Thursday was extraordinary.
After three long invigorating days meeting numerous local start-up’s, VC’s and government officials in Israel this week I did not know what to expect going into Thursday’s agenda. We started the day with the US Consul General and his staff going through a detailed review of the current economic and political scene in Israel. Once again it was clear to me that the dramatic constraints and threats to everyday life in Israel are unlike anything I have ever had to weather – and the Israelis do so with such grace and fortitude.
After breakfast we met with the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, who had been a very successful entrepreneur and VC prior to holding elected office. After pleasantries he launched into his political agenda and where he wants to take Jerusalem. He envisions this city being in effect the capital of the world, given the profound intersections of faiths which find their ways through Jerusalem. You also quickly realize that he does not suffer fools. Like Mayor Bloomberg in New York, he came in with enormous wealth and is unencumbered with a political legacy.
But the meeting with President Shimon Peres, which followed, began to put the entire trip in perspective. Generous with his time he shared his vision for the country and even offered some of his more important “investment themes” – he felt the next decade was the “decade of the brain” and man’s ability to better discern the human condition be it through more efficacious and appropriate medicines to our more efficient use of natural resources. Let me share some of his other observations on the world around him:
- “Before there were 192 ships, now we have 192 cabins on one large ship” – referring to the co-dependency of world affairs
- “Science is on an elevator, man is on stairs”
- “The judge does not know the impact of judgments” – a direct reference to a nuclear Iran (a disaster which must be avoided, particularly with what we have seen in this region the last 6 weeks)
- “America defends many countries yet many of them vote against the US – how ironic”
- “Israel has no water, little land yet exports carrots to Russia who has 1,000 lakes and is 1,000x the size of Israel” – in response to why he views innovation so central to the Israeli agenda
- “Judge not by price, but by value”
But it is what happened next which forever has changed my life – the visit to Yad Vashem, Israeli’s National Holocaust Memorial – and to be there at this time in history in the freezing drizzling rain punctuated the visit.
Housed in a concrete bunker with utterly tragic reminders – photos, film clips, personal mementos on display – of the atrocities inflicted on the Jewish people nearly 70 years ago brought many of us to tears. This was singularly the most poignant experience in my life. I was not able to eat afterward. The memories of what I saw in that building will never leave me.
What followed next was near surreal; I met with three of Palestine’s leading entrepreneurs. They were CEO’s of some of the West Bank’s leading software companies and were raising capital and looking for advice on how to best scale their companies. This meeting was arranged by the Private Enterprise Office of USAID (West Bank and Gaza bureau). They all had built interesting businesses which were profitable but had run into obvious limits given their constrained local market. This session underscored the dire need for productive commerce across these borders to drive some modest degree of cooperation.
After a private dinner for the Governor’s delegation to start the de-briefing discussions on how we best capitalize on all the meetings and connections established (I am having 3 of the start-up’s I met back to Boston for follow-up meetings next month), the Governor surprised the group with a private evening tour of the Western Wall which he had arranged with the Mayor of Jerusalem unbeknownst to us.
At 10:30pm for two hours we were led through the winding tunnels underneath the Old City of Jerusalem. Amidst these tunnels are excavation sites which have uncovered nearly 3,000 years of artifacts. I will never forget surfacing in front of the Western Wall after midnight to the scene of hundreds of people praying against the Wall in the rain.