The Power of Listening: YOUNG BUSINESS LEADERSHIP

Why would the CEO of Coca Cola of Israel want the opinion of a fourteen year old Bedouin boy, who grew up in an unrecognised village? In fact, why would the CEO of Coke even have reason to meet a fourteen year old Bedouin boy who grew up in an unrecognised village? And why should such a meeting be considered so remarkable?

These questions arose on a visit with the UK Task Force to Rahat in the Negev. Rahat is the second biggest city in the Negev, and the largest Bedouin settlement in the world. Unlike most Bedouin cities in Israel, Rahat is “recognised.” This means it has full city status from the State of Israel. However, 40% of Israel’s Bedouin’s live in unrecognised villages which are thus ineligible for basic city services such as electricity, water hook-up and trash collection. Rahat has a population of around 50k who are served by schools, numerous mosques, and a marketplace among other public spaces. However, it has only one playground.

This is not necessarily surprising given the tough break that the Bedouins have had in their long and sometimes nomadic existence. The roughly two hundred thousand Bedouins in Israel’s Negev have been caught in a complex quagmire of displacement, urbanisation and poverty. The appalling conditions of the “unrecognised villages” are only part of this interlinked puzzle. And the situation has apparently not been aided by the introduction of the fairly recent government sponsored, “Prawer Plan.” This plan calls for the relocation of tens of thousands of Bedouin citizens from unrecognized villages to urban areas, and has been accepted with misgivings by most of the Bedouins, and not just because the pressure to accept its conditions is perceived as co-ercive, given that the alternative to accepting it, is the loss of existing legal claims and rights.

A four day intensive study tour of the Bedouin issues merely confirmed how enmeshed and entangled the problems are… and after four days, the UK Task Force delegation were still dazzled by the complexity of the Bedouins’ situation.   Even with the existence of so many  commissions and committees and councils, what was patently clear is that the different parties are not succeeding in communicating.  Facts presented to us were overwhelmingly at odds, emotions were heightened, and insidious remarks were common.  We were left with the overwhelming feeling that the leaders from all sides had simply stopped listening.

This is why, when on a visit to school in Rahat, there was a poignant silence when one young teenage Bedouin boy, called Zayed looked at us and proudly recounted this story : “There I was, standing in a suit and tie, in the offices of Coca Cola, and the CEO asked me, yes me, a question. I asked myself, ‘Why would the CEO of Coca Cola of Israel want the opinion of a fourteen year old Bedouin boy, who grew up in an unrecognised village?’”

And here’s the answer: This young man participated in an 8 day summer camp, where groups of students from 15 diverse regions within Israel are brought together to interact and learn business skills. The groups are drawn from the periphery and margins of Israeli society and include students from Jewish, Palestinian, Bedouin, and Ethiopian backgrounds.  Students are placed into diverse groups, taught basic leadership and project management skills and encouraged to work as teams. Local businesses sponsor the camps and participate by tasking the students with real-life dilemmas. After working together, the teams are given the opportunity to present their solutions to the CEO’s of the sponsor companies. This is how Zayed found himself standing in front of the CEO of Coca Cola.

It was easy to comprehend the pride and excitement that these students felt when facing these real life business heros. It was clear how such a programme can build up the self assurance that these young people need to succeed in the world. But probably most important of all is that such an experience demonstrated to this young group the incredible power of listening to each other and respecting each others’ views. It was clear that this is not something they were necessarily gaining from their immediate political leaders.

The summer camp is run by the vibrant organisation  called Young Business Leadership, who’s aim it is to reduce economic and cultural gaps within society. This they manage to do neatly and brilliantly, not at all surprising given that they are affiliated with the Israeli Management College (IMC) which is the leading management training company in Israel.

Part of the programme’s effectiveness comes from the fact that its students participate for the long-haul. After the first Summer meeting, the students continue to meet for a another three years for three hours a week, all the while absorbing material provided by IMC.  Groups are facilitated by business students who are on scholarships provided by YBL– these leaders are not just mentors, they are clear role-models as well. The students are also exposed every few weeks to employees of various local businesses offering sponsorship. The students benefit from the expertise and the exposure; the employees are motivated by passing on their knowledge; and the local community as a whole gets uplifted. That’s why they call it win-win.

During the year each group is tasked with a community project. The students of Rahat decided to build a playground. The first and only play ground in Rahat. As they led us to see their creation, they proudly told us about it’s story. They covered all their bases- consulted  with the public, worked with the municipality, drew  up a budget and a business plan and then raised the necessary funding. And now Rahat has a beloved and appreciated playground as part if its community.

The playground was not part of the Prawer Plan. Nor was it provided by the regional council. It was the accomplishment of a team of bright young students who dared to dream, to listen to each other, to work with each other and who managed to change their world. It is no wonder that the CEO of Coca Cola would want to listen to a member of this team. We should only hope that even more will.

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