Our alumni are working in ways small and large to make an impact in their communities. This “Alumni Profiles” blog series will feature some of our over 7,000 changemakers in 27 countries around the world who are working to transform conflict.
When 2018 GATHER Fellow Yo’av was 15, a friend took him to see a military checkpoint near his home outside Tel Aviv. The guards, mistaking Yo’av to be Palestinian, confronted him at gunpoint. For the first time, he saw a glimpse of the conflict from the “other side.”
From that moment on, Yo’av has devoted himself to leading social change. His new venture, SolarBox, does just that by providing affordable, self-installable solar energy kits those in need, including Bedouins and Palestinians. We talked to Yo’av about SolarBox, superpowers, and what he has gained as a GATHER Fellow.
Seeds of Peace: Tell us a little about your journey to where you are now.
Yo’av: Until the age of 26, I was part of a socialist, Zionist youth movement, mostly involved in educational projects working with kids after school. I started a youth center for Palestinian kids from ages 2-20. Basically, the idea was to give these kids a place where boundaries are different and create a framework where people from the same neighborhood are responsible for one another—a sustainable community system where the older kids grow up and take care of the younger ones. It creates a sense of community.
We talked a lot about justice, equality, racism, how it feels to be a Palestinian living in Israel. From the moment I started it, my goal was to disappear by the end, to have the original kids grow into leadership roles and run it without me. After two years, I was able to fade myself out and have the program become self-sustaining.
Tech and internet were always my hobbies, so after I left the youth movement I decided to join a startup. But I got tired of designing another restaurant website, another store website. I had this “a-ha” moment when I realized I can to connect my passion for tech with politics; that I could really take this knowledge and do things linked to what I believe. That these tools can be used for change.
Seeds of Peace: So that’s how you started SolarBox?
Yo’av: A friend told me about Our Generation Speaks [a fellowship program and startup incubator designed to bring together Israeli and Palestinian leaders through entrepreneurship] and I became part of their cohort. People had to come up with their own ventures through OGS; I wanted to do something with solar energy.
When I left the startup, I bought a bus which I converted into a mobile home to live out in nature. Part of that customization included building a solar system on top of it. It was so easy to do, and it makes so much sense. I wanted to make that more accessible. I noticed how Palestinian friends could never get in contact with their parents or family, and I said to myself, “Why don’t you take this passion for solar energy and use it for people who don’t have energy?”
Seeds of Peace: How does SolarBox work?
Yo’av: To be honest, at first I thought this was an impossible idea—an Israeli company working in Palestinian territories. But the interest to cross that divide was there. We did some market research to see how much people in each area we work in could afford. Then, we started talking with manufacturers to design the perfect system. The biggest requirement was that the units be self-installable; 60% of the final cost people pay for solar energy kits is installation. The technology itself has gotten so much cheaper, it’s just the labor to install it.
We’re hoping to start with around 200 units. But we have to get it there first! When we get it there, then I’ll sleep with a big smile.
Seeds of Peace: You’ve been hard at work as a GATHER Fellow throughout 2018. Now that this year’s fellowship is beginning to wind down, what are some of your takeaways from the program?
Yo’av: Working [in both Israel and Palestine], it’s very difficult for us to connect with our partners. So to be part of this community of peers, advisors, supporters, potential investors, etc. through GATHER who I can communicate freely with has been really helpful for my own growth.
I’m more of an introvert, unlike my partners. So when I started the Fellowship, I was really worried that I wouldn’t fit in, that I didn’t have the right skills. But my biggest takeaway from GATHER is everything I’ve learned about being a better leader. There’s still so much to learn, I notice it every day, but everything I’ve been working on—how to manage teams, how to fundraise, how to hire, how to run a business—trickles down from that.
Seeds of Peace: Lastly, what is your superpower?
Yo’av: I like that question! I’d say breaking big problems into small problems. I took that from programming and apply it to real life. When people are scared of going into something huge, I can break it down one step at a time. A lot of people can’t do that, they get overwhelmed.
If I can give another superpower for myself, it would be bringing people together. There’s this Sufjan Stevens song, “Impossible Soul,” where he sings about how much more we can accomplish if we do things together. I believe that, and I feel that in my work. There’s no chance that any one of us could run SolarBox by ourselves. Only together. More people need to believe in that power.