Intern program boosts Palestinian tech sector

Palestinians in tech sector  / Photo: Abed Omar Qusini Reuters , Reuters

The PIP intern program connects West Bank tech graduates needing work with Israeli tech companies needing employees.

At first glance, the event held at Google's Israel campus last month with 150 participants was a completely routine tech industry affair. Participants included prominent Israeli names, such as tech guru Yossi Vardi and Google VP engineering Yossi Matias, but also present were 60 Palestinians from the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The event was initiated by Palestinian Internship Program (PIP), which connects young Palestinians with internship opportunities in Israel's tech sector. The idea is to give these young people access to opportunities not available in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. PIP hopes that the interns will benefit the Palestinian economy by working in the future at Palestinian companies and founding their own enterprises with the know-how that they gain. Enterprises participating the event included Google, Microsoft, and Cisco Systems; venture capital firms such as Pitango and Grove Ventures; and startups such as Healthy.io, Feelit Technologies, and Freightos.

PIP, managed by staff director Anna Gol for the past two years and program coordinator Marwan Meqbil, was founded in 2014 by American-Israeli entrepreneur and investor Yadin Kaufmann. PIP is not Kaufmann's first endeavor in the West Bank; three years ago, he founded the Sadara Ventures fund, the first investment fund founded specifically for investment in Palestinian tech ventures, which is one of the few funds operating in the West Bank. The fund, which has $30 million, has made six investments to date.

"Without previous experience in the field, Palestinian university graduates have few opportunities to find a job in the Palestinian tech sector," Gol tells "Globes." "University graduates with means therefore often choose to leave Palestine to find these opportunities elsewhere, while those who lack means have to work in their family business and the like, instead of in the tech sector. The Palestinian tech sector suffers from brain drain and a shortage of experienced personnel."

According to PIP's figures, there are currently 13 universities in the Palestinian territories producing 2,500 technology graduates annually. Most of the jobs currently available to these graduates, however, are low-paid outsourcing jobs, which account for 40% of the sector's revenue. The Palestinian tech sector in Rawabi and Ramallah has experienced some growth in the past decade, but it is still extremely limited with a total of 100 tech companies, and a lack financing sources. The unemployment rate among young Palestinians is 40%, so many graduates in tech subjects have trouble utilizing their qualifications in the market.

"There are many opportunities in the tech sector and companies looking for personnel in Israel, and there are many qualified young people in Palestine who want to develop their talents, after studying computer science, data science, business administration, and finances," Gol adds. "The idea is to bridge this gap, and give an opportunity simultaneously to Israel companies and Palestinian graduates. They can learn from their mentor to develop connections in their team, and can be exposed to technologies that do not exist in Palestine, such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and so forth."

The program provides interns with professional advice and assistance and help in finding housing and all aspects of life in Israel. The companies are required to pay the interns a wage more or less equal to the minimum wage in Israel, which is more than triple the minimum wage on the West Bank. The interns get help in paying rent. After the internship is completed, the organization helps them negotiate their salary, which Gol says usually rises to NIS 8,500-10,000. After that happens, PIP stops paying their expenses.

"I didn't know about Israeli tech"

Up until recently, the program was funded by the US government, but Congress halted funding to organizations operating in the Palestinian territories in 2019. PIP is currently funded mainly by foundations and organizations of wealthy Jewish families from the US, and by private donors. 67 interns have participated in the program in nine groups to date, and were placed in internships in a total of 43 companies. PIP says that an equal number of men and women participate in the program, and that over 35% of the interns are still working in their companies, while another third switched to executive positions in Palestinian companies.

"We get 200 requests for each group, of whom 40 are accepted as final candidates to participate in four events and workshops. We then try to match the interns with specialties," Gol says. The internships last three-six months, according to the company's needs, and half of them are extended. A company that took an intern from a given group will therefore not participate in the next group, so the organization is always looking for new partners.

Natalie Yousef, 23, a resident of East Jerusalem, is one of the program's graduates. She has a BA in finance and business administration from Birzeit University. "I started working as a broker towards the end of my studies. I liked my work, but as someone who I finished my studies summa cum laude, I didn't always feel that it suited me," she says.

Yousef submitted her candidacy to PIP, which put her in contact with Pitango. She was accepted to a team that founded Impact First, the fund's impact investment arm. After three months, she started working as an intern at Pitango, where she stayed and now works as a full-time analyst.

"I worked in Ramallah, where there are only two venture capital funds. The Palestinian economy lacks a technology scene that can help move it forward, because of lack of financing and expertise. We have many capabilities, but there's still a long way to go, and PIP gave me the opportunity to profit from a neighboring nation that takes pride in its tech scene. You can see how this enabled me to build an entrepreneurial urge. Later, I can go outside and create opportunities in the Palestinian economy," she says.

"I was afraid at first, because I didn't know the language, and this is a big barrier for anyone, but I knew English very well. I also didn't know the technology sector or Israel. I would have had many difficulties, had I been alone, but PIP helped me at every stage during my internship and even afterwards, to this day. They helped me find a place to live in Herzliya close to the job. They always asked if I felt comfortable in my internship, and whether I felt that I was developing the talents that I wanted to develop," Yousef says. "I want to bring this expertise to Palestine, and help young people succeed in realizing themselves and building something from their talents."

"After I returned from the university, I applied for jobs at companies in Israel for six months, but I found myself working mostly at restaurants," says Hassan Abu Dalo, 24, a graduate of the program with a BSc in political science from the Sciences Po Paris.

Abu Dalo now works as an analyst at the Grove Ventures fund. "I worked earlier at a startup in the West Bank, and I saw a post online saying that PIP was giving an opportunity to get to know the Israeli ecosystem, which is the kind of information I didn't have the chance to connect to before. PIP opened doors for me, and when I came to Grove, they gave me the tools to succeed, build myself, and accumulate professional knowledge. I never thought I'd work full time at the fund," Abu Dalo says.

"In the future, I hope to utilize the know-how I accumulated in the Israeli ecosystem to help the entire Palestinian community. I also hope to show other Palestinians that it's possible to find work in the Israeli ecosystem," Abu Dalo adds.

Hard to find an apartment in Israel

"We're an apolitical organization that operates in the shadow of politics," Gol says. "Quite a few Palestinians from the Gaza Strip apply to the program, but participating in it requires access to Israeli territory. Although I try every year, I have never succeeded in getting entry visas for them. We're working within the boundaries set for us," she says. Gol adds that the organization is in touch with academic institutions in the West Bank in order to contact graduates, but these are informal connections, for example with specific lecturers. "Formally, Palestinian universities are not supposed to have connections with Israeli organizations, or organizations that operate beyond the Green Line."

In addition to the challenges in registration for the program and finding interns, Gol talks about the challenges arising even after finding internships for participants, especially finding a place to live for interns near the company. "It's a very narrow idea for many Israelis for a Palestinian from Ramallah to live in the same city with them," she says. "We're still trying to overcome this challenge, and it can be a difficult experience for the interns when they are rejected by apartment owners and feel discriminated against and excluded. I'm not naïve; this is the state of affairs in our world, and we have to deal with it."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on March 4, 2020

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

Palestinians in tech sector  / Photo: Abed Omar Qusini Reuters , Reuters
Palestinians in tech sector / Photo: Abed Omar Qusini Reuters , Reuters
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