The (Not) So Secret Recipe of the Startup Nation

A reflection by Noa Ohayon Bab, The Jewish Federation’s Senior Shlicha

With 350 multinational corporations, 40 venture capital (VC) firms, $6.4 billion in 2018 VC investments, and a long list of companies sold for billions of dollars to IT giants like Intel, Google, Cisco, IBM, and HP, there are many reasons why Israel is known as the “startup nation.” But how is it that a country about the size of New Jersey, with a population smaller than New York City, is home to more Nasdaq-listed companies than any country except the U.S. and China? What “secret ingredients” does Israel—a country that is only 70 years old—use to develop more per-capita venture capital, startups, and scientists and tech professionals than any other country in the world?

This past December, I had the opportunity to lead a discussion on this topic at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s Early Childhood and Family Education Conference, which brings in over 700 educators from across the Washington, DC region for a day of learning and professional development. I was truly honored to discuss this subject with so many educators. To foster a connection with Israel among American Jewish students, we need to ensure they understand both Israel’s historical significance to the Jewish people and its modern importance to the global technological community. And if they understand Israel’s startup spirit, hopefully they can embody those attributes themselves when they grow up and enter the workforce.

Talking about Israel as a “startup nation” brings my two worlds together: education and technology. Before joining Federation as the Senior Shlicha (Israeli emissary), I worked in the technology sector, serving in a senior leadership position at eBay. Now, I am passionate about using lessons from the tech world to advance social causes.

So, here are three takeaways from my talk. I hope we can all use these lessons to embody a startup mentality as we work together to build a more vibrant Jewish community.

  1. Fail with purpose

While Israel might be booming with startups, it does not have a strong automobile manufacturing industry. That might have something to do with Susita. One of the few cars ever to be created in Israel, Susita is well known throughout Israel as a flop. It was not very stylish—and not a lot of fun to drive.

But today, Israelis can bring up Susita as a fun and amusing anecdote because, from its failure to mass produce cars, Israel has found another path to be a force for good in the automobile sector. Since the time when this car failed to be a sensation around the globe, the Israeli company Mobileye developed anti-collision technology (recently acquired by Intel for $300 billion) that will be a basic component in every car manufactured around the world. In addition, the auto-tech industry in Israel has produced Waze, Moovit, Argus, and more technologies that are transforming the way people drive. Considering how the Israeli automotive industry started with Susita, it’s quite the redemption story!

  1. Always try again to do better—even if at first you do succeed

During my talk, I shared the story of Beresheet spacecraft, a moon-landing mission that was part success, part failure. The spacecraft was the first nongovernmental mission to land on the moon, the first Israeli mission to land on the moon, the first ride-share mission to land on the moon, and the smallest spacecraft to aim for and land on the moon. A great success, right? Not quite. While the spacecraft did technically “land” on the moon, it would be more accurate to say that it “crashed.”

On April 11, 2019, tens of thousands of Israelis watched the Beresheet’s destructive moon landing. But it wasn’t a national calamity or a demoralizing experience. By April 14, the Beresheet’s team had already announced that they were working on Beresheet spacecraft II.

I showed the educators at the conference televised interviews of Israelis who had come together to watch the landing at Ben Gurion Airport. They spoke in English, with heavy Israeli accents—and a distinctively Israeli attitude.

One interviewee said, “It’s not exactly that we didn’t land on the moon, because … yes …we did get to the moon. We crashed, but we reached the moon.”

Another interviewee said, “It was only our first time, so we just have to try again and again.”

There was something so touching and moving about the authentic responses of those people. Even as the broadcast showed the video of the crash on repeat, these Israelis spoke, not with shame or a paralyzing disappointment, but with motivation and passion and optimism that will lead us back to the moon again and again, until we get it right—and then we’ll go again..

  1. Build confidence in young people

Many eighth-grade Israelis participate in the Rhapsody Project, a two-day team challenge to build a raft from scratch, using empty barrels, wood, and ropes, and sail it across Lake Kinneret. The challenge is organized by the Hebrew Scout’s movement, the Israeli equivalent of the Boy and Girl Scouts of America. This is usually done in the hot weather and not the safest conditions, but the teens usually do succeed. The skillset one acquires through such an experience includes complex problem solving, risk assessment, team building, and, most of all, a lot of self-confidence.

Despite the prominence of youth STEM programming like the raft challenge, Israelis do not tend to score well on standardized tests. One set of tests are infamous in Israel: The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests. The PISAs evaluate educational systems across the globe by measuring 15-year-old students’ scholastic performance in math, science, and reading. Israelis almost always score toward the bottom of these tests.

But when Israelis are asked the question, “How well do you think you solve math problems?”, they answer positively—despite the PISA results. While Israelis might not test well, their confidence in their ability to solve problems when they need to is extremely high.

Israel has a “yihiyeh b’seder” culture—a philosophy that “everything will be fine.” We might not take the traditional approach to solving a problem, but our confidence and experience leads us to positive results in the end. By instilling confidence in our young people, we are enabling Israelis to be the kinds of entrepreneurs who will not think twice about taking on risks or challenges and wading into unknown territory.

This is what American educators should teach their students: to embrace failure, to try again, and to act with confidence. This is an approach we might want to consider using in American classrooms. These skills apply to all contexts, not just startups and tech businesses.

Israel is a thriving, multi-faceted country. There are good reasons for our young people to develop a connection to Israel as the “startup nation” in addition to the Jewish state.

Meet the Jewish Federation’s 2019-2020 Community Shlichim