Mark Gelfand grew up in Ohio, graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and helped develop the standard calculator for international structured finance markets. He is the father of three sons, Jake, Micah, and Evan; he has two grandsons. In recent decades, the Swampscott resident has been a proponent of teaching Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) to students, and he has built STEM centers in Israel and Africa. His partner is Amy Duchin.
Could you tell us about your upbringing – where you grew up, a little about your parents and siblings, and your family’s Jewish priorities?
I grew up in South Euclid, Ohio, a middle-class inner suburb on the east side of Cleveland. My parents, Dolores and Harvey, were good people – well-liked by all who knew them. My two younger sisters, Randi and Barbara, had their own circles of nice friends and interests. Both pairs of grandparents lived nearby, just a few streets away.
Shabbat dinners were usually at my maternal grandparents’ house; my grandfather davened every morning. Keeping kosher was natural in Cleveland.
It was a good life. My mother became a hero to her friends, attending Case Western Reserve University full-time, starting when I was in second grade, and she earned her master’s degree in speech therapy. That unnerved my father, who was tiring anyway of being a pharmacist, so he returned to earn his master’s in education.
My mother supported the family as he became a high school science teacher.
When did you first become interested in Judaism?
As did many of my neighborhood friends, I attended Park Synagogue, one of the largest synagogues in the U.S. I remember being positive but not quite connected, though attempting to absorb what might be useful and interesting. The Jewish rituals didn’t resonate, but our neighborhood’s many post-WWII Eastern European Jewish refugees were a constant reminder of the Jewish experience. The nation of Israel as a Jewish land made some impression on me, and my parents traveled there a few times to visit relatives. My vague imagination of Israel become starkly real as news filtered in of the 1967 dangers. And then, out of nowhere, the Egyptian Air Force ceased to exist. Suddenly I became interested in how a postage-stamp-sized country could defend itself so spectacularly.
What was your very first science experiment?
Encouraged by the space race, I was very much into science, early computer circuitry, electronics and materials engineering, and math – what we now call STEM.
Soft landings on the moon and fly-bys of Mars brought to reality what had only been fanciful stories in childhood science fiction books. My first serious hands-on experiment was when I was in fourth grade. Popular Electronics magazine published a schematic of a tone generator. I salvaged components – a rectifier diode, a neon bulb, a capacitor, a power cord, and a variable resistor – that I salvaged from discarded TV sets that I found while trolling my red wagon on trash days.
Given the dangers of power line voltage, I still wonder how I didn’t electrocute myself.
My Uncle Len gave me a short-wave radio kit as a bar mitzvah present, and after a month of assembly and struggle, I got it working. In between the international radio broadcast stations, I could hear satellite data signals.
You studied physics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. You also developed the standard calculator for the international structured finance markets. How did you do that?
My grandmother wanted me to be a doctor, then was overjoyed when I said I wanted to study physics. She never quite understood that studying physics at Carnegie Mellon University was not the same as studying to be a physician.
There, I had many mathematical computer programming jobs that were separate from my physics studies. My favorite job was successfully simplifying an experimental physics lab to such an extent that 50 CMU physicists hastily arranged a conference to grill me about my methodology. Such experiences gave me a broad understanding of solving difficult technical challenges.
I enjoyed inventing with electronics, math solutions, and computer-assisted machines. My job experience with econometric time series analysis and large-scale systems naturally led into the nascent field of ever more complex structured finance. I convinced my tiny company to take a chance at solving a very big problem that hampered the financial markets. Demonstrating my tiny company’s demo to huge Wall Street firms invoked their mocking response.
That’s the moment I knew we were onto something big.
You’re very passionate about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics – or STEM – education. Why is STEM so important for young students?
The study of uncertainty is mathematically the same approach in particle physics as in the financial markets and elsewhere. STEM mastery will help students build their nation. Practical hands-on STEM enrichment gives students a firm theoretical basis and a confidence to take on the difficult problems.
For example, last month I helped solve an intractable problem with a huge solar panel array at a STEM Center that I built in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. Many different STEM skills were required to solve the technical challenges. I felt our team’s joy as the lights came on, in a country devoid of electric utility power.
In Israel, you created many STEM programs – a science center at Yemin Orde, a youth village near Haifa that helps educate 500 orphans and at-risk kids; at the Israel National Museum of Science, Technology, and Space in Haifa, you established the Gelfand Center, which offers programs for Israeli youth in robotics and model building. You helped establish the first connection between the Technion and Ofanim, a nonprofit that introduces at-risk Israeli children to STEM programming. You also funded Ofanim’s first mobile classroom bus, which was converted to a mobile STEM lab with computers and robotics instruments. That program serves about 1,750 Jewish and Arab children each week.
What spurred you to create these programs?
I want students to experience the joy of learning about the world around them, so that they gain a powerful mental toolkit to build their nation.
It’s fun to create surprising ways to get children interested in STEM.
The overarching concept is that I don’t believe in faking confidence.
Moreover, I believe that good people should be skilled at defending their families, their nation, and their vision, on all fronts.
In 2008 you visited Ethiopia and decided to create numerous educational programs. What moved you to do this?
About 20 disadvantaged Ethiopian students at Yemin Orde worked up the courage to ask me if they could enter the international FIRST Robotics competition. I replied that they had been shepherds for more than a thousand years, so how could they possibly compete successfully against Israeli kids whose both parents were scientist-engineers? I remember the Ethiopian olim responses: ‘Let us try.’
After seven years of trying, and ever-improving their skills, they won the top prize, number one in Israel, and traveled to the international competition in Atlanta. The Ethiopian Beta Yisrael olim at Yemin Orde confirmed to me that given the right tools, they would excel like many native-born Sabras, and help build their country.
Could you tell us about the schools and businesses you’ve created in Ethiopia and other African countries?
I’ve built 15 high schools in Ethiopia, and many primary schools, and donated those to the Ethiopian Ministry of Education. One of those schools was constructed at the starting location of Operation Moses, following the road to Sudan. [Israel evacuated about 8,000 Jews fleeing Ethiopia in 1984.]
In another location, where Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia touch, I built another high school, and named it after my Ohio high school, itself named after the famous Cleveland STEM inventor Charles F. Brush.
Yet establishing schools is not the mission: building friendly nations is my mission. But public education isn’t enough to build nations. Please subscribe to the YouTube channel “STEMpower Ethiopia” to see how my NGO enriches Ethiopian youth.
Our weekly STEMpower satellite TV show has an audience of five million viewers.
But hands-on STEM enrichment isn’t enough, even with 16 operating STEM centers scattered across Ethiopia, and another 15 nearly operating. A nation is sustainable only when a reliable “production value chain” operates within its borders. In principle, a value chain starts with raw materials, e.g. soil, water, air, and sun. Businesses in the value chain then process those raw material inputs to create valuable items, such as a mobile phone or a car.
Historically, the only portion of the value chain available to African peoples was the production of raw materials. But my company, TodayTomorrow Ventures, (todaytomorrowventures.com), and other Ethiopian companies, are filling in much of the value chain.
How satisfying is it to know that you’ve changed the lives of thousands of students and families by helping them with an education?
Similar to Tom Brady’s ever “next” Super Bowl ring, my satisfaction comes with the next project that will be completed. A mounted plaque will honor my parents, z”l. I touch the plaque, take a deep breath, ponder the joy, and then move on to the many other difficult projects in the queue.