ANDY HIRSH is a participant of the 50:50 Startups entrepreneurship program. We spoke to Andy about his time in the program, his past experiences, and how he founded his company Olive Branch Pictures.
Tell me a little bit about yourself. What is your background?
I’m Andy, I’m 24 years old, soon to be 25, and I’m from Philadelphia—born and raised. I got my BA from Wesleyan University focusing on international relations, but also studying a hodge-podge of humanities and social sciences, history, sociology, anthropology, German, Hebrew, Arabic, music, film, creative writing—and I’m currently pursuing dual degrees, a Social Impact MBA at the Brandeis University Heller School for Policy and Management and an MA in Animation at the Academy of Art University.
You seem to have quite a bit on your plate already! What were your motivations for joining the 50:50 program?
I’m very privileged to be part of 50:50 Startups. It’s a really, really wonderful group of people and we’ve had some amazing speakers to teach us, and I’m excited to be matched with a mentor soon! I wanted to join 50:50 Startups to help develop the startup I founded in October of 2018, Olive Branch Pictures which is a social enterprise platform for cultural diplomacy, conflict mediation, edutainment and philanthropy, using representational ideologically balanced storytelling in the form of comics and epic animated musical feature film.
Our first production adresses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the story Shira and Amal, about two young women—one Palestinian, one Israeli—who use music to cope with trauma and bring peace to Jerusalem. It will be developed with a representational production team and ideologically balanced advisory board of diplomats and religious leaders, academics and film and media industry experts, to use the freedom of fiction and illustration to very sensitively navigate the controversies of the conflict while telling an awesome story with commercial potential that can reach the stakeholder audiences it needs to.
Our mission is to facilitate mutual understanding and build trust as well mitigate propaganda, hatred, violence and xenophobia. Our values are empathy, open-mindedness, and the pursuit of truth.
Through the program I’ve been able to form a diverse, representational startup team. They are really wonderful people, Noa, Khaled, and Bashar, and I am so excited and grateful to be working with them.
Olive Branch Pictures sounds like an incredibly wonderful and unique initiative that bridges multiple disciplines. What motivated you to pursue Olive Branch Pictures?
I’ve been raised in Judaism and the Jewish community my whole life, and I spent time visiting Israel growing up, and I have some family in Tel Aviv. It was in college that I was first really exposed to the Palestinian narrative. After two years at Wesleyan, I decided to take a gap year. I was trying to figure myself out and to discover the truth and meaning and purpose and all that.
I began in India. I was there for 3 months volunteering in a slum called Kalva as well as with the Jewish community of Mumbai. It was an eye-opening experience. Then, I went to Israel, where I did an exchange at Tel Aviv University. It was there that I fell in love for the first time in my life with an Israeli peacenik, a violist, lover of art and literature, a buddhist, who would be attending Harvard. I was completely head over heels. And she would go on to break my heart.
I had a couple of internships there and I did my best to be open-minded and learn more about the conflict and the Palestinian perspective. I had also been developing this interest in refugees and migration in school, so I really wanted to go out into the world and engage with that and see if I could help. So I volunteered at HIAS in Tel Aviv and I ended up volunteering in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan for about 8 weeks. It was a really impactful experience for me. After that, I went to the US-Mexican border as a student ambassador with the border-community alliance student where I interacted with and volunteered with migrants, NGOs, religious organizations, nonprofits and governmental organizations.
And, reflecting on all these experiences, who I was and what I wanted to do. I had always loved cartoons and comics and animation, so I was trying to return to who I was before we go through this pinball machine of life. I used to draw comics when I was a kid. Also I felt a sense of stifled creativity, I have ADHD, so school was never easy, and I felt like I didn’t have enough time or I didn’t know myself well enough to pursue the arts, so I really wanted to reclaim that creativity.
How did you end up reclaiming this creativity? Was there a particular idea or moment that sparked your passion to eventually become Olive Branch Pictures?
I had this idea. Originally it was the Legend of Shira, the story of an Israeli girl who uses her viola to bring peace to Jerusalem. The protagonist “Shira” was inspired by the woman I fell in love with; I was thinking about it and I realized that an epic animated music feature film could really have a big impact on society. And the story evolved to incorporate a Palestinian protagonist and it became a dual protagonist story, “ Shira and Mifta”. Originally it was kind of Romeo and Juliet -esque and it was a little bit cliché maybe.
I felt so compelled by this idea, that it was a culmination of all these experiences and elements of my life, and the pursuit of truth and grappling with the ethics of the conflict and religion, that it could empower me to use my ADHD to my advantage, to unite a diverse range of fields together under one project and mission and give myself permission to be distracted within the broad range of ideas spanning Islam, Judiasm, animation, art, the entertainment and media industry, startup development, leadership and diplomacy and Middle Eastern culture, language, history, and politics; to learn enough about each of these interdisciplinary subjects in a horizontal approach to communicate with the vertically aligned experts I bring on to the Olive Branch Pictures team, and admittedly, I also thought this story would bring me back together with the woman who inspired me to write; that I would take her great loves of literature, music, and peace, and my love of cartoons and quest for truth, and create something beautiful, meaningful, and impactful; that I would write the story and she would write the music. I built a castle in the sky and when things didn’t work out between us, it came crashing down on top of me. But I was still convinced that this vision was worth pursuing and so I set out to rebuild this castle on solid ground. The distance between us allowed the story to evolve from Shira and Mifta to Shira and Amal, the story of two women who use music to bring peace to Jerusalem, a story more accessible to a conservative, religious audience whose ideologies fuel the conflict on both sides.
College became really difficult for me because I wanted to create my own major, my own curriculum focused on learning everything I needed to know to build this venture but I wasn’t able to navigate the administration to make this happen. And so I left college because I felt like I just had to focus on my venture. I felt inspired by people like Steve Jobs and Steven Spielberg. And I recognize I was definitely a little mishuga.
I realized that a graphic novel would be a really great minimum viable product—proof of concept, that could be more easily developed and then scaled to an epic animated musical feature film. It’s really hard to make an animated feature, it requires a ton of money, resources and talent.
During that year, I supported myself as a barista while pursuing my own curriculum. It was incredibly overwhelming and lonely at times. But then I won seed funding at the Brandeis University Spark Tank competition with a partner I met at Brandeis, Abdul, who became my “CFO”. I was studying social entrepreneurship part-time at Drexel, where I recruited a team of 5 interns for concept art development and we won another startup competition at Drexel. A more significant award that was very validating. I spent the summers in Jerusalem doing internships, volunteering, and conducting research and development to support “Shira and Amal” and Olive Branch Pictures and I’ve been learning Hebrew and Arabic— Hebrew for around four and a half years, and Arabic for about 3 years.
That sounds like quite the journey you’ve had in the past few years! How did your experiences back at school turn out?
My grandmother—at the time she was 98, now she’s 99 and going to be a 100—she said “you have to graduate!”, so I returned to Wesleyan to finish up my degree. That year, I pitched at the Entrepreneurs’ Organization Connecticut State Student Entrepreneurship Awards competition and ended up winning the state competition. They sent me to San Francisco for the national competition, and I also got to go to Copenhagen for an international competition. Then of course the pandemic hit, and I graduated. This past fall, I was privileged to be selected for the Watson Institute accelerator program based in Boulder, Colorado, and I also enrolled in the MBA at Brandeis. And now I’m here with 50:50 Startups. I also started the MA in animation, which brings us to present-day.
Since you first joined the 50:50 program, there were a few events held to facilitate your journey in venture creation. What has been the most memorable moment thus far, or what event stood out to you in particular?
I think the most influential for me so far was Eran Dror’s lecture on Design Thinking. I’ve been exploring the entrepreneurial and social impact space for more than 3 years. I’ve definitely encountered design thinking—I sort of have been doing that anyway, in terms of building my prototype. You almost have to—throw as many ideas at the wall as you can and try to take the best ones and test them, but I think his lecture not only articulated the approach and methodology but also re-engaged me to pursue that form of development, because it’s very straight-forward and what I’m doing is so complex and controversial and involves working with people from various conflicting ideologies and background.
It seems that you already have a solid direction in terms of your professional pursuits, especially with Olive Branch Pictures. Though having joined 50:50, what are some other personal or professional goals you have for the time you’ll be spending in the program?
Now that I’ve formed a Israeli-Palestinian team my abilities in leadership, diplomacy, managment, and creativity are really being put to the test. This is the moment I have been preparing myself for for years and I am honored by the responsibility. Over the next two months our main goals are to refine the Shira and Amal prototype that I developed, recruit our Israeli-Palestinian artist team, and establish a formal advisory board, and I would feel so blessed to convene this team in Boston for the accelerator.