The Givers

More and more high-tech executives are creating educational projects and taking responsibility for what collapsing public mechanisms neglect.

Eilon Tirosh is feeling very gratified these days. No, he hasn't just sold another start-up for millions. Last week, he was given honorary citizenship in Or Akiva. It was a modest ceremony. One evening, his family, the mayor, the city council members, some guests, students and their parents all gathered in the auditorium of the Atidim high school. There was dancing, singing and speeches. The mayor, Simha Yosefov, gave the congratulatory address.

Not everyone in Or Akiva knows Eilon Tirosh. But they all know what Yovelim is. It's a study program that was implemented two years ago in the Or Akiva junior high school and this year in Tirat Hacarmel. In the professional lingo of the world of education, they call this an "intervention program." An intervention program is basically a collection of enrichment courses for both weak and outstanding students that are given in the afternoon hours in cooperation with the school and the tacit approval of the Education Ministry. How many intervention programs are currently being operated throughout the country? No one knows, exactly. But there is general agreement that in the past four years, hundreds of such programs have been started in an effort to narrow the gap between what the state provides and what its citizens really want and need.

The names of the intervention programs - Keren hon sikui (Chance Capital Fund), Keren hon enoshi (Human Capital Fund), Manhigut iskit (Business Leadership), Ha'atzama ishit (Personal Empowerment), Zokhrim et ha'atid veha'atid mathil `akhshav (Remembering the Future and the Future Begins Now), etc. - are a giveaway as to who is behind them: business people, many from the high-tech field, who were fortunate enough to cash in millions of dollars in stock options before the bubble burst, some at the very last moment. They sold small and promising companies to big companies, became millionaires overnight and decided to channel a significant portion of their energy and money into communal work. Whether these benefactors are motivated by guilt feelings over their sudden wealth or whether they were just born do-gooders, the state certainly isn't objecting. It makes it easier for it to provide fewer welfare services.

Most of the intervention programs in education are implemented in high schools, because it's easy to measure success in terms of how students do on the matriculation exams. Tirosh chose to invest more than NIS 3 million a year of his own money to strengthen junior high school students. His personal experience told him that the transition from elementary school to junior high can be a crisis that leads a child to fall between the cracks of the educational system.

`A whole lot of luck'

Tirosh, 44, a T-shirt-and-jeans type who is married and the father of three, was born in Holon to a religious family and is the eldest of four children. His father, Avraham Tirosh, was formerly a columnist and member of the editorial board at Maariv and his mother, Zehava, was a preschool teacher. He joined the Bnei Akiva youth movement and, for junior high, attended a religious school in Givat Shmuel, next to Bar-Ilan University, from which the students generally dispersed afterward to different yeshivas around the country.

It was there, in the afternoon extracurricular activities, that he discovered the world of computers and math. When he finished that school, he was sent to a yeshiva high school - a boarding school - in Kfar Haroeh, where he suffered a personal crisis.

Tirosh: "It was a major effort for me to finish the boarding school. The studies didn't interest me. Religion aside, I was interested in other things. I loved to wander around the country. Now I understand that you can be within these systems and pass from year to year without really being present. The system, religious and secular alike, allows this. It can't identify the kids who need special attention and tailor an educational program just for them. I was lucky that my immediate surroundings came to my aid."

In the army, Tirosh served as an artillery officer in the Paratroops, was wounded in Lebanon in 1982 and underwent three operations and extensive orthopedic rehabilitation. During this time, he left religion (one of his brothers is a rabbi in Jerusalem and a father of eight) and enrolled in Tel Aviv University to study industrial engineering and systems management. In late 1998, after a few years of working in consulting and high-tech, he hooked up with Rony Zarom, an expert in computer engineering, and together they founded EXalink, which was one of the first companies in the world to develop an infrastructure for Internet access via cellular devices. At that time, EXalink's technology was cutting edge.

"We sold systems in France, England, Italy, South America and the Far East," Tirosh explains. "By the beginning of 2000, we were making a good income and thinking about raising money from venture capital funds. And then Comverse came and offered to buy us out."

At the time, Israeli high-tech companies were one of the sexiest things in the world technology market. Everyone wanted to buy them, and for a high price. EXalink, which employed about 60 people, was sold to Comverse for about $550 million in Comverse stock (3 percent of Comverse's capital at the time). Tirosh's cut came to about $50 million. "The thought was that we're connecting with something that has a presence in 350 cellular operators in the world, that has a record of success and that can give us a leg up on the competition versus the leaders in our field," he says. "Some of our investors said it might not be worthwhile to sell. They thought they might be able to get better returns on their investments sometime in the future. They didn't know the market was about to go bust within a few months."

Fortunately, Zarom and Tirosh didn't listen to the investors. "It was a matter of timing and a whole lot of luck," Tirosh explains. "Today, the whole market has gone through an adjustment and it's a lot more sane."

Tirosh went to work at Comverse, first in EXalink, which merged with the company as a unit ("I think about 45 of our people are still there"), and later in the administration, alongside Itzik Danziger, the company president, in the area of mergers and acquisitions. He retired in 2002, not having to worry again about earning a livelihood.

What does a person do with so much money?

Tirosh: "I didn't grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth. People like us, the average person, have a certain threshold of how much they can consume. Beyond that, how much money you have doesn't matter. I'm happy that I have enough to have the freedom of choice to do what I enjoy and to have an influence on things that are important to me."

Acamol to the sick

Tirosh doesn't go on trips to the Seychelles and he doesn't have a dream house in Herzliya Pituah or Savyon. He lives more or less the way he did before, with his family in Kfar Sava, and continues to work hard. Part of his money has been invested, not always successfully, and what's left he divides between Yovelim and a new start-up in the cellular field, which he founded together with a partner in Netanya. The idea of investing in Yovelim came up by chance. "When people know you have money, you get a lot of requests for help. People just come and ask," he says.

One of the requests was to come to Or Akiva and take a look at the high school. "Eilon asked a lot of questions," recalls Rachel Matoki, principal of the Atidim high school, which is combined with the junior high. "And the more he looked into it, the more he realized that dealing with the upper school would be like giving Acamol to treat a severely ill patient, because if you really want to change things and influence things, you have to start in the junior high."

Tirosh wanted to do more than just donate money to the project. He wanted to establish an educational start-up. He appointed Dr. Orit Landau, an education expert, as CEO and began studying the subject: He met with experts, toured schools in the periphery, identified needs. "We quickly saw that in addition to strengthening the studies, you also have to work on personal empowerment, on being able to cope with failure and connect with your surroundings."

The model that was selected, and which received the school's blessing, stands on three pillars: assistance with schoolwork for the weakest students, personal empowerment for outstanding students, and contribution to the community. Currently, 260 seventh- and eighth-graders from Or Akiva and Tirat Hacarmel have been accepted into the Yovelim program - which is "just a drop in the ocean," as Tirosh says. "When you propel the locomotive of excellence forward it pulls the whole middle layer after it and when you deal with the weakest, at the tail, you get a forward movement throughout. The weak want to get to the middle and the middle want to get to the front." The classes are small, with a maximum of 20 students. The teachers - the same ones, from the same school, who have undergone special training and are well paid for the extra afternoon work - are backed up by three to five assistants in each class and are working wonders with these children.

In reading comprehension, for example. "The average amount of `non-readers' among the kids who come to this school is 37 percent," says Matoki. "These are kids who really cannot read or who have only the technical ability to read the words without understanding what they're reading. If you catch them in seventh grade, you can still significantly improve the situation. We took a class whose average in reading comprehension at the beginning of the year was 11 out of 100 and by the mid-term test they'd already raised the class average to 70. There were kids who got 22 out of 100 on the entrance exam and finished the course with a grade of 80 or 90."

Why can't the same teachers do the same thing in the morning?

Tirosh: "In Yovelim, the students feel the pride of being a select group. The experience of success is the key. When a student does well on a test, the coordinator calls his parents and tells them what a good grade he got. The curriculum is very demanding, but there's also the feeling of a warm embrace. It's a whole theory that takes the child and envelops him with love, as do a mother and father."

"There are parents," says Matoki proudly, "who come to us and say that if their child isn't accepted in Yovelim next year, they won't enroll him in our school, and there are mothers who carry their kids' tests in their purse and when they're called into the school for a meeting, they pull out the tests and show how much the child has improved. The tests with the good grades are stuck on the refrigerator at home. It gives the whole family a lift."

Spark in the eyes

Ramle native Rony Zarom, 43, Tirosh's partner in the sale of EXalink to Comverse, came away with a much bigger share - about $200 million in stocks, which he quickly cashed in. Like Tirosh, Zarom went to work for Comverse after the acquisition and ran the mobile Internet division. In 2001, in the wake of power struggles at the top of the company - which revolved, among other things, around the question of whether EXalink was worth the sum that Comverse had paid for it - Zarom resigned. He now lives in New York and runs two new high-tech companies that he founded, Decima Ventures and Etagon.

His outreach project in Israel is called Unistream. This unique program, supported by a foundation that he established three and a half years ago, is aimed at nurturing potential business and social leaders among youth from the periphery. At present, the program is operating in three places: Kfar Yona, Ma'alot- Tarshiha and the Gilboa area. Zarom believes that if kids are exposed to the secrets of the business world at a young age, their chances of succeeding - in any field - will be tremendously enhanced.

From the outside, the center in Kfar Yona looks like a kindergarten; on the inside, it looks like the office of a high-tech firm in Herzliya Pituah. The spacious facility is equipped with computers connected to fast Internet, a small kitchen, a relaxation corner and the office of CEO Iris Raf-Ronen. The center is open every afternoon and used by 10th- through 12th-graders, who study "the development of business and social leadership" twice a week, in groups of 22. But the children come every day to the center, which has become like a combined youth movement meeting place and a second home. In order to be accepted to the elite unit of Unistream, the students first go through some exacting workshops. The framework isn't for everyone.

"We're looking for youths with a certain profile," says Raf-Ronen. "Not necessarily the ones who are the best students, but those with traits like the potential to be persistent, commitment, curiosity, creativity, motivation, strong social skills, a certain spark in the eyes."

Tom Omansky, an 18-year-old 12th-grader and Unistream veteran, is the CEO of the Unistar company, which his group founded. It manufactures colorful stickers for dishes, with the approval of the Israel Institute of Standards. For every event, there is a special sticker. Now the company is trying to market the product. "I can't put a finger on it exactly, but I learned a lot here. About myself, too," says Omansky.

Like what?

Omansky: "I used to be totally disorganized, and a friend of mine said that since I became the CEO of our company, I've changed a lot for the better. Now I'm in touch with the director of a high-tech company. I correspond with him by e-mail. There are all kinds of crazy connections. At my young age, I have a connection with people from the first rank. Not long ago, there was a lecture that made a very strong impression on me. We were supposed to have an important meeting with Home Center about our product and people came to teach us how to appear at a meeting, what to wear, how to sit, what to do with your hands and how to speak. It helped a lot."

Is the future less bright for students who weren't chosen to participate in Unistream?

Raf-Ronen: "Rony [Zarom] was a kid from Ramle who had nothing and created the future for himself. We help kids who want to help themselves, but we don't have the ability to do a program like this for every kid in Israel."

Mutual misunderstandings

Nir Barkat, 45, from Beit Hakerem in Jerusalem and a member of the opposition on the Jerusalem city council, ran for mayor in the last election and lost. "Next time I'll win," he says with the kind of self-confidence reserved for wealthy and restless people. After serving as a company commander in the Paratroops, Barkat earned a B.A. in computers and then an master's in business administration. In 1988, together with his brother Eli and two partners, Yuval Rakavy and Omri Mann, he founded BRM Technologies, a company that provides anti-virus services for computers. Their first project was to take care of the viruses in the Hebrew University computers. In 1991, they started to "climb the learning curve" and made their first deals in the European market and then in the United States.

The small profits in the beginning led to small investments in new companies. One of these was Gil Shwed's Checkpoint. "In 1993, we invested $400,000 in it," says Barkat. It turned out to be one of the best investments ever made by an Israeli company. The Barkat brothers sold part of their holdings in Checkpoint for several hundred million dollars. "We kept cashing in a little bit all the time," he explains. "Even now, I still have a few shares in Checkpoint."

Two years ago, Barkat retired from business activity and lives off the interest from the bank. He devotes all his energies to public service, including massive personal investment and involvement in social and educational projects in Jerusalem.

"High-tech people get a lot of exposure to the way things are done abroad and they are conscious of the way life is in Israel, and the contrast creates a dissonance," says Barkat. "Eight years ago, the `national sport' on Friday nights, which everyone excelled in, was complaining about the situation. At some point, my wife and I knocked on the door of the principal's office at the elementary school in Beit Hakerem - our daughter was in first grade then - and we asked her how we could help, and she said, `Help us buy computers.' I asked her what she planned to do with the computers and from her answer, I saw that she didn't really know. I came to see that I didn't know the school system and the school system didn't know the high-tech world. It was a fascinating situation of mutual motivation and mutual misunderstanding."

This situation spawned an enormous project. "I started studying the matter and since high-tech people never invest everything in one place, we computerized three schools in the city - in Talpiot, Pat and Beit Hakerem. In the second year, we supplied another 15 schools and after that another 25 schools. The objective wasn't only to help the children, but also to help with the supplemental training of the teachers and principals."

Barkat also developed content services through Snunit, a Hebrew portal for educational information. He says the school system in Jerusalem welcomed this. "My wife and I invested several million dollars in this the first year, and the more I saw, the more I realized what a big vacuum there is between what's out there in the field and the school system in Israel. Like the difference between an old wagon and a jet plane. So we said, we can either sink with the wagon or pick it up and turn it into a jet plane."

You made life easy for the state authorities.

Barkat: "That would seem to be the case. But I think that civil society has an important role to play. We mustn't wait and put all the responsibility on the public system. I don't feel exploited. We try not to replace the system, but to work in cooperation with it. The public system moves slowly, while the private one moves fast. The idea is to get a process started in the private sector and then get the public system to join in, so it can eventually continue alone."

Do you donate because you don't feel comfortable with your wealth?

"Not at all. I have no problem with the fact that I made money. With me, it comes from the same reason that I volunteered for the Paratroops. I love the country and I love my city. My father once gave me two blessings that I didn't understand: that I should have to pay a lot of income tax and that I get to work in public service for a shekel a year. Today I understand the meaning of the blessing. I'm not obligated to anyone, only to myself. And that's the motivation of most of the high-tech people I know."

Searching for solidarity

Koby Huberman, vice-president of NICE Systems, a flourishing high-tech communications company, is the co-chairman and founder of Israel 2020-Remembering the Future. An organization established a year ago that seeks to become a broad popular movement, it has just held its first convention at Beit Dani in Tel Aviv's Hatikva neighborhood. Huberman sees the surge in social involvement by business people as a fascinating process. "We started out as a nation that was formed around the vision of full mutual cooperation and responsibility and a narrative of an almost communist society," he explains.

"Over the years, we've moved toward a quite radical individualism, and in the past four years, there has been a balancing process in which Israeli society is starting to understand that we have to cooperate in our work, which will make a certain kind of solidarity possible. A good nation is based on cooperation as a way of life. It's critical in business, in civil society, and between the government and the citizen. One of the reasons behind the founding of 2020 was an attempt to redefine the outline of our lives here and to strengthen cooperation as a formative value. It's crucial for a society that wants to foster excellence and creativity."

And where is the state's responsibility?

Huberman: "A society that dictates to its citizens the outlines of life is a society that I don't want to live in. I wouldn't want to see a state in which there was no volunteerism. The real question is if you're part of the social fabric and not just a player on a national playing field. And if you're part of the social fabric and there are things that you don't like, then get up and do something about it."

Erel Margalit, a 44-year-old Jerusalemite who was born on Kibbutz Na'an, got up and did something. Three years ago, he founded an organization called JVP Kehila (JVP Community). In 2000, he made tens of millions of dollars when Chromatis, the Petah Tikva company started by Rafi Gidron and Orni Petrushka, was sold to Lucent for the legendary sum of $4.7 billion. JVP, the venture capital fund that Margalit heads, invested in Chromatis when it was still in financial straits, and after the sale, it came away with about $700 million in Lucent stock. Not long after the sale, Lucent lost much of its inflated value. Anyone who didn't cash in the stock immediately lost out.

Margalit had studied mathematics and almost completed a Ph.D. at Columbia University in New York when he returned to Israel and got then-Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek keen on the idea of developing high-tech in Jerusalem. In 1990, Kollek put him in charge of business development at the Jerusalem development authority. In 1994, he left the authority and founded JVP.

Art in a train station

JVP Community has a budget of over $1 million dollars a year, from Margalit's own money, and it works in two areas. First, it operates Hama'abada, the Jerusalem Performing Arts Lab, in an old hangar near the now-defunct Jerusalem train station, which has been renovated and turned into a place that promotes the performing arts. The artists and projects that are selected receive a production budget, a place to work and appear, and artistic assistance. Secondly, JVP supports a neighborhood project featuring tutoring in English, math and reading comprehension, in cooperation with the Education Ministry and the Jerusalem Municipality.

Why didn't you take the money and go lie on the beach in Hawaii?

Margalit: "A lot of the passion in me is related to the environment and the society in which I live and act. When I worked with Teddy Kollek, which were some of the most wonderful years of my life, this passion was always very strong. Some of our frustration in high-tech comes from the fact that we like to make revolutions, to build companies, to give them a vision, but these revolutions occur within a limited population. I asked myself how I could take this creativity and this energy and give to more people. That may be the biggest satisfaction. Because doing only for yourself and your home is nice, but it doesn't give the same sense of happiness and completeness."

Along with his active involvement in community projects, Margalit continues to head the JVP venture capital fund - "a $400-million fund with branches all over the world, that's going strong."

Orni Petrushka from Chromatis doesn't talk about money, but he is now investing some of the millions he made in the Hamifkad Haleumi (The People's Voice) movement. He believes that only a final status agreement between Israelis and Palestinians will reduce the defense budget, and only then will the priorities change and more funding will be put into welfare, education and social projects. "As far as money goes, I have enough," he says. "After the sale [of Chromatis], I received many requests for assistance in the public field and I'm still getting them. I'm not interested in sitting at home and living it up. I'd rather try to have an influence."

The People's Voice hasn't become a mass movement.

Petrushka: "I agree. The public hasn't been carried away by it. The messages are too complex, and during the intifada it was hard to relate to messages about a final status agreement. I know that people perceive The People's Voice as naive, but that doesn't deter me. I'm not afraid of the word `naive.' I've done a lot of things in the past that were considered naive. Our big achievement would be to make the issue of a final status agreement a central issue in the next elections."

Arabs, Jews, religious, secular

Ofer Kornfeld, 41, a married father of two from Ramat Gan, was a wunderkind growing up in Kiryat Ata. He finished high school at 16 and studied computer science at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology. In 1988, after he completed his military service in the air force's computer unit, he and a friend started a small telecommunications company. Ten years ago, he and two partners founded a company that developed a product that enables the use of cellular telephones in different countries. Within five years, the company had 50 employees. During the big wave of acquisitions in 2000, it was sold to Comverse for $25 million. Kornfeld took his share of the deal, $8.3 million, and debated what to do.

"It took me about another six months before it really sank in that I didn't have to work for the rest of my life," he recalls. "That was the most dramatic thing that happened to me. And there's a lot of power to this freedom."

Kornfeld decided to translate the money and the power into a political start-up and founded the Avoda Hadasha (New Labor) project, a movement that was supposed to draw masses of new voters to the ranks of the Labor Party. It didn't happen. Kornfeld, a member of Labor's central committee, calls himself an active politician. In the last elections, he ran in the party primaries, but didn't win. He will continue to run until he is elected to the Knesset and from there, he'll carry out his revolution.

Kornfeld: "I understood that all the other things that I do won't change the situation. Israeli politics is flooded with inferior characters because all the really talented people go off to make money and don't go into politics. To make a change, we have to attain positions of influence."

Benny Levin, 55, of Ra'anana, was one of the founders of NICE Systems and the company's CEO until 2001. After 15 years, when the company had $200 million in annual sales, he retired and cashed in his stock. "Today, I don't have to work," he says. "Thanks to what I made at NICE, my children and I are all taken care of."

Together with Shlomo Dovrat, Nir Barkat and Itzik Danziger, Levin was one of the founders of the IVN social fund, whose chairman and creator is Eric Benhamou, a Jewish-American high-tech tycoon and the former CEO of the American high-tech company 3COM. The fund now comprises 120 Israeli and American business people - each of whom contributes between $1,000 and $40,000 a year to promote education in Israel. Levin spends about half his time on IVN activity, which is concentrated in the periphery, in Tiberias, the Galilee and soon in Sderot.

"We started in Tiberias three years ago," Levin says. "The problem was reading and writing. The team there pledged to us that if we went back to teaching by the old phonetic method, by the end of first grade, more than 90 percent of the children would be able to read and write. And that's what happened. At the same time, we also improved English reading by 20 percent."

Why isn't all this being done routinely in the schools?

Levin: "Sometimes you need an outside body to come and wake up the system. But we're a drop in the ocean and we can't replace the system. Our involvement has led us to conclude that an effort must be made to instill management culture. In that, we have an advantage. And we decided to concentrate on school principals. We prepared a course together with people from education and high-tech and it's being given for the first time this year in the north of the country, with 30 school principals - Arabs, Jews, religious, secular. The course will last for two years. And they're telling us that this is one of the few times that anyone has ever taught them how to manage."

`Buying the school'

Itzik Cohen was a senior official in the Education Ministry. Now he runs Mashavei Yeda (Knowledge Resources), a consulting company in the field of education. The massive entry of intervention programs into the schools system worries him. "As the phenomenon expands, it requires some sort of regulation," he says. "If things aren't formally regulated, there's the fear that someone may come tomorrow morning and say, `I'm buying the school.' I welcome the initiatives and I take my hat off to people who say `education is important,' and don't just say so but also put their own money into it. But rules have to be set to prevent situations in which this could be negatively exploited."

Education has basically become privatized, hasn't it?

Cohen: "I hope that doesn't happen and that limits are set and clear lines are drawn. In the Dovrat Committee, there was a proposal for regulation that balances the entry of the private sector into the system. As of now, it hasn't been done."

Why isn't the Education Ministry capable of doing its job properly?

"This kind of activity, such as what is being done in Or Akiva, for example, is impossible to copy in all the 1,000 junior high schools in the country. There's just no budget for it."