From At-Risk to Entrepreneur

Israeli program uses business principles to turn lives around

Raya and her Turning Point team

Raya and her Turning Point team

It sounds like a modern-day fairy tale: Raya, an Israeli teenager living in poverty and failing out of school, invents a product, wins an Israeli entrepreneurship competition, and flies to New York to pitch her invention to a global audience.

But this fairy tale is reality. In fact, it is becoming a possibility for an increasing number of underprivileged children thanks to Federation’s work in Israel.

Raya’s story began at a moshav in the Negev. Her multiple learning disorders were causing problems in school, and her family was in such financial turmoil that they couldn’t afford help. When a social worker suggested that Raya attend boarding school, the family felt it was their only choice.

Her new school’s staff was trained in teaching students with special needs and offered extra resources aimed at underprivileged children, such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s program Turning Point. The aptly named Turning Point empowers at-risk Israeli teens to change the courses of their lives, from a path that leads to poverty and distress to one that leads to stability and fulfillment.

Thanks to these resources, Raya gained self-confidence in school. When Turning Point introduced Network for Teen Entrepreneurs, an entrepreneurship competition, Raya was chosen to lead a team of five girls. Raya’s team was challenged to develop an idea for something needed in Israeli society, create a business plan with the help of mentors at the school, and work with engineers to design the product.

At first, Raya’s team struggled to come up with an idea. It was a visit home — to the moshav where Raya had felt like such a failure — that prompted her to develop her award-winning product.

“My mother and I worked an entire day preparing food for our extended family, and when we went to use the stove, we realized we were out of gas,” said Raya. On the moshav, gas is kept in a canister and delivered only every two weeks. “How did we not know we were out of gas?”

The question bothered Raya, who brought it up to her team when she returned to school. Her teammates had similar stories, and an idea was born: a gas meter. Named MADGAZ, this small device measures the level of gas in the canister and is connected to a gas meter in the kitchen that shows when the gas is running low so users can fill up in a timely manner. For moshavs across the country with limited access to gas, MADGAZ solved an all too common problem.

Even with her newfound confidence, Raya was nervous. “I didn’t think we would succeed,” she said. But her team won the initial school competition, went on to win the regional competition, and finished first place in the national competition, where more than 450 students competed.

“My family looks at me differently now,” said Raya with pride, “I am no longer Raya who has learning disabilities and has a hard time in school. Now I am Raya who won first prize!”

 

With Federation’s support, Turning Point has reached over 6,400 15- to 18-year-olds in 66 locations across Israel through its mentoring, job-readiness and entrepreneurship education, and youth-run business venture program modules. This year alone, some 1,000 at-risk teens will participate in Turning Point programs.

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