I recently returned from a trip to Israel, where I was born and lived during my early childhood. I hadn’t been back in a few years, and I was interested to see how the country, tech scene, and culture had changed.
Looking back on this trip, one defining theme came to mind: “Against all odds.” This theme hit home on multiple levels.
The obvious story
First, there’s the most obvious connection to the “Against All Odds” theme – that of the often told Israeli narrative of economic and technological vibrancy. From the dust, ashes, tears and pain of the holocaust – which wiped out six million Jews, including over a million children – Israel has defiantly built an engine of innovation, transforming a sleepy backwater of the British mandate into an economic and democratic miracle in the Middle East.
I attended a few conferences last week, including the annual OurCrowd Investor Summit. About 10,000 people from 100 countries gathered in the heart of Jerusalem – including hundreds of startups with inspiring tech ranging from augmented reality drones that assist first responders (Edgy Bees) to helping wheelchair-bound people navigate the world with greater ease (UPnRide). We heard from the president of Softbank, founders of billion-dollar ventures, social entrepreneurs and Nobel Prize winners. The energy and vibrancy were palpable.
In just 70 years, Israel has truly gone from zero to one – from the infancy of a nation taking its first steps, to a tech powerful house with the highest rate of VC per capita worldwide and 350 MNCs operating within its borders.
Modern Israel is no longer a story of against all odds: its legal institutions are strong and established, and there is a multitude of tech companies founded every year, supported by some of the leading investors in the world. It’s dynamic, it’s exciting, but in almost every way, one could consider it a mature tech ecosystem.
Behind the scenes
In many ways, however, there was a more subtle and poignant theme of defying the odds – and at the OurCrowd conference, it took place in a less crowded room, farther away from the action.
It was a discussion on the Arab entrepreneurship ecosystem.
In particular, I was struck by the story of one entrepreneur – an Arab-Israeli startup founder I’ll call Nadia (in case she prefers to remain anonymous). As I listened to her, I realized her life served as the definition of what it means to succeed against the odds.
First, she decided to defy the odds and become an engineer, choosing a path pursued by fewer than a third of women in Israel, and I’m guessing that figure is significantly lower for Arab-Israeli women.
Next, she decided to step away from a stable job, trading stability and safety to venture into the unknown as an entrepreneur. She literally could not explain the concept of a startup to her family, who thought she had lost her mind by quitting her well-paying job.
Third, as a woman entrepreneur, she had to learn to compete in a world dominated by male entrepreneurs and male investors. Nearly 95% of venture-funded entrepreneurs in Israel are men (read more), and the number of male VCs is likely even higher.
Lastly, as an Arab-Israeli entrepreneur, she has ventured into uncharted territory. I’ve yet to hear of one investment in an Arab-Israeli founded firm by a traditional, non-impact VC firm – although Israeli VCs make investments totaling over $6 billion a year in Israel.
Signing up to be an entrepreneur, while deeply exciting and truly one of the best ways to transform the world, is also one of the most difficult paths someone could choose. At first, it’s you and your team against the world – getting a startup off the ground, hiring a team, and raising initial rounds of investment are often a challenge for skilled entrepreneurs even at the best of times.
That’s what makes Nadia’s journey that much more inspiring. The odds facing her seem nearly insurmountable, yet she is making her dreams a reality – and she seems to do be doing it, for the most part, with a persistent smile and a defiant hope and confidence.
In addition, despite the hurdles she faces, including an ongoing lack of time that all entrepreneurs face, Nadia has committed to dedicate one day a week to mentoring other women Arab-Israeli entrepreneurs.
Yet despite the odds faced by Arab-Israeli entrepreneurs like Nadia, I left Israel feeling more confident than I expected to be about its future, as well as that of the economic development of its Arab-Israeli communities and Palestinian neighbors.
In conversations with many people, I got the sense that many Israelis believe that peace with the Palestinians – and the economic development on both sides that it will inevitably bring – is a requirement for Israel’s long-term stability.
In terms of concrete action, much work is needed, though there are initial shoots of hope. This includes Takwin, which invests in Arab-Israeli entrepreneurs.
The Israeli government is also investing in Arab-Israelis as part of the Israeli Innovation Authority initiative (Societal Challenges Division), and looking to increase the approximate 11% of funds currently used to fund Arab-Israeli initiatives to closer to 20% over time, to match the proportion of Arab-Israeli citizens within the Israeli population.
Just around the corner, Sadara Ventures invests in Palestinian tech companies in the West Bank. I imagine it’s a challenging road, with just a few dozen startups in the Ramallah area (the West Bank’s Tel Aviv equivalent), and much less talk of tech startups in Gaza.
Ultimately, the situation in many ways reminds me of the US-Mexico trade dynamic. While there are obvious major differences and the analogy isn’t perfect, what’s true is that the US (like Israel) is an economic powerhouse in its region, and Mexico (like Arab-Israeli communities, the West Bank and Gaza) is tantalizingly close to the action, yet gets much less attention, focus and integration than China or the EU, despite their being much farther afield.
Ultimately, concrete actions will speak louder than words. It will be the success of the next generation of companies like Nadia’s, investors like Takwin and Sadara, and government programs like the Israeli Innovation Authority that will play the biggest role in enabling all people in the region – women and men, Jewish and Arab Israelis, and Palestinians – to not just survive but to thrive against the odds.