Good business, not mistrust, would be boost to struggling Arab-Israeli entrepreneurs

Good business, not mistrust, would be boost to struggling Arab-Israeli entrepreneurs

Paul Harper (photo provided)
Paul Harper (photo provided)

Entrepreneurs in Israel and Western Pennsylvania have a lot to learn from each other, and Paul Harper is primed to do whatever he can to help make that happen.

Harper, clinical assistant professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business, just returned from his sixth trip to the Jewish state in three years.  But while his past trips have focused on looking at Israel as a model in innovation and venture capitalism, this most recent trip had a different purpose: to study the challenging entrepreneurial landscape for Arab citizens of Israel.

While Harper generally travels with a cohort of graduate students, he was accompanied on this trip by Yodit Betru, a child welfare specialist, and researcher in the School of Social Work at Pitt. They will be working together to create an innovative teaching and research model that could bring together faculty and graduate students from Pitt’s business and social work programs.

Betru was not available to be interviewed for this story because she was still traveling.

“Israel brings so much to the table,” said Harper, who is hoping to take another group of students, including those from Pitt’s law school and school of social work, to Israel next March.

“Paul’s trips to Israel are indicative of the commitment that Pitt has made to researching and building closer connections with Israel,” said Gregg Roman, director of the community relations council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Roman worked with Harper last March to bring Israeli innovators to Pittsburgh for the first Global Venturing Israel: MedTech & Inclusive Innovation Conference at the Katz School of Business.

Israel and Western Pennsylvania share a lot in common, Harper said, including being home to strong energy sectors, and biomedical, pharmaceutical, and robotics advances.

Harper first went to Israel in 2012 on a trip funded by Israel & Co., a nonprofit formed in 2011 to promote Israel’s business contributions. That trip included meetings with executives from Israel’s leading venture capital firms.

“Israel, per capita, has more innovation and venture capitalism than any other country in the world,” Harper said.

What the small Mideast country does not have, he said, is a strong market for the innovations it develops.

“Israel is constantly looking for markets,” Harper said, adding that he is convinced that opportunities exist for Pittsburgh entrepreneurs to benefit from collaboration with Israeli businesses.

On his most recent trip to Israel earlier this month, Harper looked at the question of whether all this Israeli innovation is “really benefiting the entire country,” he said.

Larger social implications arise from the phenomenon of the creation of the “start-up nation,” as Israel was dubbed by authors Dan Senor and Saul Singer in a 2009 book examining the small country’s remarkable economic growth.

“When you talk about the miracle of Israeli technological innovation, a lot of that is a Jewish story,” said Harper. “But the question is, are all populations participating in that innovation?”

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has been asking that same question regarding whether his own city’s tech boom is benefiting as many segments of society as it could, Harper noted.

“It’s a question that is being asked in lots of places,” he said.

Arab entrepreneurs struggle in the tech community in Israel, and tend to remain on its periphery, according to Harper.

Often living on “hostile borders,” Harper said, Arab entrepreneurs are “squeezed between two populations. They are Israeli and benefit from being Israeli, but they also are related to the Palestinians and are part of the Arab world.”

There are conflicts that Arab citizens of Israel have that Jewish citizens do not, Harper continued.

Although many Arab-Israelis are trained at the Technion or the University of Haifa, most of them are underemployed or unemployed, Harper said.

“Nobody’s hiring them,” he observed.

While Harper is a “card-carrying supporter of the Jewish population in Israel,” he said he wants to make people aware that there is another population there, a minority population whose issues may differ from those of the majority, but whose goals are the same.

“You can’t just talk about the mainstream all the time,” he said. “There is a richer story there.”

One of the attributes that he and Betru are studying is resilience and its relationship to entrepreneurialism and leadership — how “experiences of stress and trauma lead to a different kind of thinking.”

Pittsburgh, likewise, is working on its resilience in addressing various challenges, including the loss of its steel production and industrial manufacturing jobs, an increasing elderly population, and severe weather events. It has been chosen as one of the 100 Resilient Cities, an effort pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation to help cities around the world become more resilient to physical, social and economic challenges.

A question that both Israel and Pittsburgh will have to face, Harper said, is “how can we grow from [traumatic] experiences, rather than shut down from them?”

Arab-Israeli entrepreneurs “don’t have the option not to be resilient,” Harper said. “Because they can’t get jobs and can’t get funding, they have to figure it out on their own. Producing an educated but unemployed population is not good.”

But ethnic bias and mistrust in Israel, he noted, “is thick on both sides,” and many Arab-Israelis do not want to use products produced by Jewish-Israelis.

Based on conversations that he has had with both groups, Harper remains optimistic that the future of Israel does rest on shared economic participation, despite the mistrust.

“There is this kind of hope that to the extent that we can do business together, we can get beyond the politics,” he said. “If people get to know each other through business, that’s where they can build trust. That’s something that everyone’s betting on.”

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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