When I arrived at Cornell in August 2016, I got involved with both professional and Jewish organizations. As a business student, I wanted to gain applied leadership experiences, grow my network and take advantage of everything Cornell had to offer. I also wanted to play my part in combatting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel by doing everything I can to shine a light on the beacon of democracy and innovation in the Middle East.
However, after spending several months in Ithaca, it became evident that most students I encountered were turned off by advocacy, debates on foreign affairs and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The silent majority of college students are predominantly worried about getting a high GPA, landing their summer analyst position at an investment bank and spending the rest of their free time having fun with friends. Nearly every non-Jewish student I knew was “neutral towards” or “didn’t know” their position towards Israel. With that in mind, I decided I needed to fill the vacuum before it was filled by the other side — showing students the real, altruistic value that Israel can have on their lives.
Cornell’s pro-Israel groups have long hosted conventional Israeli speakers: Israeli diplomacy leaders, government officials, authors, etc. Who shows up to these events? Perhaps 30 pro-Israel students. What is the goal of the pro-Israel movement on campus? To host speakers that convince the already-convinced? That was the question I was grappling with.
Last February, I decided to take action by launching a new program to redefine the narrative about Israel on campuses around the world by connecting top non-Jewish student leaders with Israeli executives for mentorship in any field. Having students with hardly any prior knowledge about Israel develop a real, lasting relationship with an Israeli helps to break cultural boundaries and allows students to gain a better understanding of Israel and its people in an age where networks are critical.
By becoming a finalist in the Campus Pitch Competition and partnering with its sponsors, the World Jewish Congress, I was able to officially launch Start-Up Nation Mentorship (SUNM) and grow the program. With a simple idea, I brought the program to Cornell last spring.
After completing an online application and an interview, an exclusive group of students are chosen to be fellows in Start-Up Nation Mentorship. The SUNM Liaisons, who run the program on each campus, target top student leaders they think are poised for success by doing outreach across the entire campus in many departments and student groups. Students are then paired with an Israeli mentor whose objective is to help them reach their professional development goals and teach them about their desired industry in Israel. For example, if a student is interested in learning about how the investment banking landscape differs in Israel, they can be mentored by an Israeli investment banker.
The students will reach out to schedule two 30-minute phone calls or video conferences within a one-month window per call with their mentor. Whether the student needs help with career planning, interview preparation or they simply want to learn and form a meaningful connection, SUNM allows them to accomplish all of those tasks and more. Fellows will establish a global relationship that they can leverage for years to come to expand their network in Israel. Moreover, students are now tapped into the Israel network on their campus, presenting them with many future opportunities to connect with opportunities related to Israel.
“As an individual coming from a biology/STEM background, I have been very worried that consulting industries will want business and finance majors only — but Mr. Newman [SUNM mentor] spoke to me a lot about how consulting industries look to see how individuals think,” said Isabella Brizzi, a sophomore at Cornell and SUNM participant. “Mr. Newman also had very good tips for me when it came to interviewing.”
In order to ensure that all industries were represented, I reached out to leaders in all sectors of Israeli life. Within our current group of roughly 90 mentors that continues to expand, we have investment bankers, venture capitalists, management consultants, tech executives, entrepreneurs and government officials. The majority of our mentors come from some of the largest multinational firms in the world in financial services and technology, which helps establish a newfound layer of relatability for the student fellows with their mentors.
Now, in the winter of 2019, we have dozens of students from Princeton, Michigan, University of Chicago and Cornell that have interacted with an Israeli for the first time. Moreover, these students are now Start-Up Nation Fellows, future leaders who have now formed a powerful, longstanding link to Israel.
By the end of the spring, I expect the program to be operating at 15 top colleges in three countries. We’ll be expanding to schools like Stanford, Harvard, Yale, UC Berkeley, McGill and Cambridge in order to establish a global footprint that can be further leveraged and grown. I am driven to ensure that this program be self-sustainable when I graduate in May 2020.
In addition, I hope to bring a large number of the participants to Israel next Winter Break to actually meet the mentors and have a professional journey that will allow them to experience the country on the ground. Students will attend lectures and company site visits that will transcend politics and leave a lasting professional impression on them.
In 10 years, if a SUNM fellow is working for a private equity or venture capital firm that wants to purchase an Israeli technology company, they will have a prominent Israeli executive that they can contact to help them with their investment decision or connect them with the right people. In today’s global economy, a global network is a valuable resource.
Adam Shapiro is a junior at Cornell University. For more information on Start-Up Nation Mentorship visit www.startupnationmentorship.org.
This piece is part of “The View From Campus” column written by students on campus. If you would like to contribute to it, email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info. We are grateful to The Paul E. Singer Foundation for supporting the Write On For Israel Program.