Their Generation Speaks: Q&A With Social Entrepreneur, Ohad Elhelo

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Ohad Elhelo, the founder of Our Generation Speaks, a fellowship program and incubator where emerging Palestinian and Israeli leaders create high-impact ventures in partnership with Brandeis University and MassChallenge.

Born in Ashdod, Israel, Ohad has toured the country as a public speaker, sharing with a variety of audiences — ranging from college campuses to fundraisers with thousands of attendees — his message that “people2people” communication and entrepreneurship can make progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where governments have so far proven ineffective. As a result of his contributions to coexistence efforts, along with his academic achievements, Ohad was awarded the Slifka Israeli Coexistence Scholarship, given annually to only two Israelis: one Jewish and one Arab.

Ohad has quite the resume. Still in graduate school at Brandeis University in Boston, he hopes to earn his Master’s degree in Economics this coming May.

Inspired by both his experience as a public speaker and as part of a Boston academic community very in-tune with the conflicts in the Middle East, Ohad believes that as people from the region, we have a responsibility to make a difference in our homeland. Enter his latest venture: Our Generation Speaks. He and I came together to discuss this program, and its impact on our society at large.

Please continue below for a selection of excerpts from our conversation.

Tell me a little bit about Our Generation Speaks.

At the most general level, Our Generation Speaks (OGS) is a leadership program and social enterprise incubator that carefully selects and brings together 26 of the most talented Israeli and Palestinian young leaders to change reality on the ground. The program was developed around and is based on building trust and a belief in the importance of a shared prosperity for the region. We pose the question, “what do you want to build in your community to make it better,” and then give our fellows the resources needed to make their visions a reality.

While with OGS, our fellows can take advantage of a variety of services, such as expert mentoring with founders and executives of Fortune 500 companies and a tailor-made academic program at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management (a top-10 social policy school) that teaches both entrepreneurship and leadership. Our fellows then put their newly honed skills into practice, conceptualizing high-impact ventures geared towards generating social change; they then pitch their idea to both their fellow participants and a group of judges from our partner MassChallenge — one of the largest startup accelerators on the planet. After the pitching period, four proposals are selected to be developed within OGS, which will continue on the ground in the Middle East. Ventures from last year’s program are based in Ramallah and Jerusalem.

Thanks to a generous grant from the Rabin Foundation and other founding supporters, OGS has successfully completed its first year of operations. It is currently in the midst of a second round of fundraising to ensure its 3-year sustainability, for which over $2 million has already been secured.

How does OGS bridge the gap between Israelis and Palestinians?

We at OGS believe strongly that mutually beneficial opportunity is the best way of investing in the future and will ultimately bring about a next-generation leadership cohort and shared prosperity between the groups; that is why our program focuses specifically on people between the ages of 20 and 30. OGS brings together young people who have demonstrated high levels of leadership and a desire to build a network, and provides them with the resources and opportunities necessary to become more effective leaders and world changers. We bring these folks to Boston to work together and, most importantly, learn to trust each other.

OGS maintains a 1:1 ratio of Palestinians to Israelis throughout all aspects of the program (e.g., fellows, board members, mentors, etc.), which ensures that the perspectives and beliefs of both cultures are equally represented, and neither side feels as though they are being pressured towards accepting one worldview.

So many ideological conflicts are perpetuated by misinformation and propaganda that makes either side incapable of empathizing with the other. The structure of OGS exposes different points of view and inherently forces a dialogue between individuals on both sides of the conflict. A culture of unity and understanding as opposed to one of discrimination and ignorance is fostered. As OGS’ fellows are young leaders and influencers, they are then able to impart this culture to their local communities and beyond.

As you previously mentioned, the Yitzhak Rabin Foundation, of which I am an honorary board member, is one of your supporters. What does the legacy of my father, Yitzhak Rabin mean to you, and how did he inspire you?

I still remember the night Mr. Rabin was shot, even though I was just a kid at the time. Mr. Rabin’s death, along with the recent death of Shimon Peres, symbolized the end of an era of hopeful and optimistic political leadership. Today, our society is cynical, and people associate the word “peace” with weakness. By contrast, Mr. Rabin made the idea of peace attractive and hopeful. I believe that his message still lives on in our world’s youth; kids are still optimistic, and kids are still hopeful. It’s time for this next generation to decide what we are going to do, and we must decide to inspire as Mr. Rabin once did. We are the ones who have to live in the world that our parents and grandparents leave us — if we don’t act to catalyze change, no one else is going to do it on our behalf.

We are not ready to lose faith in our ability to control our fate. Mr. Rabin once said, “I am a soldier in the army of peace.” Through our work at OGS, we are able help this army grow, bringing together soldiers from both Palestine and Israel alike to wage an ideological war for a hopeful future. In a war being fought with bombs and bullets, we bring an arsenal of innovation and ideas. Guns beget guns; entrepreneurship begets progress.

What advice would you give young people living in Israel and Palestine who want to bring peace to the region, but aren’t able to participate in a program like OGS? What can people do within their own everyday lives to effect positive change?

Don’t be blinded by messages from the media or politicians — don’t be blinded by incitement. Get to know other, real, people — not just the image of other people that the world wants you to see — and surround yourself with those who share similar values. The goal is shared prosperity. Israelis and Palestinians aren’t going anywhere. These two nations are going to live side by side for many, many years — let’s learn not only to coexist, but to thrive alongside one another. Germany and France were once slaughtering each other, but they’re now two of the strongest pillars of the European Union. Let’s make Palestine and Israel similarly strong, united pillars of the Middle East.

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