Innovating and Starting Up a Learning Venture in Israel

April 11, 2018
students hike toward Masada

Israel has been called the “startup nation” with good reason: Innovation and entrepreneurship drive the economy, shape policy, and fuel development throughout the tiny, arid land.

As home to the world’s highest number of startups per capita, Israel offers an unmatched business education experience and a fitting destination for McIntire’s Global Commerce Immersion (GCI) program. “'Innovation & Entrepreneurship' in Israel is the newest addition to our growing list of immersion courses–now numbering about 20 per year and involving over 400 undergraduate and graduate students,” says McIntire’s Associate Dean for Global Affairs Peter Maillet.

Along with newer classes such as “The Business of Saving Nature in Costa Rica,” and “Digital Marketing & Analytics in the UK and Ireland,” the GCI program recently added the course in Israel, which included numerous visits with visionary executives and remarkable cultural stops. Students embarked on a nine-day excursion that taught them to develop business plans in a global marketing context, all while examining the country’s startup culture, robust funding infrastructure, geopolitical position, and characteristic grit that embodies the Israeli entrepreneurial approach and defines this forward-thinking and historic part of the planet.

“Our goal for this course was to hear the stories of companies in different stages of the startup lifespan and to show what was uniquely Israeli,” says IT Professor Saonee Sarker, who taught the course. “And not to study just the startups themselves, but the entire startup ecosystem. We went to OurCrowd, a very well-known crowdfunding platform. We visited JVP, a leading Israeli venture capital fund. We went to see incubators like The Floor, located in the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and doing all kinds of fintech innovation, including robotics and cryptocurrency.”

The course led the group from Charlottesville to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and up-and-coming Be’er Sheva, a living example of the startup infrastructure that has revolutionized what was once “a very small desert town,” Sarker explains. “It was an experience to see how they developed a startup ecosystem. Be’er Sheva became the home of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and the government realized the area had the space to work on innovation. Businesses are teaming up with Ben-Gurion, and the Israeli military has moved into the area with its cybersecurity innovation wing as well.”

No Fear of Failure
How much of a role does the nation actually play in supporting its ever-growing startup landscape? Consider this: During the more than dozen meetings the group attended with various startup players, from web development firm Wix to library software powerhouse Ex Libris, introductions and corporate overviews routinely began with mentions about the country’s commitment to fostering new enterprises.

“Whenever you ask anyone in Israel to talk about their company, they always sell Israel before they talk about their own business,” Sarker says.

Noting that the entrepreneurial mindset makes up a big part of the national attitude, Sarker says that it is a major force behind its people’s achievements. “For a startup, you have to get over your fear of failure. And Israelis are not afraid of failing. In fact, every startup owner we spoke to said, ‘If you’ve never failed, that means you haven’t pushed yourself.’ Failure in Israel is seen as something good, because it means you’re using your experience to get to the next phase.”

Third-year McIntire student Aman Waheed (McIntire ’19) found the course inspiring and transformative. “Although I wanted to learn the secrets of these established investors and entrepreneurs, I was enthralled by their belief in the values of failure and learning as you go,” he says. “They all encouraged us to get involved today and make mistakes along the way, saying that it is the best way to learn. The trip really changed my views on business, startups, and people.”

In addition to their indomitable confidence, Israelis are able to move quickly on innovation because of an infrastructure that bypasses many bureaucratic roadblocks found elsewhere. “You may have the technology, but policymakers in government and the ease of setting up a business play a role,” Sarker says. A relatively small population of 8 million and a car trip of about six hours between the nation’s farthest points make for a tightknit network less complicated to navigate than those of many other countries. “They say, in Israel, there is never more than two degrees of separation between people. You can pick up the phone and get a lot of things done.”

Alumni Making the Difference
In planning the Israel course for the first time, many alumni also helped to get things done by doing their part to make the Israel course a reality.

From its earliest brainstorming stage, when McIntire organizers contacted New York alums with close ties to Israeli businesses, straight through to the completion of the trip, the idea to build a learning experience around this Middle East tech hotbed took careful faculty planning and some crucial connections directly facilitated by engaged McIntire alumni.

“We have been eager to tell this story for several years now, and our alumni were critical in making that happen,” says McIntire’s Assistant Dean of Global Affairs Chris Elliott.

Elliott and Sarker reached out to Israel-based ‘Hoos in advance of “Innovation & Entrepreneurship in Israel,” traveling there last year. The meetings proved beneficial, as McIntire and other UVA alums interested in reconnecting with the School provided ideas and practical advice and put the Comm School in touch with many of the organizations that hosted students. “Jeff Vincent (McIntire ’87) connected us to his wife, Limor, who works for the BIRD Foundation (an R&D group promoting cooperation between Israeli and U.S. companies). She made a wonderful presentation to our students and helped us secure a visit with JVP in Jerusalem,” Sarker says.

Brett Schor (A&S ’98) facilitated the group’s visit at Ex Libris, and Eitan Iahr (McIntire ’06) secured a meeting with online genealogy platform MyHeritage.

Another meaningful visit, UVA alum Robby Grossman (A&S ’94) also welcomed students with a reception in his Jerusalem home. “The UVA spirit was very strong. Everything was blue and orange in Robby’s house. It was almost like being in Charlottesville,” Sarker says.

Progress and Tradition
Between the many business-related visits marking the course’s tightly packed schedule, students also had time to explore the Dead Sea, hike up the Snake Path at Masada, take a camel ride with a Bedouin community in the Negev Desert, and tour Jerusalem’s Old City.

“Many of the students found the Old City particularly striking,” says Elliott, “not just because of their own backgrounds, but also due to the amazingly complex layers of history and religious significance for the three major religions: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.”

Students also learned about the rich diversity of faith in Israel by visiting a Druze village and the impressive Bahá'í Gardens in Haifa, representative of two of the nation’s most prominent minority religions.

Fourth-year Sar­­ah Harano (McIntire ’18) took the instruction to heart. “Israel was an eye-opening experience for me. I see the world differently after my visit, because it made me realize there are so many things that make up a country and a culture, and how simply reading about a place is never enough to fully understand and appreciate it.”

Sarker says that the course offered an ideal example of how tradition and modernity can coexist. “Israel is a land of contrasts, but instead of getting bogged down by it, they have made it their strength. You have the center of three major world religions and the highest level of innovation. Here is a country proving that you can have meaning while still preparing for the future. I think it’s a great lesson for McIntire students—and anyone: If you have a mission, if you have an idea, if you have something that you feel needs to move forward, nothing can hold you back.”

Maillet helped to put the course in context. “We have long aspired to add Israel to the lineup, not only because of the important cultural, religious, and geopolitical contexts, but because Israel is truly one of the world’s leaders in technological innovation. Given her expertise, Professor Sarker was the right colleague to help students understand the tremendous dynamism of the Israeli economy and business community. I’m thrilled that the first year of running this course proved so successful, and hope we will continue to bring students to Israel for many years to come.”

Photo credit: Aman Waheed