A large welcome sign above our heads sets the tone: “Welcome to the Island of Peace.” A few steps in, another one — “Make soda not war” — confirms that we’re visiting no ordinary factory.
We’re at SodaStream’s new 86,000-square-meter plant in the heart of Israel’s Negev desert. Located near the Bedouin village of Rahat, 22 kms from the Gaza border, the factory serves as a model of possibilities. Over 2,000 employees — representing every race, religion, and culture of this historically divisive country — work side by side in this place that’s become synonymous with inclusiveness.
Along the way, SodaStream and its visionary CEO Daniel Birnbaum (who just recently stepped down) are demonstrating that business can — and should — take a more active role in defining the world it wants to see, one that reaches beyond profitability.
Though they’re doing pretty well in that department, too. SodaStream is one of Israel’s most compelling success stories, pulling in over $700 million in sales, with over 50 million products sold in 46 countries. Most recently, it was purchased by PepsiCo for $3.2 billion, a coup that only upped its allure at home and around the world.
Their appeal is clear. SodaStream’s fizzy-water makers not only offer consumers a healthier alternative to sugary carbonated drinks, but they’re also helping in the fight against plastic. According to the latest reports, nearly 300 million tons of plastic are produced each year, half of which for single use. But the company is putting a major dent in that stat.
SodaStream is pioneering another innovation too: coexistence. And the company is finding much love as the purveyor of peace, its model heralded by politicians, experts, and corporate leaders alike. To wit: for the past three years SodaStream has been hosting the biggest Ramadan Iftar event in Israel, bringing together employees, religious leaders, and politicians for food, prayer, and performances by Jewish and Muslim artists.
This year the former mayor of Rahat welcomed the 3,000 guests and creded Birnbaum for his impressive work: “You’re an example for all of Israel.” The US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, echoed his sentiments. “If I could package all this, my job would be very easy; this is the real peace,” he said. “We need to take what we have here and multiply it by 10; it’s a great model.”
The formula for “economic peace” comes down to equal pay, equal opportunity, and respect, Birnbaum explains. “That’s when the magic happens.”
It’s an approach embraced by the company’s Palestinian employees, who’ve found strong allies in Birnbaum and SodaStream. In fact, when SodaStream moved its factory from the West Bank to the Negev, many of the Palestinians struggled to keep their jobs due to not having work permits to enter Israel. Not deterred, Birnbaum spent 16 months traversing bureaucratic entanglement to secure the documentation for the 120 Palestinians currently working here, like Nabil, who travels each day from Ramallah. He shares how SodaStream makes him optimistic, despite it all. “I’m angry about the conflict, the situation, but we have to look to the future.” As we walk through the factory, another Palestinian greets us, offering his opinion on the value of coexistence. “We’ve been fighting year after year, let’s try a year of peace; if it doesn’t work, we can go back to fighting,” he says with a grin. “I’d vote for him,” retorts Birnbaum to the delight of coworkers nearby.
The factory houses a synagogue and four Muslim prayer rooms. And it’s the only company in the country to mark its products with the words: “This product is produced by Jews and Arabs working side by side in peace and harmony.”
SodaStream’s inclusive policy also means 1,000 new immigrants and 500 Bedouins work here. When Sarah, a Bedouin line manager, is asked if she believes the model of coexistence can be replicated outside the factory walls, she’s clear: “If you had leaders and managers like ours and people like us, then yes, it can,” she says. “You can feel the difference SodaStream made in our community,” she adds, of its impact in slashing unemployment (Bedouins in the Negev suffer from the largest rates of unemployment and poverty in Israel).
Creating jobs for those who need it most is central to SodaStream’s vision, after all. It’s why automation is only introduced if jobs aren’t lost. Those replaced by machines are given another position in the factory’s six production lines.
And it’s why they’re developing an assembly in the nearby Bedouin village of Kuseife, where the unemployment rate of its 17,000 residents sits at 30 percent — and a staggering 50 percent for women. The line will be set up at the community center to ensure women can more effectively balance work with traditional duties.
What’s more, the company recently opened an assembly line at a local prison providing inmates with opportunities to earn wages and learn skills to counter one of the greatest challenges post-incarceration: finding jobs. SodaStream also provides jobs to those who worked on the prison line, upon release.
“Our main goal is rehabilitation” explains our guide at the Elah Prison, a modern facility with a bright exterior that houses 14,500 prisoners, “so they can go back to society as better citizens and have jobs.” Pesach, a past inmate who’s been working at SodaStream for almost two years, is always trying to recruit other formerly incarcerated individuals. “People don’t believe how I’ve changed since coming here.”
Evidently, innovation is imperative not only to the products that SodaStream develops but to the culture it adopts. It comes down to creating opportunities. Opportunities for sustainability, inclusion, jobs – hope. As Birnbaum says, “Where there is prosperity there can be peace.”
Elisa Birnbaum is the editor-in-chief of SEE Change Magazine and the author of “In the Business of Change; how social entrepreneurs are disrupting business as usual.”