Executives aim to better Israeli schools

The Israel Venture Network has raised nearly $1 million in private funding and is planning more fundraising to benefit schools.Israeli and American high-tech executives, promising to “employ a business-like environment to create change,” have begun a network of 100 executives …

The Israel Venture Network has raised nearly $1 million in private funding and is planning more fundraising to benefit schools.Israeli and American high-tech executives, promising to “employ a business-like environment to create change,” have begun a network of 100 executives in Silicon Valley, Boston and Israel who will personally fund philanthropic projects in Israel.

Called the Israel Venture Network, the group will work within the framework of the New Israel Fund, a philanthropic fund that promotes democratic and egalitarian values in Israel. The New Israel Fund approached Eric Benhamou, chairman of 3Com Corp. of San Jose, Calif., with the concept more than a year ago. The network’s first project will promote education in civics and democracy; increase Hebrew, Arabic and English literacy; and boost math and computer skills in Israeli schools. The network expects to begin its work this spring.

Israel Venture Network’s steering committee includes some of the best-known chief executives in international high tech, as well as one New Israel Fund member. Joining Benhamou are Nir Barkat, founder and managing director of BRM Capital (which is already involved in computer projects in Jerusalem schools); Shlomo Dovrat, founder and general partner of Carmel Ventures; Guy Gecht, chief executive of Electronics for Imaging, Inc.; and Zvi Alon, chairman and chief executive of Netmanage.

The initiative began with organizing events in Silicon Valley in June and in Boston in October, which helped raise nearly $1 million in private funding and to recruit the 100 participating executives.

Benhamou, a recognized supporter of Israel, thinks the movement reflects a growing trend for business leaders to invest in solutions for Israel’s social problems. High-tech executives are goal-oriented, have achieved success and are looking for places to invest their wealth to benefit society. He believes that the Israeli educational system in particular can benefit from the perspective and influence that these business leaders can bring to bear.

“These people have reached their level of success because the have excelled in focusing on projects that have…a goal that can be measured,” Benhamou said. “…The network will focus on education, because we believe that various aspects of the educational system in Israel have been getting weaker in recent years.”

The project will target medium-size towns in Israel where schools are somewhat developed but are in need of improvement, rather than small towns where the situation is more desperate in order to “maximize the return on our investment,” Benhamou said.

Israel Venture Network will work with one to three towns at first. If the project succeeds, it will expand to other communities; the network may eventually become involved in other philanthropy, including additional New Israel Fund projects.

Each member of the network is expected to become involved personally in the project by visiting schools, lobbying for the “cause” in Israeli government and “behaving as a board member” of a company. As Benhamou puts it: “I don’t expect that we’ll have passive members who will just write a check.”

The network wants to bring all the constituencies involved in the schools into the planning process for school change, including teachers, in an effort to correct the logjam caused by the problems of conflicting interest groups.

“Our way of being the most effective is to concentrate on communities that live below this line of contentment because that is where we find the will to succeed and the aspiration to make things better,” Benhamou said. “All that is needed for these communities is for someone or something to take them that extra step.”

Benhamou has had experience with similar projects in the United States: In 1997, he was appointed by President Clinton to the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee, which advises the president on programs to boost leadership in technology and communications. In that capacity, Benhamou helped launch a Clinton project to connect elementary and high school classrooms and public libraries to the Internet.

“I had to deal with old-world, new-world tensions. Teachers who’d taught a certain way for years suddenly had the Internet coming into their classrooms. So there’s not only a question of introducing technology, but of a general change in how teachers teach,” he said.