Learning From Israeli Success

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Detroit entrepreneurs seek to emulate Israel’s “Startup Nation.”

By Adam Finkel Special to the Jewish News

Twenty Detroit entrepreneurs sat around the conference table of one of Israel’s most noted venture funds, Jerusalem Venture Partners.

It was the 78th hour of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit’s inaugural Entrepreneur Mission to Israel.

Local restaurant mogul Zach Sklar asked the question of the week: How has Israel’s economy thrived despite such enormous adversity?

Without delay, Golani Brigade commander-turned-investor Yonatan Machado spoke up.

“The Jewish people, and Israel, have been forced to solve problems … as a matter of survival,” he said. “Being entrepreneurial has been a necessity because of thousands of years of persecution.”

At 5 a.m. that morning, a cohort of the group arose to visit the Kotel, the Western Wall, where the sun would rise at 5:36 a.m. on the dot. Back at the hotel, there was enough time to grab a quick bite of shakshuka (eggs atop a spicy tomato sauce) for breakfast before congregating at the Jerusalem City Council to hear the deputy mayor opine on entrepreneurship in the world’s holiest city.

Just 24 hours earlier, we were at the headquarters of Waze, a global navigation app acquired by Google for around $1 billion, give or take a few shekels.

Mission leaders Jim Bellinson and Lisa Stern offer strategic counsel to an entrepreneur, center, from a startup accelerator in Nazareth.

Sitting mesmerized at just one of Israel’s most recent billion-dollar success stories, we found our dynamic conversations unique because we were not just seeing economic wonders up close, we also were doing it in our own Jewish homeland, a nation at the tectonic intersection between old and new where we could see our past and our future before our very eyes.

A new insight arose. When people with a shared vision take initiative, magical things happen.

 

Detroit entrepreneurs Larry Freed and Jake Cohen, left, advise an entrepreneurial graduate of the elite Talpiot unit of the IDF.

A Different Mission
“This trip,” participant Ronnie Klein said, “consisted of [mostly] young, dynamic, smart, calculated risk-takers who are building great businesses in Detroit while being involved in Detroit’s Jewish community and building bonds with Israel and their Israeli business peers.”

The inaugural Entrepreneur Mission is an offshoot of the Nora and Guy Barron Mission Lab. Based at the Detroit Federation, the lab came to fruition after the Barron family generously committed funds to a yearly program that would “re-invent” how the local community organizes theme-focused missions to Israel.

The Barrons said they are thrilled with the inaugural mission.

“All trips to Israel are life-changing,” they said. “Affinity groups add an additional dimension. Surrounded by peers, ideas are exchanged and innovative programs can be created, deepening the bond between Michiganders and their Israeli counterparts.”

Julie Tepperman, staff mission leader, will be overseeing the new affinity platform at Federation.

Scott Kaufman, Federation CEO, elaborated on the Barron Mission Lab, which plans to create a new-themed mission for the community each year.

“The vision is for the Federation to reach people in ways that we may not be able to on a traditional Israel trip by targeting sub-sectors of the community,” he said. “The magnificent generosity of the Barron family allows us to empower more leadership and philanthropy in our community.”

Kaufman believes this trip will inspire others to be lifelong volunteers and more committed to the needs of our local community.

Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Ofer Berkovich, left, with Jason Teshuba, founder of Mango Languages

“The overall strategy for the region that we hear from Detroit’s mayor and Michigan’s governor is that we need a thriving entrepreneurial community that attracts the best talent if we’re going to have a strong city and state,” he said. “We also need those traits in our Jewish community. It will make a big difference to bring some of the ‘Startup Nation’s’ DNA back to Detroit so we can learn the best practices, learn the best of Israel’s successes and form relationships that lead to a stronger bond between our two communities.”

Co-chairs of the mission were Detroit entrepreneurs and communal leaders Lisa Stern, founder of BIG Communications, and Jim Bellinson, managing member at Riverstone Growth Partners. They worked closely with Federation to bring together a cohort of Detroiters that represented a diverse range of business backgrounds. Participants ranged from Jacob Cohen, partner at Detroit Venture Partners, and Treger Strasberg, founder and CEO of Humble Design, to Larry Freed, former president/CEO of ForeSee, and David Broner, chairman emeritus of Broner Inc. and SCORE Mentor of the Year.

Bellinson is confident the people in this group have such an entrepreneurial mindset that they not only are going to do many dynamic things together, but also find new, creative ways to give back and contribute to Jewish Detroit in very meaningful ways.

Benzinga CEO Jason Raznick, right, with the first employee of Waz, a GPS-based geographical navigation application program for smartphones.

“I feel like I’ve made 20 new, really close friends that can do a lot of great things together, and many of the participants will do amazing things during their careers while also finding ways to strengthen our local community.”

An investment vehicle totaling $500,000 already has been established by trip participants as a way to provide financial support that advances the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Detroit and Israel. The hope is that these funds can help a promising startup get to the next stage of its success and possibly even advance breakthrough solutions in the market. A percentage of the profits will be donated back to the Jewish Federation.

“I have had the good fortune of visiting Israel on multiple occasions,” said Danny Samson, president of Digerati, “and every trip has been meaningful. This trip was unique because it afforded access into the remarkable Israeli entrepreneurial ecosystem and a greater understanding of the business climate in Israel today. To share this experience with professional peers from Detroit and work together on ways to partner for the future was remarkable.”

The trip gave Great Lakes Recycling CEO Sandy Rosen an overwhelming sense of pride to see that, amidst the destructive hostilities surrounding the tiny state, the people are not only surviving but also thriving.

“The Israeli people seem almost oblivious to the hate that encircles them,” Rosen said. “They remain focused not on reciprocating the anger and hatred but, in stark contrast, on productivity and innovation. At nearly every visit, we saw Jews working with Arabs, Israelis with Palestinians, Muslims with Christians. People taking down barriers and working together to find common ground.

“I don’t believe another place exists with miracles of this proportion every day. It clearly illustrates what ‘a light unto the nations’ truly means.”

Renee Erlich, an executive and leadership coach, agrees about the impact of the trip.

“This mission drove deep, strategic conversation for five days straight with fellow entrepreneurs,” she said. “It was a wonderful platform to create excitement and energy around the possibilities of growth and opportunity in Detroit and Israel.”

The trip also showed the global nature of our world. During a visit with an educational entrepreneur who built a new international boarding school, a student who recently downloaded the Mango Languages app to learn a new language met Jason Teshuba, Mango CEO and co-founder. Teshuba stated how it was particularly “inspiring to get an inside look at the Israeli culture of innovation and entrepreneurship on this trip.”

At a visit to an incubator that seeks to help Arab entrepreneurs within Israel, one of the entrepreneurs familiar with the rapidly growing financial news site Benzinga met the CEO and founder of the company, Jason Raznick, who was on his first trip to Israel.

David Leider, CEO of Gas Station TV, said that “meeting entrepreneurs starting their businesses is always fascinating. Experiencing it in Israel was frankly unbelievable. Their deep passion, skill and no-failure attitude were not only infectious, but also far outshine anything you see anywhere else in the world.”

Members of the Entrepreneur Mission visit with students at an international boarding school started by an Israeli entrepreneur.

Ryan Dembs, president of Dembs Development, said that this mission was “one of the most positive, worthwhile things” he has ever done.

 

Connected Communities
Few locations outside of Detroit and Israel have a greater disconnect between the negative media headlines and the real opportunities that exist for growth and investment on-the-ground.

Thus, the inaugural Entrepreneur Mission to Israel makes sense for reasons beyond the mutual connections between Israel and Jewish Detroit. It also turned out to be valuable to learn the best practices that have allowed Israel to thrive — and to spread our message of the opportunities in Detroit with Israelis who can grow their businesses in our community.

There’s a cost to fly to Israel and be in Israel, of course, but the experiences are often priceless. A 20-something from France living the Israeli dream in a discussion about Israeli innovation with a young Detroiters embodies the dialogues we need more of to advance Jewish peoplehood.

We’re living in interesting times — times that force the Jewish community to innovate its model to engage new groups and stay relevant. Yet often one experience is all that’s needed to spark someone’s greater interest in our community.

We’re also living in times that showcase not just technology’s benefits but also its constraints. This is one of the key lessons and take-aways from the trip. Even though technology has transformed Israel and its economy, community-building back at home is still one-to-one.

As easy as it would be to scale Jewish ideas via YouTube or Twitter or Facebook, you can’t inspire a child over YouTube like you can at a summer at Tamarack. During the flight home, I reflected on some of our city’s core competencies. Coming together to solve communal needs is one thing Jewish Detroit understands better than few other communities.

Whatever issues global Jewish communities need to solve, it always comes down to being entrepreneurial. It reminds me of a song called “Lose Yourself.” It started with a question: “If you had one shot, or one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted, one moment, would you capture it or just let it slip?”

Mission members Larry Freed, Jason Raznick, Renee Erlich, staff leader Julie Tepperman, mission co-chair Lisa Stern, Ryan Dembs and Jason Teshuba.

A Detroiter, Eninem, wrote that song. Millions listened. Awards were won.

Seeing how Israel has thrived, the song’s video could have been produced in Tel Aviv, where cafes and beaches and office towers buzz with entrepreneurs who relish overcoming adversity; or in the researchers throughout the nation working to find cures for cancer, environmental issues, social challenges, economic disparities and other maladies that impact the world at large.

Israel is innovating on the cutting edge, which is especially remarkable because the state was established in 1948, 27 months after the first designs for a stored-program computer were published.

Yes, the State of Israel, a hub of tech activity today, is younger than the initial computer design.

We’ve branded our city “Opportunity Detroit.”

They’ve branded their state, the “Startup Nation.”

Our way of life and languages are quite dissimilar, yet we still are one family tied together through shared values and interconnected experiences, and by the care and concern we have for each other.

One twenty-something entrepreneur exclaimed: “We are all one big family, really, and even though we may have differences of opinion and life choices, we should all stick together.“

The Detroit Entrepreneurship Mission showcased another similarity: The entrepreneurial purpose of the Jewish people also ties us together.

And when people with a shared vision take initiative, magical things can happen. 

 

Tel Aviv Take-Aways

During the Entrepreneur’s Mission, I kept wondering if today’s spirit of innovation in Israel was most rooted in the need to constantly evolve and change because of years of persecution.

Staying in Tel Aviv after the mission, I went to Ben-Gurion’s house there and heard remarks about the struggles of the Jewish people from new Knesset member and former Ambassador Michael Oren.

At lunch in Herzliya with Daniel Recanati, a young member of one of Israel’s most distinguished families, he observed how Israel is in a “constant state of crisis” because of the instability in the region and thus must be solution-oriented in all walks of life.

During a Shabbat dinner with the chief rabbi of Uruguay, he even commented on the role of chutzpah in the Jewish faith and how it’s been a needed attribute over time.

The most enlightening conversation occurred a few days later. Over coffee with a young friend who sold a startup to Apple for a reported $360 million, I heard how he was just one of many soldiers in his computer science unit to turn coding skills into massive commercial success.

These successes are the reasons why multinational firms like Apple, Google and eBay have a growing presence in Israel. To these young entrepreneurs, success in Israel was largely due to having the right skills within an army unit that brought out the best in its talent. Over the last decade, these entrepreneurs have created tens of thousands of jobs and led to a city and nation that thrives like never before. Today, Tel Aviv is ranked as one of the world’s leading hubs of entrepreneurial activity.

You can see this magic in the Israeli entrepreneurs working together with their peers from the army. Several success stories have gone from napkin ideas to hundreds of employees in a matter of years.

You can see this in the Israeli social entrepreneurs embracing the words of Yossi Abramowitz, who states that the purpose of the Jewish people is to be an ongoing, dynamic catalyst for the evolution and advancement of morality in civilization.

And you can surely see this closer to home, in our own Detroit community, where new energy and purpose and opportunity arises where others only saw disrepair, disharmony and distrust.  — Adam Finkel

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