For an aspiring entrepreneur, gaining admission to DreamIt Ventures, an Israeli “startup accelerator” that provides seed funding, mentorship, work space and advice from accountants and lawyers in exchange for 9 percent of the startup’s common stock, is a big coup.
So when Nuseir Yassin, 20, a rising sophomore at Harvard who was born and raised in the Israeli village of Arraba, won a spot in DreamIt’s New York City summer program with a mix of Israeli and other fledgling companies, he couldn’t have been happier.
His startup, Branch.ly, aims to help people use their online networks to become better connectors of friends and opportunities. Yassin and his two co-owners entered DreamIt with one small investor. Now, after introductions to dozens of investors on Aug. 8 at “Demo Day,” they have leads on the $500,000 they think Branch.ly needs to get off the ground.
Q: Where did the idea for your startup come from?
A: People like me, college kids, are connected to a thousand-plus people online — there’s Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn — but we can’t remember who. We’re creating a way to know who you are connected to, across all these social networks.
Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised five minutes from Safed. My entire family is educated. Most of them went to school in Germany. Dad is a psychologist; mom is a schoolteacher. My parents gave me the freedom to do whatever I wanted. I could go and physically hang out, or I could hang out with Americans on the Internet, and adopt their accent.
How did you get here?
It starts with knowing how to communicate with societies other than yours. I guess that was the turning point: English. I graduated from high school and decided to apply to schools in the U.S. I couldn’t go to a normal school because they don’t have any financial aid for foreign students, so I thought I might as well apply to Harvard.
What’s it like, being an Arab among many Jews at DreamIt?
I’m proud of it. It’s not something that I hide. I don’t actively separate myself from Israeli Jews. I always explain that I’m not Jewish, and I’m not in the army. I’m proud of being in the program because it makes me feel like I belong to something. At the end of the day, we have something in common, like chutzpah, like hummus, and DreamIt has done a great job of choosing us.
How did being an Israeli Arab shape your childhood?
My family was never displaced, [but] I also never interacted with Jewish Israelis. I interact more with Jews here in the U.S.; I have more Jewish friends here than back in Israel. My school didn’t have the same resources a Jewish school would have; it didn’t have the same opportunities, competitions or grants. I was lucky to have access to some of those opportunities, like an astronomy [competition], but it’s very rare. Education has to be reformed; so does infrastructure and health care. If you look at the statistics of how much funding we get compared to other villages, it’s staggering. There’s no written discrimination that I know of; it’s just the way it is, it’s so segregated.
Why are you aiming for the world of business, instead of, say, politics?
In entrepreneurship and the startup world, nobody cares if you’re Muslim or if you’re Jewish … most of the investors I talk to are Jewish, and sometimes it’s better if they are. They sympathize with my background coming from Israel. [Connecting through business] is more effective than talking politics straight up. You’ll never change someone’s mind or opinions by just arguing with them. I tried it at school; it didn’t work. This is the better route … if you run a startup in Palestine you will end up doing a lot of deals with Israelis. It’s a great way to get exposure to each other, to generate understanding. It works on a small scale in the beginning, but it can go viral, this whole idea of partnering for a greater good in an entrepreneurial spirit.
This is an edited transcript.