Is there a tougher problem than the Arab-Israeli conflict? Stef Wertheimer is a 74-year-old entrepreneur who created a set of industrial parks in Israel, all with an integrated Israeli and Palestinian workforce, to promote export businesses, create jobs, and reduce gaps in living standards. According to Wertheimer, firms located in the parks now generate business worth $2 billion a year–10% of Israel’s industrial exports.
Chairman, board of directors, ISCAR Ltd.
FROM STEF’S ORIGINAL ENTRY:
Tell us what you do (or what your team or organization does) and the specific challenge you faced.
Export-driven entrepreneurship can change societies. Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and Ireland demonstrate this point. I believe in time it can even help to narrow the economic gap and foster mutual understanding between Israel and its neighbors.
At Tefen and the three other industrial parks I built 20 years ago in the Galilee and Negev, we’ve shown how an integrated workforce–Jews, Arabs and Druze working together–can make a difference. Together with the parks’ industries, my cutting tools firm ISCAR, Ltd. generates $2 billion, or 10% of the entire industrial export of Israel.
To encourage more entrepreneurs, last fall I initiated the Arab-Jewish Executive Development Program in tandem with Tel Aviv University. Over a period of 3-1/2 years, this series of intensive seminars aims to train ca. 170 Arab and Jewish entrepreneurs. Even in these divisive times, it gives participants the opportunity to work in mixed teams, to live together during the course, and to develop their concepts into business plans for presentation to potential investors.
What was your moment of truth?
My moment of truth came in September 2000. A groundbreaking ceremony was planned for one of the twin industrial parks I was about to establish with the Palestinian Authority. We had signed an agreement to create two parks on either side of the border in Gaza. Harvard University’s Business and Design Schools had helped us with this ambitious effort. The heads of both governments had concurred. Our goal was to promote export-oriented entrepreneurship, to create jobs, and to reduce the gap between the Israeli and Palestinian standard of living and economic development levels. Everything was in place.
Then, on September 29, 2000, the second Intifada started. Violence erupted and looked as though it would prevail for some time. Business cannot succeed in a conflict area, and so I reluctantly put the plans aside.
However, I still saw the critical need to promote economic stability in the non-oil-producing nations of this region. So I looked both within and outside Israel’s borders for a solution.
The program for Israeli Arab and Jewish entrepreneurs is one way to address this issue. Working and living together for weeks on end gives participants from both sectors the opportunity to understand one another and each other’s cultures. This program is showing signs of great promise. At the same time, I have turned my sights to two other nations in the region: Turkey and Jordan, where I will soon build industrial parks with local partners and create relevant training programs. (The exact date? 9/29/2000)
What were the results?
To date the Arab-Jewish Executive Development Program has awarded 50 diplomas to Israeli Arabs and Jews. Although it is too early to see the actual results, the benefits for these participants and the 120 more to come will reach far beyond the individuals themselves. Their projects will create jobs and help strengthen the economy–on the both local and national levels. What is clear is that the eastern Mediterranean, which has few natural resources, needs industry to advance. I am now working with a prominent German technical school to extend entrepreneurship and vocational training programs of this sort to Jordan and Turkey. Here the goal is to develop export industries to make these strategic nations competitive with the oil-producing Gulf states and successful in the global market.
What’s your parting tip?
Promoting entrepreneurship is the most cost-effective means of economic development. It enhances one of our greatest and inexhaustible resources: human potential. My hope is that the U.S. will lead other OECD nations to invest in the future of the eastern Mediterranean by creating a new Marshall Plan. Such a plan will make people self-sufficient rather than continually dependent on aid. With education, jobs, and export industry, we can envision a new future for this region–one in which we can compete not through warfare but instead through the global market.