A Business Model for Peace
The dotcom generation of two historically displaced populations are overcoming social borders and computing paradigms—and making your Web-based life more convenient.
By Lara Dunston, Photos by Terry Carter
Zvi Schreiber may be the only CEO in the world who is not permitted to set foot in his own company’s headquarters. Founder of cloud computing firm G.ho.st, the world’s first Israeli/Palestinian-owned company, 42-year-old Schreiber is also working hard to establish a business model for peace.
“I’m a member of the silent majority,” Schreiber says when we meet at his home in Givat Masua, a modest, hilly, middle-class Jerusalem suburb of cookie-cutter cream-stone townhouse complexes.
Givat Masua is not the kind of neighborhood where you expect a millionaire to live. And the interior of Schreiber’s home is equally modest—a cozy, comfortable, cluttered kind of place you expect for a relaxed, loving family with four kids.
Greeting me with a warm smile, Schreiber, dressed casually in blue shirt and chinos, shows me to his office, a partly shaded terrace with spectacular views. I’m admiring the panoramic vistas that sweep across a forested valley when he appears with a plate of biscuits, coffee mugs and an energetic puppy the family is training as a guide dog for the blind.
“That’s a settlement over there,” Schreiber says, pointing out row upon row of modern townhouses, which spill down the hillside opposite. “That’s the pre-1967 [border], and that’s Jerusalem Zoo,” he continues, gesturing to some giraffes and zebras grazing below.
Beyond, vehicles are backed up at a military checkpoint.
“On top of that hill, behind the transmission tower and the Separation Wall is Everest Hotel, where the G.ho.st staff get together every now and again. We met there around eight weeks ago. The team doesn’t like it—it’s a long drive for them—but it’s a neutral area.”
Schreiber, an Israeli citizen, is not allowed to enter the West Bank due to security concerns, and most of G.ho.st’s 20 Palestinian staff cannot get permits to travel to Israel. The Ramallah-based company is located only 7.5 miles from Schreiber’s Jerusalem home, yet he has never visited it. Instead, he and his staff use technology to virtually pass through the Separation Wall—mobility one would expect from a ghost—communicating almost entirely by phone, e-mail, Skype and videoconference.
Citizen of the Ether
Born in London, Schreiber and his family moved to Israel when he was 8 years old (and already writing small computer programs). His education in Jerusalem continued partially through high school, concluding in the U.K., where he went on to study mathematics at Cambridge University. Little wonder that Schreiber considers himself British and Israeli—a fact he says doesn’t really matter.
After getting his first degree, Schreiber became a software engineer for Data Connection (which had clients such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard) while working on his Ph.D. in theoretical computer science at the Imperial College of Science, London.
“I also took a year off and studied theoretical physics, thinking I would become a physicist. I was pretty good, but I didn’t have the patience to become an academic,” Schreiber admits. “So I moved back to Israel in 1994 and started a consulting firm.
“The move made sense. There were a huge number of high-tech start-ups here—only Silicon Valley and Boston had more. It’s a very successful sector now. Israel has more high-tech companies than Europe and an extraordinary number of patents written,” he reveals. Schreiber himself is responsible for some 20 patents.
After speaking with venture capitalists and following industry trends, he established Tradeum, a company that pioneered the concept of business-to-business e-commerce exchanges, in 1998.
“They were fun years,” Schreiber reflects. “It was all go-go-go…people started trading online, business-to-business trading, and it was really crazy. After a year I moved to San Francisco. Investors were chasing us. It was lots of fun. We were trying to compete with companies who were giving away BMWs to hire the best software engineers. But then the bubble burst in 2000, and I sold the business and returned to Israel.”
A year later, Schreiber started Unicorn Solutions, a company that delivered enterprise information management solutions to the IT departments of Global 100 companies and the U.S. government. He sold Unicorn to IBM in 2006 and established Global Hosted Operating SysTem (G.ho.st)—the world’s first true Web-based operating system.
Creating a G.ho.st
“I had a tech idea, and I had a social idea, so I decided to combine them,” Schreiber explains. “People were starting to do everything on the Web in 2006…and I wanted people to be able to walk up to any computer desktop anywhere in the world and be able to access all their stuff.
“I also had it in the back of my mind to do something for the society here in this messed up part of the world. At the time, I had never heard of any Palestinian software companies or even any engineers—I’d never even met any Palestinians before—but it made sense to find some.”
During his search, Schreiber discovered countless talented software engineers in Palestine. Thus, starting a company that employed Palestinian staff made a lot of sense—from a business perspective and for social and moral imperatives.
“Importing and exporting is really tough for Palestinians. There are some companies importing Israeli products, but it’s challenging…there is a lot of red tape…it’s not easy for drivers to get permits and there are delays at the borders. This limits business potential and is one reason why the Palestinian territories are really very poor—and it’s very tragic,” he sighs.
“Software businesses, on the other hand, have the least trouble setting up, because they don’t need factories built or equipment imported. Developing the IT sector in Palestine made perfect sense,” Schreiber says.
He doesn’t pretend to be the only Israeli working with Palestinian engineers, but, Schreiber explains proudly, G.ho.st’s Palestinian staff members are given stock options—they’re clearly not contract labor.
“As shareholders, they invest more of themselves into the company—because they stand to profit from its success,” he says.
Dissuading critics, Schreiber admits that Palestinian engineers are cheaper to hire than Israeli engineers but demands that’s not the reason behind G.ho.st’s practices.
“There is a shortage of talent in Israel, so many companies are sourcing engineers from India—they’d rather recruit all the way from India than hire a Palestinian. I believe it’s better to hire Palestinians,” Schreiber says. “We need to help their economy. They are our future peace partners, after all.”
Ten minutes later, Schreiber is focused intently on his Mac screen as Montasser Abdellatif, G.ho.st’s marketing manager, provides project updates via Skype. He has his headset on so I don’t hear Montasser, only Schreiber’s responses: “Virtualization has been around a lot longer than cloud computing…” “The ad campaign has gone live? How’s it going?” “I’m not sure if we should have a presence at the event or not…” It’s apparent that Schreiber is a hands-on manager with a keen attention to detail and care.
The Other Half
The next morning, in Arab East Jerusalem, Montasser picks me up in his car. He wears earphones so he can listen in on a meeting under way between Schreiber and the team. He keeps one ear free, muting the speaker occasionally to speak with me.
As we pass through our first checkpoint, young Israeli soldiers, rifles over their shoulders, take a cursory glance at us. Plain-clothed Israeli security guys, machine guns causally swinging from their backs, mechanically pass mirrors beneath vehicles to check for explosives.
“It was fast this morning,” Montasser says, as he drives on. “Sometimes it can take forever.”
On Schreiber’s side of Jerusalem the mountains are blanketed with pine forests. On Montasser’s, the camel-colored hills are barren and rocky. Stubby trunks of hacked olive trees suggest that until recently the hills were more fertile. Deep dramatic valleys are dotted with corrugated iron shacks and makeshift animal pens. A boy skips along in our direction by the side of the highway.
I ask Montasser why his Palestinian colleagues can’t visit Schreiber in Israel, yet he is able to travel daily from his East Jerusalem home to Ramallah.
“I have an ‘Arab 48’ permit, [which was] given to families who became Israeli-Arabs in 1948,” he reveals.
But it’s complicated—Israel classifies East Jerusalem residents as Jordanian-Palestinian, he says, but they are identified as Palestinian-born and living in Palestine in their Jordanian passports.
As we drive along Ramallah’s once famously leafy (but now a tad dilapidated) main road, I ask what it’s like working for Schreiber.
“Zvi is a very great man,” Montasser says with sincerity. “We like him as a person. We really like him. We forget that he is Israeli. Sure it was hard in the beginning, but we communicate with him on a daily basis and when you spend time with someone like that, it doesn’t matter what culture or country he’s from.
“We nearly always talk business,” he clarifies. “When political tensions are high we don’t talk about politics. We are a business after all. We ask each other how we are, of course, how our families are doing, but we focus on the agenda. What’s most important about this company is that we are helping the Palestinian economy by pushing the IT sector, [which is] really the only area where real progress can be made. And we are the only ones who can really make it—the only ones with a good model.”
Straight Outta Ramallah
At G.ho.st’s modern low-rise office building, shared with two other high-tech companies in a newly developed area of hilly Ramallah, we join the videoconference meeting in which Montasser has been participating on the drive over. We say hello to Schreiber, whose face fills the screen.
Later, the meeting over, I meet Elias Khalil, G.ho.st’s director of research and development, and Adel Hazboun, director of product management.
“Zvi is not a typical CEO,” Elias says. “He has a strong technical background, and he’s a good information architect so we can go to him for design advice and we get him involved—Zvi gets deeply involved—and we respect his opinion.”
And communicating with Schreiber almost exclusively via Skype, video and e-mail isn’t as difficult or problematic as one might suspect.
“We can still tell when he’s happy and when he’s not—by his voice and his facial expressions,” Elias says. It helps that Schreiber is simply very good at what he does.
“But it’s important to understand that regardless of Zvi, we are not an Israeli company,” Adel says firmly. “We don’t use Hebrew or Arabic, we use English. We’re a Palestinian/Israeli company; our CEO is Israeli but most of the management and staff are Palestinian, so it’s very equal.”
Seeing a growing number of Palestinians graduating from domestic and international university computer engineering programs, G.ho.st is creating an infrastructure, not merely jobs.
And the G.ho.st staff is in it for the long haul. The company is investing in future Palestinian talent, offering work placement opportunities, developing projects with students, participating in the assessment of graduation projects, recruiting staff from local universities and—through the non-profit G.ho.st. Peace Foundation—donating computers and infrastructure to poor Palestinian and Israeli villages.
Just as Schreiber had never met a Palestinian before starting G.ho.st, none of the company’s staff, save three living in Jerusalem, had previously met an Israeli—aside from soldiers at checkpoints.
Elias says Palestinians now ask him what it’s like to work with an Israeli and vice versa—two very different, although very similar populations becoming increasingly curious about each other.
“Before, Palestinians went abroad to work—to Germany, the U.S., the Gulf—because they didn’t realize it would be possible to find a job here,” Elias says. “Now there are many IT jobs in Ramallah. And [we] have Zvi and G.ho.st to thank for that.”
Yet, this isn’t Schreiber’s first IT enterprise—he is a bit of a serial entrepreneur. That much is clearly understood.
“Look, if G.ho.st is bought by someone…[if it] disappeared after all our hard work…getting so involved, sure that would be sad,” Adel admits. “We know it might happen, but we all have shares, so we will benefit. And Palestine will benefit.”
After a tour of G.ho.st’s fairly rudimentary offices of striking red walls and high dividers creating snug cubicles, I stop by the office of G.ho.st’s general manager and chief operating officer, Khaled Ayyash. He lived in the U.S. for 16 years, receiving an MBA and citizenship and held senior financial positions before returning to Palestine.
“Here at G.ho.st, we don’t look at each other as Israelis or Palestinians, but as people, as business partners,” Khaled says. “We’re not politicians, but this is a step in the right direction, if we’re going to have normal, stable relations.
“[We] just want respect—dignity, no war, no walls. G.ho.st demonstrates that with dignity and respect for each other, Israelis and Palestinians can work together.” One+
LARA DUNSTON and TERRY CARTER are a globetrotting travel journalist team currently based in the United Arab Emirates.