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Capitalism Trumps Middle Eastern Enmity

A group of 14 Palestinians and Israelis are working hard in San Diego, Calif., this week, collaborating on potentially innovative food products for the U.S. market.

Yes, you read that correctly. Palestinians and Israelis, working together to reach a common goal. Capitalism, it seems, neatly trumps political enmity.

"It's fascinating to see how well Israelis and Palestinians work together when we're not talking about politics," says Sanford Ehrlich, Qualcomm executive director of entrepreneurship for the Entrepreneurial Management Center and an associate professor of management at San Diego State University. "When you're talking about your profession rather than politics, it's easy to have great relationships."

The Entrepreneurial Management Center is hosting the 2010 Entrepreneurs for Peace Summit, along with the Fred J. Hansen Institute for World Peace, which is part of the university's EMC.

The Hansen Institute has been working in the Middle East for nearly 20 years, where, with the help of Israel's Peres Center for Peace, Israelis who are experts in agricultural processes have been helping Palestinians produce more and better crops.

The EMC's area of expertise is commercializing products, so it got involved in the project about three years ago. "Once you have a high-quality crop product, how can you turn it into innovative food products that, for example, appeal to Mediterranean/Middle Eastern tastes?" That's the question Ehrlich says the Entrepreneurs for Peace program was developed to answer.

Participants in the program are already entrepreneurs. "They're currently selling product, and now they're looking for how they can sell new products within the U.S. market," Ehrlich says.

That's why the summit is being held in the U.S. The participants are investigating trends in the U.S. food market. They're visiting supermarkets and specialty stores such as Whole Foods "to see what's on the shelves, what's hot in the U.S., and what might we create," Ehrlich says. On Monday, the group visited a restaurateur who talked about the changes he's seeing in the restaurant industry.

Ehrlich touched on a few Middle Eastern items that have succeeded in the U.S. market in recent years, including hummus and pita chips. Even olive oil has been gaining ground, though it's not as popular in the U.S. as it is in other countries.

Other relatively recent marketing innovations in the U.S. are vine-ripened tomatoes, which outsell single tomatoes in the produce section. And bags of mini carrots, which originally were scrap carrots that either were tossed out or sold at a cheaper price. Now, he says, they cost more than regular carrots--and outsell them, too. That's the kind of innovation Ehrlich says the Entrepreneurs for Peace program is looking for.

By the end of the summit, the Middle Eastern visitors should reach consensus on the product they want to develop. But that won't be the end of the EMC's involvement. Ehrlich says he and other members of the center will conduct follow-up activities in the region to help bring the selected product to fruition.

Whatever the group decides on this time around won't be the first commercial product produced by Entrepreneurs for Peace. Ehrlich says the first jointly produced product is going to be a blended olive oil that combines Israeli and Palestinian olives. Proceeds from the sale of this olive oil product will provide income to support other entrepreneurs developing peace products in the Middle East.

Ehrlich says olive oil is a particularly fitting product to kick off the commercial collaboration. After all, he notes, the olive branch is a symbol of peace. "This shows there's a collaboration to produce a peace product," he says.