Online tools can engender a greater understanding of other cultures; who doesn't love the ability to peek into the quotidian existence of people around the globe via Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook? But what about more serious issues such as peace in the Middle East; does the internet have a place to play there?
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The organizers of YaLa Academy, founded in 2011 by the Peres Center for Peace and YaLa Palestine, believe it does. The online education platform provides distance learning and encourages collaboration between those from nations that have traditionally been in conflict. Students take online courses to develop skills as future peace leaders, including negotiation and conflict management, taught by various experts from organizations like the US Institute of Peace and Harvard Program on Negotiation.
Celebrating its sixth birthday this month, YaLa Academy has now taught 1,700 students from all over the Middle East and North Africa, including Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
But these are not kids; students are self-identified future leaders of their countries, with an average age of 27 and almost 50/50 gender parity. As one might expect from an internet-based venture, its speakers, lecturers, and advisory board members are from all over the world. YaLa Academy's digital chair is Zach Suchin, an entrepreneur and founder and CEO of creative agency/tech studio Brand Knew. He's based in Los Angeles and spoke to PCMag recently about what drew him to YaLa and his hopes for its future. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
How did you get involved in the YaLa Academy? I was sitting in my office, here, not far from 20th Century Fox Studios, and Kevin Goetz's office called and asked me to a meeting. I'd known Kevin for many years; he's the founder/CEO of research and analytics firm screen engine. So I said yes. Next thing, I find myself in a room with some pretty accomplished people, including Sharon Stone, listening to Uri Savir, the former Israeli diplomat who negotiated the Middle East Oslo Accords (pictured above, middle).
So not just another day in Hollywood, then, apart from Sharon Stone being in the room? (Laughs) Right!
What did Savir say that persuaded you to get involved with what became the YaLa Academy? Savir is very practical, and he broke it down so, someone like me, who was a major skeptic of the ability to move towards peace in the Middle East region, could grasp the fundamentals. It's about establishing basic human rights: having access to clean water, healthy food, and being able to spend time with one's family under the blanket of reasonable safety. We all deserve that. Then we had a lot of discussion about how we might...create a strong ambassador program, and we marched towards building the YaLa Academy.
At this point, we should point out, that you have a very demanding day job, and your work at YaLa Academy is part of your philanthropic endeavors. Yes, I donate my expertise to YaLa Academy for free because I believe in what we're doing there. But I'm also the CEO/co-founder of Brand Knew, which is, at its core, a creative agency and tech studio with clients including nonprofits, entertainment companies, and lifestyle brands.
Like El Al airlines. Can you explain what you do for them? We handle all of their social media strategy, community management, and overarching creative across their campaigns to encourage registration to their frequent flier program. Another client is Stand Up To Cancer; we develop interesting opportunities for donors, to empower innovative research across "dream teams." Essentially, we're capitalists with a collective conscience. We work with wonderful entertainment clients and balance that with really meaningful not-for-profit work, too.
Before we get back to YaLa Academy, you are also on record as the youngest CEO of a publicly traded US company when you took your college-based community tools site, The Quad, public in 2007 and to a market capitalization of over $100 million. Without boring you with details, that was the best MBA I could have achieved on the ground, without actually studying for one.
Are you still involved with the site? No. The markets, as we all know, were very challenging in 2008, and our activist investors pushed us into avenues we weren't happy with. My business partner, Jason Schutzbank, and I sold our part of the business and went on to set up Brand Knew, with Jason as President and me as CEO.
So back to YaLa Academy and the world of online peace studies. As Digital Chair, did you advise white labeling one of the distance-learning platforms such as Coursera? Ah, no. YaLa Academy's edtech is based on a platform that we built here at Brand Knew called Amp Live, which was, in a former incarnation before we merged with another company, known as Intercast.
A video distribution platform, right? We built it to be the best platform for distribution of video content with a strong data and analytics layer so you can see how people are viewing content—when, where and how—and providing a full suite of tools to manage video across multiple platforms. This has been utilized by President Obama, Universal Pictures, and E! Entertainment.
Do you have any recent stats you can share on YaLaAcademy.org? The platform recently hosted the first two live lectures for the 2017 Spring Semester. We had 350 students from over 30 different countries participate, including India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Madagascar, Morocco, Nigeria, Palestine, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Sultanate of Oman, and Zimbabwe—all concurrently.
Are advisory board meetings online, too? You have many fascinating fellow board members, including Sharon Stone, HBO Chairman Richard Plepler, and Nobel Laureate Prof. Eric Kandel. The beautiful thing about this digital age peace effort is that most communication runs centrally through Uri Savir and via digital means. Of course there are requisite phone calls, but the world is truly flattened. I've only spent time with Uri in person twice, but through weekly phone calls and constant emailing, we became fast friends.
Final question: Do you believe YaLa Academy can bring about peace in the Middle East? I believe, through its online education and collaboration, YaLa is a meaningful way to prospectively lower the perceived barriers of difference and so achieve peace—one day, yes.