Summer Camp for Rich Kids: Creating Israel's Next Generation of Startups

Wannabe chefs, veterinarians or Olympic athletes are so 2015 – this summer the upper 0.01% send their 9-year-olds to learn how to build a startup.

Campers from all over the world having fun at Camp Kimama.

Everyone has a dream of what they want to do someday, and today it seems more and more Israelis have the dream of building their own startups. The neighbor has a great idea for a cosmetics app, while your father wants to open an online store for tools; but if you work in high tech, they certainly must have already sent you to give advice to your daughter’s nursery school teacher’s cousin, who is going to make Mark Zuckerberg jealous.

Everyone is looking for the idea that will make millions and set them up for life. This national obsession has often reached new levels of absurdity: Anyone who visited the Tel Aviv Port during the Passover vacation may have run into 9-year-old entrepreneurs participating in a “entrepreneurship marathon,” called the HackTrack Tel Aviv Hackathon, where “elderly” mentors aged 14 to 25 provided the training.

Behind the 2016 Hackathon were the staff of the Camp Kimama, a summer camp that also runs business “hothouses” for entrepreneurs who are many sizes smaller than “young.” The marathon was part of an international project of groups conducting similar competitions for developing applications, and this year’s finals will be held in San Francisco.

“An 11-year-old child comes up to you with a business card and tells you he has raised $1 million,” says Avishai Nachon, the director of Camp Kimama. “When it happened to me I understood I have a broad cushion for activities we need to develop.”

Keshett Barkai runs the hothouse camps, and the two of them say demand is constantly growing. This summer, under the auspices of Camp Kimama, they will hold a camp called “The Hub” in the Hadassah Neurim Youth Village near Netanya, where youth aged 12 to 18 will learn from technology developers, entrepreneurs and experienced mentors.

As opposed to what many think, it is not always the parents who are pushing their kids to fulfill the parents’ dreams and hopes for success. Many times, the parents do not really understand how their child’s invention works.

“I’m in close contact with the parents and explain to them what the children are doing,” says Barkai. “Over the past year, I have become part of the lives of the participants in the seminars. After all, the parents don’t always know exactly how their child is building the application. I serve as the connection between what they create and the parents.

“Camp Kimama understands youth and what they like and are looking for. They asked to enter the area of technological marathons for youth and the establishing of startup companies, even at this age. It is a global phenomenon and Israel wants to be there too, because of its reputation as the ‘startup nation’. The marathons are the result of cooperation with competitions from overseas. We didn’t invent anything.”

An app at age 9

The first time you meet 12-year-old entrepreneurs you are amazed, but also a bit charmed, says Barkai. “They harness their characteristics as children who love games to developing technological means and applications. They also enhance existing applications. For example, in the last marathon an accessory application for Gett [formerly Get Taxi] was developed, which divides the payment between a number of passengers using the service together. There is already interest in this application.”

It is no accident that Camp Kimama has gone into the sought-after profession of technological entrepreneurship. After all, the camp targets the upper percentiles of the Israeli population and has camps in ski resorts in the winter and spring, while in the summer the campers go on trips to Europe.

In Israel, the camp hosts youth from all over the world. The cost for a two-week session during the summer is 8,690 shekels ($2,240). “We have the reputation of an exclusive camp,” says Nachon, who we spoke to while he was at a ski resort in Austria with 70 teenagers. “I don’t fight that description, but a week at a ski camp, for example, costs 7,000 shekels per child. It is a sum that can be budgeted for with preparation in advance.

“We have become a popular gift for bar and bat mitzvahs. If a parent and child go on a bar mitzvah trip, the expense is very similar to the cost of our camp. Here the child can meet and connect with children their own age, and true friendships are made, most of which contribute to the children and will help them in the future.”

The technology camps include children from all social classes, whose teachers recommend them, say Nachon and Barkai. Overseas Jewish communities approach Kimama and ask for joint camps with Israeli children, too, Nachon adds.

We had a hard time interviewing campers because of the exceptional logistical problems involved. First, it is rare for us to have to receive parental permission for an interview with the newspaper. Some are much too busy and need to go to bed early so they can wake up in time for school. Children are still children, even if their resumé contains popular apps.

Nonetheless, we still managed to speak with Annabelle Abadi, the mother of 9-year-old Nitai from Kiryat Bialik near Haifa. He participated in the last marathon and developed a simple app for children to communicate with one another, using software for designing interfaces with a Playstation console. “He had a few social difficulties, and began developing an application that connects children using areas of mutual interest,” she said. “The world of computers enchanted him. Through the Playstation he began to program.”

The school sent her to a mentor for him, who is also a mentor in the marathons. After a great deal of hard work, they won a prize and Nitai won a mobile phone. “His self-confidence improved greatly, he received recognition and understood there is life outside of school ... where it wasn’t always easy for him,” said Abadi.