Israel, Innovation Nation

Start-up Nation and a Conversation with Nir Kouris

How did a nation of 7.1 million, surrounded by enemies and short on natural resources, develop one of the world’s strongest economies? How does Israel go from agricultural backwater to high-tech powerhouse in just 60 years? Dan Senor, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Saul Singer, an editor at the Jerusalem Post, explore this fascinating story in Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle (Twelve; 2009), profiling the people and highlighting the values that have made such a “miracle” possible.

Senor and Singer avoid any purported association with Jewish intelligence, emphasizing instead the Israeli desire to innovate. Much of Israel’s high-tech success can be attributed simply to chutzpah. That won’t surprise those familiar with the plucky, pushy, and argumentative side of Israel, but Senor and Singer detail how questioning authority, improvising, taking calculated risks, and not fearing failure are an integral part of Israeli society.


Israelis have developed these traits through the military, where commanding officers are addressed by their first names, new recruits make life-and-death decisions, and everyone gains extensive leadership experience before college. Senor and Singer see this as a model for the United States, pointing out the leadership skills that returning American veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have garnered. But America’s corporate culture, they say, is “illiterate” when it comes to understanding the value of a military resume.


Senor and Singer also credit Israel’s success to a pragmatic industrial policy, well-timed market reforms, and the influx of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians from Russia.


Start-Up Nation only briefly addresses the relationship of Diaspora Jews to this technologically powered country. Senor and Singer relate the experience of Jon Medved, a Jerusalem-based venture capitalist. As a Zionist organizer, before making aliyah, Medved was told by an Israeli defense company executive that his country needed more businesspeople instead of more “professional Zionists.” In light of its economic achievements, Israel must be a target of not only philanthropy but also of investment, whether financial or personal. Perhaps Start-Up Nation will inspire young, entrepreneurial Jews to invest in Israel, just as eBay, Google, Intel, Microsoft, and even the risk-averse Warren Buffett have.


To learn more about the future of Israeli entrepreneurship and innovation, I spoke with Nir Kouris, a 27-year-old entrepreneur in Tel Aviv. He has helped launch eCamp Israel, an “international high-tech camp” that brings students from all over the world to learn from entrepreneurs, and Join My Life, an initiative during last year’s war in Gaza that featured the voices of young people living in southern Israel.


What aspects of Israeli society lead to such an innovative and entrepreneurial culture?


Primarily, it is chutzpah. After Israelis have given three years of their lives to the army, they want to hit the world and do something big. Israelis are passionate people. They’re not afraid to think globally and take risks. They want to be creative; they’re always trying to reinvent if something is not good enough. They want to make things better, even if these things are already “perfect,” so to speak. The army greatly influences this mentality because the IDF is always trying to improve, always trying to develop better products and better strategy. Israel has a huge advantage in this regard. Someone who has just left the army will have incredible technological and R&D skills, but also the mindset of an entrepreneur. Sometimes they might not have the marketing skills, but that comes afterwards. The skills and the vision are there.


Also, entrepreneurs have to be very flexible and adaptable. In Israel, we always have a Plan B. It is something we learn from the army. If I don’t have money, I just go on to the next step. I contact people for a new project. No need to panic. The “end of the world” for Israeli entrepreneurs today comes every three months: We run out of money, some investor decides not to invest, some idea falls through. But it’s OK, because there will always be something new to work on. I discover this every day in this country.


What is it like to be an entrepreneur in Israel? How are you regarded in society, and what do you feel you’re achieving for Israel on a broader level?


Young people look up to me. They see me on the Internet, and they see that I’m always striving to achieve my goals, and that is inspiring. And there are so many people like this in Israel.


My work for eCamp Israel led me to create Tomorrow Israel, which teaches youths how to be entrepreneurs in all aspects of their lives and to “create their own brand.” I want to teach the next generation to be “Web-ebrities,” to help their skills reach the rest of the world. I teach every kid that they’re part of a delegation; they speak about Israel to the world, through their own niche, whether they’re singers, skateboarders, or writers. People see them on YouTube, and they learn an aspect of Israel that has nothing to do with conflict.


Being an entrepreneur also leads me to ask what I, as an Israeli, can do for the world. Israel will play a major role in the world not because of its government, but because of its people. The efforts of the IDF medical team in Haiti and the technologies we’re developing to help protect the environment are just a couple of examples.


Entrepreneurs are very future-oriented, eager to integrate Israeli talent and innovation into the rest of the world. This is good for Israel, to showcase our future. It demonstrates that Israel is an incredible place – not because of the past, not because of the Holocaust or Zionism or our history, but because of our people and what they can accomplish. The emphasis should not be on what the world owes us, but on the role Israel will play in the rest of the world. We need to talk more about the future, about what will happen tomorrow. And there is only one high-profile person who talks about tomorrow: President Shimon Peres. But more of our leaders need to emphasize the future.


How should Jewish communities around the world relate to Israel to promote it as a place for investment, not just philanthropic and political support?


The product of Israel is amazing: You meet with regular people, and you fall in love with the country. If there is a Jewish person who is considering investing in Israel, he needs to come here personally, meet with entrepreneurs, talk with people and get to know their stories. Unfortunately, here’s a problem with Israel’s image – you think of Israel, you think bad news. People don’t want to invest in a place that is only associated with conflict. But once you actually come here, you see the incredible things Israelis are capable of. Israelis win Nobel Prizes and sell companies for tens of millions of dollars, so we must demonstrate and publicize what we’ve accomplished, and not just talk about the conflict. A counterexample to Israel’s situation is Brazil, which normally has a great image – Rio, Carnival, and the like. But you go there, and you see there isn’t a lot of innovation taking place there.


What future project are you particularly excited about?


I am creating a competitor to TED called Musepark. (TED, a nonprofit, holds international conferences in which entrepreneurs, scientists, artists, and political leaders give 18-minute lectures on “ideas worth spreading.”)


TED is Hollywood-style; it is polished and perfect. Musepark will be in the spirit of Israel – direct and straightforward. It will be all about the people, just like our country: human capital, regular people doing amazing stuff, people with chutzpah. What is also missing with TED is that it doesn’t relate to the changing atmosphere here. TED is all about the ideas, whereas Musepark will be about the people, and Israel has such inspiring people. This will be a one-of a kind conference that will host people all over the world. 80 percent will be Israeli, 20 percent international.


Musepark will be an excellent networking opportunity. Israel is so small and so straightforward, entrepreneurs like me have no compunction going to Google or any other major company and making connections there. Because in 20 minutes you’ll find a friend, or someone you served with in the army. You’re basically one person away from a company you want to get to know better. And this is important in the current situation, because in an economic crisis, with little or no money, entrepreneurs can still succeed, due to their connections with friends.


The straightforwardness of Musepark will also be reflective of Israel. In Israel’s business culture, you really skip the kind words and the romance, and you get straight to business. It’s a yes or no thing, and you get an answer very fast.


Raeefa Shams lives in Washington, DC, and works in consulting. She is sick of snow. 

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