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Entrepreneurs without borders

From time to time I get the feeling that I'm a little too wrapped up in Wisconsin. I mean, sure, the Wisconsin Academy is all about finding and sharing the best ideas in the state, but this doesn't mean that Wisconsin is the center of the universe. Right?

Sometimes getting out of the state—and out of the Wisconsin state of mind—can be good. I fondly recall my few trips abroad as both pleasurable and challenging. There's nothing like having to find your way around, order food, and secure lodging in a place where English is neither spoken nor understood. Conversely, it's just as important to host others from far off places. More often than not, I find their "differentness" falls away as stories, photos, and laughs are shared over a meal or a glass of wine. Encounters with those who are so unlike ourselves should be sought; they remind us of a shared humanity that knows no borders.

This all came to mind when in late-February I received a press release from University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, announcing a two-year "Young Entrepreneurs" exchange program between the university and fellow institutions in Israel and Jordan. The U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs had awarded $273,876 to UWGB to fund a training project for up to twenty young business people to travel from the Middle East to the Green Bay area, beginning in spring 2010. Mentors from the local community would be available for "potential follow-up training and consulting" with the goal of creating "mutually beneficial, self-sustaining linkages among professional communities in the United States, Israel, and Jordan."

It seemed an inventive, even ambitious project, and I was eager to learn more. I immediately got on the phone to UWGB's international projects coordinator, Jay Harris. The grant application process was extremely competitive, said Jay. He went on to describe how the UWGB program was one of only three in the U.S. that received unanimous funding approval. This was largely because it focused on fostering innovation and building young entrepreneurs' confidence through sustainable and strategic relationships with Green Bay-area mentors as well as the other program participants. The young entrepreneurs, housed together in a hotel near UWGB, would attend workshops, seminars, conferences, and meetings on campus, even take field trips to other parts of the state to learn about American culture.

Jay seemed really excited about the group that was arriving on April 9, and he said he would send me some background information on the participants. Perhaps, he suggested, I could meet with him and his young entrepreneurs after they were established?

The next day I received an e-mail with photos and professional profiles of the young entrepreneurs. As the file opened on the screen, I chuckled: Pictured were six young women from Israel and five from Jordan. I had made a somewhat foolish assumption in expecting the young entrepreneurs from this part of the world would all be men.

As I read the profiles of the women, I was struck by the diversity of their interests: Manal Sehaimat plans to open a "new age" retail shop with an emphasis on healing and meditation, called Over the Rainbow, in Amman, Jordan; after years in the entertainment business, Lara Al Safadi, also from Jordan, is developing an independent media production company called Screenplay; Debbie Iancu-Haddad's consulting business, based in Be'er Sheva, Israel, began in 2006 when she began offering lectures on diet humor and has today expanded to over four hundred annual "laugh sessions"; Neta Or, also from Israel, is the owner of Works of heART, a company that enables developmentally disabled individuals to work in a supportive environment, creating handmade paper goods to sell around the country.

I filed the document in my "To Write About" folder, and made a note to contact Jay at the end April to see how things were going.

A few weeks later I received a surprise call from Jay. He said he was going to be in Madison with the program participants, and asked if I would like to join them for lunch. The next day I was at Husnu's Restaurant on State Street, happily munching on kabak dolmasi (baked acorn squash topped with grilled chicken in yogurt sauce) and listening to these young women—most of whom had never been to America before—talk about their experiences. The table (thirteen people!) was noisy, almost rowdy, with dishes passed back and forth and conversation in English, Arabic, and Hebrew flowing freely between participants.

To my left was Neta Or, and she told me about Cheri Larson, her program mentor in Green Bay. "She's my angel," says Neta. Mentors like Cheri are paired with each participant to help them not only gain experience and contacts in their chosen field, but also to teach them about Wisconsin culture. "She's like a serial entrepreneur … doing a line of products for babies, special soaps—things she makes—and she's a graphic designer, too."

When I ask about Neta's experience with the other women in the program so far, her face lit up. "I feel very lucky … like I am surrounded by friends, blessed with friends. The relationship between the Jordanians and the Israelis is so pure here. The difference is being out of the country, where things are so intense. … But I lean toward creating relationships with other people. I'm a peacemaker."

It was a touching thought, soon interrupted by a ringing mobile phone. Neta jumped up from the table to take the call. Lara Al Safadi, seated on my right, leaned in close to tell me something about her philosophy on innovation as she passed a tray of manti. "Just like art gives you a different way of thinking about the world," she said, "so does a journey such as this." Pointing to the young women around the table, Lara said, "This program works because of the women. The courage, their seeing the way things fit together."

It turns out that, contrary to what I expected, Jordan's government offers a lot of support for young women entrepreneurs. "There are lots of initiatives by Queen Rania [al-Abdulla] for creating and incubating entrepreneurship amongst women," said Lara. "Actually number one is the tech and digital industry, Web 2.0, and social networking services."

Yet, Lara admitted that there are still many hurdles for women in Jordan, especially once outside the major cities. But, she—like these other young entrepreneurs—is willing to put herself out there. "You've got this fear of failure. Because, if you fail, your whole family fails," said Lara. "But that's why there are entrepreneurs in the world. They say, 'Okay, I'll take the risk.' And you have this higher percentage of success overall because of them."

"We are warriors!" said Manal Sehaimat, raising her glass to the women at the table and eliciting cheers from all.

"There is, too, the other reason why we are here: to educate everyday people about our culture," said Lara.

"To change the perspective of what you see in the media," added Manal.

"Reducing stereotypes, reducing misconceptions. Absolutely," Jay piped in, holding up one finger as he finished chewing a mouthful of rice pilaf. "From my point of view, [meeting these young women] really opens people's minds. Now anytime they see something about the Middle East in the news, they'll stop and think about their friends from there, They'll analyze [the news], maybe think about Israelis and Jordanians working together."

"So what else do you take away from your experiences here," I asked the group, "besides all this valuable business experience, new friends, and a vast knowledge of Wisconsin culture?"

"Cheese curds!" Manal shouted.

Everyone at the table laughed. 

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From 2008 to 2021 Jason A. Smith was the associate director of the Wisconsin Academy and editor of its quarterly magazine of Wisconsin thought and culture, Wisconsin People & Ideas.

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