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Jeff Kronenfeld | Staff Writer | 

Last week, 170 Jewish American and Israeli teens gathered in Los Angeles for the Israeli American Council Eitanim Summer Hackathon, where groups of teens developed solutions to real-world challenges while receiving advice and training from mentors.

“We believe that pioneering programs like IAC Eitanim can close the gaps between Israel and American Jewry by using ‘Israeliness’ and the inspiration of Israeli entrepreneurship as a secret sauce,” said Shoham Nicolet, IAC co-founder and CEO. “Students complete our IAC Eitanim program with vital leadership skills, a new imagination for innovation and a deepened connection to their Jewish roots.”

Two Valley teens participated in the program: Marcus Wieser, a senior at Deer Valley High School, who served as his group’s CFO; and Forrest Stobaugh, who served as his group’s CEO. (Each teen gets an executive title and responsibilities.)

“As the chief financial officer, my job was to do the research on other products that are similar to ours and figure out what price we should go into at the market and figure out how much revenue we’d make in the first year,” Wieser explained. “Early on we decided to be a not-for-profit, so another key part of my job was to find organizations like the Israeli government or Jewish National Fund that would help pay for advertising our product in airports.”

Weiser’s group developed an in-flight application called Local, which he described as “the Facebook of the air.” It allows users to learn about Israel while creating live chat rooms with fellow airline passengers.

The 14 Israeli participants were part of a program called P’sagot, which supports and nurtures academically gifted students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“The P’sagot program is building a future generation of leaders in Israel — and now with IAC Eitanim, it is providing us with a network of connections to our family in America,” said Michal Barkan, a member of the Israeli delegation. “Over the past week, we have gained an appreciation for how our two Jewish communities can work together, which is the only way to succeed.”

Wieser’s group had two members of the Israeli delegation, who suggested making the app function like a game by creating a point system to incentivize answering questions.

“They said that in Israel everybody’s super competitive,” Wieser said. “We used their perspectives to make sure that our app would be appealing for Israelis because our main goal was to educate the first-timers.”

Most of the mentors are actual business executives, such as Raz Yalov, who is originally from Israel but now resides in the Valley. Yalov is the CEO and co-founder of Zcast, a podcasting platform, and is also co-founder and CTO of Syncrement, another local tech startup.

Yalov’s interest in using his business and technology acumen to benefit young people began when he observed that although his own children were receiving quality educations, they weren’t necessarily learning practical skills that would help advance their careers.

Yalov got involved with the Hackathon program when Nicolet visited the Valley seeking donors and volunteers.

“I had a great talk with him and he shared with me the focus, vision and reasoning behind the program and it just hit all the notes,” Yalov said. “We’re trying to teach them how to deliver on what is asked of them, but still be very flexible and creative.”

Fostering human connections is a major goal of the program. Yalov recalled how at first the Israeli teens tended to stay together as a unit.

“I wanted to group them together to give them some words of encouragement about the language barrier and how they shouldn’t worry about it too much,” Yalov recalled. “For most of them, it was not only their first time in America, but also their first time out of Israel or even on a plane. However, they had become so much a part of their groups by that point that we couldn’t even tell who was Israeli and who was American.”

The program culminated on the evening of June 28 as the finalist teams presented their products at the American Jewish University campus in Los Angeles. Yalov’s experience helped groups such as Wieser’s develop the technical aspects of the apps, as well as learn how to pitch and speak about them.

“He really pushed the idea that when you’re presenting in a ‘Shark Tank’-esque theme, you don’t want to overdo the details,” Wieser said of Yalov’s advice to his group. “You just want to focus on getting a second date and then being able to go into more detail.”

Though Wieser’s group didn’t win, he said what he learned had given him a better idea of areas of study he wanted to pursue in college. He also now has a number of friends in Israel he hopes to visit someday, perhaps even using one of the in-flight apps developed at the program when he does so. JN

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