(May 31, 2019 / JNS) In a world riddled with problems in need of solutions, philanthropy should be accessible to all. At the very least, this is something we strongly believe.
It all started at the first Tel Aviv University International Gala. We were the youngest people in the room—by several decades. We realized that we were both craving a space that other organizations had overlooked. Considering Tel Aviv University is known for innovation, we decided it was time to do some innovating ourselves. Millennials and Gen Xers were hit with the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, but they still give more money and time per capita than previous generations. We decided to take advantage of that passion; by the end of the night, we had a plan.
Young people everywhere have a desire to make an impact in the world and often do so by getting involved in their local communities first. A recent “Millennial Impact Report” (2017) showed that 44 percent of those surveyed were willing to support local issue versus 12 percent who were willing to support a national or global issue. As a result, we created a young leadership program, LocalTAU, as an outlet for young professionals to help solve real-world problems in their local communities by connecting to Israel’s leading center of higher learning, Tel Aviv University (TAU).
Living in South Florida, we are on the frontlines of climate change and are dealing with a host of issues in dire need of solutions, including stormwater runoff. For those who are unaware, stormwater runoff is rainfall that flows over a ground surface, such as roads, driveways, rooftops and paved surfaces. The problem with this is that the water doesn’t soak into the ground; instead, it runs off surfaces taking pollutants like pesticides, oils and trash with it into vital bodies of water. If not quickly resolved, this devastating crisis will cause ecological, economic and health implications for millions of people, including ourselves, who live along the coasts of South Florida.
LocalTAU offers engaged, passionate leaders the opportunity to identify local issues and source innovative solutions from world-renowned TAU research. In the process, it creates awareness, community and synergy between TAU and young activists in cities across the United States. LocalTAU uses a self-funded grant model to bridge philanthropy and startup methodologies, including pitch competitions, pilots and agile adaptation.
TAU professors and students gathered in downtown Miami in April to pitch their innovative solutions in a “Shark Tank”-style competition in front of an audience comprised of nearly 100 Floridians, government officials and civic leaders, as well as local and national American Friends of TAU leaders.
Two innovative proposals were selected from dozens of applicants to participate in the pitch competition: “Hybrid Biofilters” and “The Drain Box.” The esteemed judges’ panel consisted of many high-profile individuals, including the former highest-ranking Hispanic scientist in the Obama State Department, City of Miami officials and Florida International University officers.
The judges challenged both teams regarding the sustainability of their potential solutions due to Florida’s frequent hurricanes, the tendency for its bodies of water to flood, concerns about mosquitos and Zika virus, and ultimately, the cost of implementation. After private deliberation, the judges returned to offer their analysis of the proposals and announced the winner. Ultimately, the judges preferred the “Hybrid Biofilters” proposal, citing its low cost and sustainability.
“Hybrid Biofilters” proposed directing stormwater away from city streets using environmentally friendly methods to purify it, and then turning it into an easily accessible water resource. The team was awarded $20,000 to begin researching and piloting the practical implementation of their solution.
Professor Dror Avisar of the winning team became passionate about Florida’s water issues, which he stated are intrinsically tied to climate change. According to Avisar, “After spending a week in South Florida meeting with leaders and local officials, winning the competition was the icing on the cake.”
This collaboration between TAU and South Florida is the first step to solving not only stormwater runoff, but various other widespread issues in the future. The impact of this pilot was palpable. A number of institutions pledged their support to implement the Hybrid Biofilters, while others expressed interest in providing additional funding. We also succeeded in attracting a whole demographic that not only had never been to Israel, but also were not of any religious affiliation.
Ultimately, we plan to go global and launch new chapters as close as Canada and as distant as Australia. The only way to face and solve global challenges is by investing and believing in the next generation of leaders. LocalTAU is the beginning of something big, and we’re excited to continue bringing our world together—one solution at a time.
Vinna Katz is an experienced entrepreneur and one of the youngest board members of the American Friends of Tel Aviv University. Romina Ruiz-Goiriena is an award-winning journalist who covers immigration and politics. She has served as a reporter for Haaretz, France24, El Mundo, AP and CNN. Together, they created LocalTAU.