Forget Soccer and Baseball: Jewish Teens Head to Camp Start-Up Nation

Young U.S. entrepreneurs-to-be spend their summer in Israel to take to the Technion for an intensive, hands-on business lesson.

HAIFA – It’s a beanbag with legs attached that doubles as a table. Its other unique feature is the special liquid-resistant microfiber that protects it from spills. “We know that’s always a concern,” explains incoming 10th grader Avi Siegal, the project representative.

Moving on to money matters, Siegal reports that based on an estimated manufacturing cost of NIS 245 per unit, he and his partners have concluded that NIS 350 would be a fair price to charge for this space-saving piece of furniture, sure to become a hit, he adds, among college-bound students.

A grown-up voice interrupts him from the far corner of the room. “Something’s not right about your pricing strategy,” cautions the party-pooper. “You haven’t taken into account that you’re also going to have to pay some middlemen. Thirty percent is too small a margin.”

Another authoritative-sounding adult adds his two cents. “You might want to consider moving production to China. You can lower your costs significantly that way.”

As Siegal gathers up his papers to make room for the next presentation, he reassures them both: “We’ll definitely factor in those things before our next meeting.”

There are 20 other teenagers, mainly from the greater New York area, crowded into this fifth-floor classroom at the Technion on a mid-summer’s day, anxiously seeking professional feedback for their business ideas. They’ve come equipped with PowerPoint presentations, marketing surveys and cost analyses. Many of them have been up until the wee hours of the previous night polishing their pitches.

It may not look like it, but this is summer camp. And hard as it may be for others to fathom, going through the motions of setting up a business from scratch is their idea of summer fun.

It’s a brand new initiative of the Technion, designed to capitalize not only on Israel’s reputation as Start-up Nation and its own illustrious academic standing, but also on the growing trend among high schoolers abroad to make more productive use of their summers and not just loaf around.

“In America, it’s very common for teenagers these days to take college courses and do college programs in the summer,” notes Professor Harry Yuklea, the camp’s academic director. “So we figured we might as well tap into that.”

Called the “Science & Start-Up Summer Initiative,” this new entrepreneurs camp, in its current configuration, targets students at modern Orthodox Jewish day schools. But the eventual plan, says Yuklea, is to reach out to other communities as well, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, as well as teenagers in other countries, specifically China and India.

Designed for students entering 10th, 11th and 12th grade, the current group includes representatives of prominent New York and New Jersey Jewish day schools, among them Flatbush Yeshiva High School, the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, SAR High School in Riverdale, Solomon Schechter of Westchester, the North Shore Hebrew Academy in Great Neck, Manhattan Torah Academy (an all-boys’ school), and Maayanot (an all-girls’ school) in Teaneck.

The cost of this month-long camp is $5,500, not including airfare, and when they’re not in class studying product development, marketing and other relevant subjects, the campers are out visiting high-tech companies, meeting with Israeli entrepreneurs, and taking trips around the country aimed at bolstering their Jewish identity. In order to accommodate the religious needs of this particular group, the Technion has partnered with Jewish Journey, an educational travel company that also organizes trips for religious Taglit-Birthright groups.

On July 1, the day they arrived, the campers were immediately divided into groups of seven and instructed to come up with an idea for a tangible product. “Right from the start we told them not to come up with any new cell phone apps,” says Ariel Geva, the managing director of the Technion International School, which runs the camp. “We’re teaching them about product design and development, and we want them to apply that knowledge. It’s very hands on.”

Within each group, the campers immediately divided up the different corporate positions among themselves, based on their perceived strengths. Each group was also assigned a mentor from the Technion. On three separate occasions, the campers pitch their ideas and receive feedback from an “investment” group comprised of professors and and students from the Technion as well as accomplished entrepreneurs.

Ali Paul, an incoming 12th grader from North Shore Hebrew Academy, says she hoped that her month in camp would provide her with the tools to promote her own little startup, which she began back home. “I have this umbrella that rotates automatically to adjust to the position of the sun, and it’s designed to provide maximum sun protection,” she reports. “But I never had any idea about how to market it, and that’s what I was looking for in this program.” Paul’s group at camp has designed a modular-style backpack with attachable parts that can be customized to different space needs.

Ean Seinfeld (“Yes, I’m his third cousin a few times removed”), who will be entering 12th grade at Solomon Schechter this fall, is the chief financial officer of a group that’s come up with an idea for a Kindle-style office planner that allows colleagues to share their schedules with one another – “the last calendar you’ll ever need,” as they bill it. “I like money, and I like managing money, so I thought this would be a great way for me to learn things that I’d otherwise have to wait until business school to learn,” he says.

Seinfeld’s financial projections were a bit too rosy for the professionals though. In their first year of business, his group said it expected to clear $90 million in profit, based on the assumption that it could tap into 10 percent of its target market – companies with 10 or more employees.

“Do you know how many startups make that kind of profit their first year?” asks one of the “investors” sitting in the far corner, after Seinfeld’s group has presented its business plan. Not waiting for an answer, the professional responds himself: “None.”

“Ten percent of the market,” notes another “investor.” “That’s a very long shot. Even 1 percent is generous.”

Moments like these may be stressful for his peers, but Siegal, from the multi-tasking beanbag group, says he’s learned to step back and enjoy it. “I’m not sure yet what I want to do with my life,” says the 15-year-old who’s a member of the Model UN Team at SAR and sings in his school choir. “But entrepreneurship seems like a good option.” 

Rami Shlush