The entrepreneurial spirit which has led to Israel being dubbed “Startup Nation” has not passed over the country’s Arab minority. (See my previous post here.) JEST – Jerusalem Entrepreneurial Society of Technology – is one accelerator in Jerusalem which specializes in promoting Arab entrepreneurs. One such entrepreneur is Hafeth Zughayer who has developed a new app which replaces business cards called UBCard – short for Universal Business Cards.
I travelled to Hafeth’s office in the Arab Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem located just north of the Old City walls, opposite Ammunition Hill. He is situated in JEST’s communal office space for entrepreneurs in the basement of a building on Nablus Road, opposite the Turkish Consulate.
READ MORE: Arab Run High Tech Startups in Israel
After attending several business conferences recently and hearing countless people sing the praises of Israel as “Startup Nation, ” I noticed one glaring omission from the new companies: Arabs. Where More…
It was just a five minute walk from the stop on Jerusalem’s light rail. But many people would have been concerned with travelling there due to the recent wave of stabbing attacks. The offices belong to JEST. The JEST website declares it to be, “A Home for the Startup Community of Jerusalem, to promote & support technology, culture of innovation and women. We help startups in Jerusalem live up to their full potential to achieve growth & Success.” (More on JEST later.)
I first met Hafeth at the Mass Challenge launch in Jerusalem in January. He was manning a table to promote his new app. It was a relief to finally meet an Arab businessman after only seeing Jewish run Israeli startups at the countless conferences which I have thus far attended in Israel.
One thing about attending such conferences is that you collect a great many business cards. And everybody wants a copy of yours. The problem is that you get so many cards that you lose track of them or you just plain lose them. And I don’t even have a business card so I had to tell everyone that I ran out.
The funny thing is, I was only pointed in Hafeth’s direction after telling someone that I wished I had an app which I could use instead of business cards. “Wouldn’t it be great, ” I mused, “if I could just zap my info from my phone to your phone.” Sure enough, someone was there offering exactly that.
This is where UBCard comes in. The App replaces business cards. You just install it on your device and sign in. It loads a user’s information directly from his LinkedIn account. Don’t have one? Not to worry, you can still load your info the old fashion way – manually.
Once you are set up, anyone in your phone’s list of contacts who is also a user will immediately be included in your UBCard contacts list. If not, then just invite them to join.
So now there is no need to carry around a bunch of business cards with you wherever you go, or to waist money on having them printed. According to Hafeth, business cards are a $10 billion a year industry in the U.S. alone. Also, more than $350, 000 trees are cut down each year just to make them. So by switching to UBCard people will also have a positive impact on the environment.
A Jerusalem native and resident, Hafeth, 43, lived in the U.S for 15 years and has 3 kids. He considers himself to be a “traditional” Muslim: Hafeth does not eat pork and fasts in the month of Ramadan.
With an M.B.A. and experience working for companies like AT&T and American Airlines, Hafeth says that, “your phone number should be your business card. The idea comes from Social Security in the States where a number identifies you.” He founded the business only one and a half years ago with $50, 000 in seed money which he raised mainly from family and friends and had as many as four employees at one point. But now it is just him as Hafeth looks for the additional $500, 000 that he needs to grow the company.
This will be what he calls “phase 2.” The plan is to include pictures and offer the app in more than 60 different languages. Imagine if you can have a virtual business card which you never run out of and which can be automatically translated into different languages.
“We’re looking at it as a platform, not just an app, ” said Hafeth. “It has a similar future to WhatsApp and LinkedIn.”
While the app is free, they expect to charge $9.99 a year for the premium service. But Hafeth feels like he is stuck in a Catch 22 when it comes to business development. The VCs want to see a finished product first, but he needs the funding to finish his product.
UBCard did, however, recently win a $5, 000 award for coming in second place at the international “Internet of Things” competition. They came in second out of 20 startups which reached the finals, but more than 700 applied to compete in the first place so really UBCard came in second out of 700. That says a lot about how impressive Hafeth’s idea is.
Hafeth was also the beneficiary of a $10, 000 grant — 5 out of ten startups represented received the sum — which was awarded that day.
As for JEST, it has $250, 000 in funding which was provided by the American Consulate in Jerusalem and private companies such as Cisco and Microsoft. It currently has just 2 employees and one intern.
The offices are simply one big room with tables and chairs where people can work. There are no facilities there, so everyone brings their own notebook computers. JEST does, however, offer a variety of classes to participants. These include Hebrew language courses and seminars on business building. JEST also provides a community of mentors for it’s would be entrepreneurs to help them develop their ideas.
And all a company needs is an idea. JEST helps with the business plan and with turning the idea into a reality.
Rana Qutteineeh, 32, is the projects coordinator at JEST. She has an MBA from Ber Zeit University and an M.A. in communications engineering from the University of Jordan in Amman. She has only been with JEST since September and was its first paid employee.
On being in Jerusalem, Rana said, “as part of the Jerusalem ecosystem JEST is providing a space and opportunity for East Jerusalem residents to get the experience and build the necessary network to grow.”
But as Jerusalem residents whose families did not live within Israeli territory before the Six Day War, both Rana and Hafeth suffer from the same problem. While they possess Israeli identification and can work anywhere in the country, they are not Israeli citizens. Because they live in Jerusalem the Israeli government does not allow them to become official residents of the Palestinian Authority. This leaves them stuck in the middle between the two.
Hafeth, therefore, has trouble when it comes to traveling abroad. He needed to acquire a Jordanian passport and must travel through Jordan. But Rana declares, “We’re also in Jerusalem and we’re proud of it.”
I’d like to tell you more about JEST and an event which was held at their offices on the day of my visit. But I can’t. I promised not to because of the sensitive political nature of the work which they are trying to do.
One thing that I can report on is a new company run by both Arabs and Jews called Tanweer which will offer on line educational services in Arabic, such as how to build your own website. The company also won a $10, 000 grant at the day’s event.
Tanweer is only four months old and only has three employees. Two are Jews and one is an Arab. Dana Doulah, 31, is an Arab woman from Jerusalem. She has an M.A. in English literature from the Hebrew University and is handling the firm’s marketing. Then there is Guy Balzam, 34, an Israeli from Ra’anana who has a B.A. in philosophy.
They don’t have any investors yet so both Guy and Dana are currently doing other jobs just to make the rent.
“I found that lots of people are creating on line courses but it’s almost all in English with no Arabic, ” said Guy. He explained that while Arabic speakers comprise the third largest group of Internet users in the world, only 1% of the Internet is in the language. Guy met Dana through the JEST accelerator.
They intend to use the $10, 000 to start developing their product. Tanweer is so new that it is not even at the seed stage and is not yet ready to look for investors.
Both Guy and Dana say that no one in their respective communities has a problem with their working together. Dana explained that, unlike people from the West Bank, she grew up amongst Israelis in Jerusalem and went to the Hebrew University.
When asked if he thought that Arabs living in Arab nations might shun his company if it is based in Israel, Guy pointed out that many successful tech companies that everyone knows are Israeli, like Waze, are popular enough in Arab countries.
Dana added, “when you have a really good program, app or website, no one is going to question where it comes from.