business students saw a true range of entrepreneurship: from some of the latest high-tech companies dealing with autonomous vehicles and cyber security to this Bedouin community that is working to empower women through microenterprise.
One expression that the students heard from many of the companies they visited was tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase that means “repair of the world.” For many companies, this was a key part of their corporate culture.
In fact, one company that the students met in Tel Aviv on their first full day in Israel was Tikkun Olam Makers (TOM), a nonprofit startup that has taken this statement to heart—and made it part of their name. TOM works to connect makers, designers, software developers, and engineers to work on problems faced by people with disabilities (whom TOM refers to as “Need-Knowers”). Through an international community of people, TOM works to develop open-source solutions to real problems affecting real people that can have a life-changing impact.
While in Tel Aviv, they also visited Bluesnap, which is working to improve online e-commerce for businesses. They were creating innovative technology that would make online payments more seamless and less cumbersome for customers, while maintaining security for companies. During this visit, students interacted with Meir Gefen, a general manager at BlueSnap who runs the research and development team.
In Jerusalem, students met with Mois Navon, who was one of the five founding design engineers at Mobileye, a company that uses imaging for a host of automobile safety accessories, including adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, and advanced driving assistance systems. With such a wealth of innovations in automation, it is no surprise that Mobileye is also one of the world leaders in research on autonomous vehicles. In their efforts, Mobileye has been focused on how they can make driving cars safer. As sophomore Jiawen Zhang said, “Hearing the unique story of Mobileye was inspiring as we learned about their dedication to the highest level of safety and accuracy for autonomous cars.”
At OrCam, students learned how the company is creating an artificial seeing device that enables people with visual impairments to recognize faces of friends and family and to understand printed documents. The device attaches to the frames of a pair of glasses and through an earpiece, the wearer hears the name of individuals nearby whose faces have been stored in memory, and the device can read printed documents to the wearer.
All of the companies the students visited embodied tikkun olam. All were developing products and services that had the purpose of making the world better. “I found it really impactful how every single company we visited was geared toward helping people,” freshman Megan Gomberg said. “This is the true purpose that the companies focus on, and I think this is incredible and what I aim to achieve.”
Where the Past and the Future Meet
Throughout the trip, the students learned how and why Israel was becoming a destination for forward-thinking high-tech companies. In Tel Aviv, it seemed wherever you looked, new high-rise offices were being built to house research and development arms of major technology companies from around the world.
But even as the country is on the cutting edge of current and future developments, it is also home to a fascinating array of ancient religious and historic sites. It would be impossible to visit Israel, and particularly Jerusalem, without visiting the many historic places and relics.
Within Jerusalem, students visited much of the old city, including the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the City of David archeological site. Outside of Jerusalem, they enjoyed a camel ride in the Negev desert, and they visited the Dead Sea, the Ein Gedi oasis, and the site of Masada, the ancient Jewish fortress.
Also on the trip, students had the opportunity to meet with Dan Shapiro, a Champaign native and former US ambassador to Israel, who provided a condensed overview of the history of modern Israel and a description of the current political climate of the area. They also got to meet former Illini basketball great Tal Brody, who played for the Fighting Illini 1962-1965 and who went on to become “Mr. Basketball” in Israel. Brody is credited for putting Israeli basketball on the sports map, and he now works as a goodwill ambassador for Israel
Rob Metzger, the trip leader and director of honors programs in Gies Business, believed that everything the students were able to see and experience made for a well-rounded trip. “This trip, for me, was a multilayered experience between innovation, religion, and culture,” he said. “And the students were clearly impacted by all those things as well.”
NOTE: Special thanks to the Richard A. Erley Leadership Development Program for supporting this student learning experience.