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Israel Cisco Networking Academy Program Leads to Venture Promoting Community Leadership and Cohesion

October 22, 2004

By Jason Deign, News@Cisco

Being given opportunities in IT is nothing new for people taking part in the Cisco Networking Academy® program. And never more so than for two former students who this year found themselves rubbing shoulders with the likes of HP head Carly Fiorino just months after graduating.

Sabrin Gherayeb and Lital Pinto were invited to join 200 luminaries from the worlds of business and politics this year at the prestigious annual Brainstorm three-day event hosted by FORTUNE magazine at the Aspen Institute, Colorado, USA.

The two graduates went along as guests of Zika Abzuk, business development manager for Cisco Systems Israel, who has captivated audiences at the Brainstorm for three years with an unfolding IT and community success story.

It all revolves around the Networking Academy program, which Abzuk initiated in Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 2000, with financial backing from Salesforce.com, a customer relationship management services company that runs a foundation to help give children access to technology.

Unlike other Networking Academy programs worldwide, Abzuk's venture concentrated on 15 to 18 year olds only, from both Jewish and Arab backgrounds. (Cisco also helps run adult projects, including one, in co-operation with the government, to bring the unemployed back into work.)

The timing of the project, at the start of an Intifada, and its location in potential flashpoints such as the mixed-population town of Nazareth, might have given cause for concern. But the results were surprising.

"We used the teaching of technology to bring people together in Nazareth, putting Arab and Jewish kids in the same classroom," says Abzuk, "and they became friends. They had to practice being on the same team."

Concerned parents would not believe that this level of fraternization could be going on at the Networking Academy project and were invited along to see it in action, creating a ripple effect that helped to break down wider barriers between communities.

It also helped extend the level of IT learning, as parents from both communities later participated in a class on Internet use, following the example of their children.

However, Abzuk and the others behind the project soon realized that the Networking Academy program could be used in Israel as the basis for something much wider than simply equipping people with technology skills.

This ambition became a reality in 2003 with the launch of Neta, an initiative whose goal is to train youth in Israel for high-tech professions at the highest level, while pursuing social goals and developing local leadership, education for excellence and community contributions.

The core of Neta is still the Networking Academy program, which includes a general IT course developed by HP, but it also includes a much broader social and community agenda. There is an equal ratio of female to male students and priority is given to people from poorer backgrounds.

The program is aimed at populations on Israel's geographical and social periphery. "We are focused on under-served groups including new immigrants and non-Jewish minorities like Bedouin and Druze," says Abzuk.

"In every locale we try really hard to have the class represent the proportions of the minorities of that area."

Students are interviewed by their future teachers and are selected, amongst other criteria, for their leadership potential.

"It's like a new youth movement. It starts out with social events and already by the second year students are giving back to the community, for example by setting up centers to repair IT equipment."

The Neta teachers, 70 percent of whom were previously unemployed, are selected for their leadership qualities and, whenever possible, come from the community in which they are going to teach. Much of the emphasis of the course is on creating business and community leaders.

Another unusual feature of Neta is that it is a collaboration of four partners. The content and management are provided by Cisco, funds come from two non-government organizations and another non-profit organization helps with infrastructure support.

The project started off with 400 students in eight cities and has already grown to cover 1,000 youths in 14 locations.

It is monitored by an independent assessment firm and its results after one year show that Neta students have improved their grades overall, and have better self esteem, than might be expected for the norm. It also shows they believe more strongly that they will succeed in life.

"The technical knowledge is something that will help them work better in the world, but will also help create a better world. The important thing about Neta is that it is there to form better citizens."

It is this higher potential that led Salesforce.com's Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Mark Benioff, to comment on the Israeli Networking Academy program when he attended the inaugural FORTUNE Brainstorm in 2000.

This led to an invitation for Abzuk the following year and, unusually, she has been asked to return ever since, culminating with the trip this year on which she was accompanied by her two alumni.

Besides HP's CEO, attendees at the event, which has previously featured former US President Bill Clinton and His Majesty King Abdullah of Jordan, included Nokia head Pekka Ala-Pietilä, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Sir Martin Sorrell of ad agency group WPP.

Gherayeb and Pinto, a Christian Arab and a Jew respectively, are Networking Academy program graduates who, with friends, documented on video Neta's work in Nazareth over the last year.

Their experience captivated the Aspen attendees but it is no longer just at the FORTUNE Brainstorm that people are talking about Neta.

Cisco Chairman John Morgridge visited Israel to witness the project at the end of 2003 and both a group of businesses in France and the government of Malta are considering similar schemes.

Jason Deign is a freelance journalist located in Barcelona, Spain.

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