UVA Darden Students Explore Intersection of Business, Culture and History in Israel
By Marc Johnson
This March, 34 University of Virginia Darden School of Business students traveled to Israel for a new Darden Worldwide Course focused on innovation and technology in the country dubbed the “Startup Nation.” Led by Professor Yael Grushka-Cockayne and joined by Dean Scott Beardsley, the students in the course developed an understanding of the forces at work in the success story of Israeli innovation and entrepreneurship culture.
Over the course of decades, Israeli companies have created a host of innovative technologies ranging from low-water irrigation systems to firewall cybersecurity systems. Israel is also home to more than 300 R&D centers for multinationals from across the globe seeking access to new technology.
“Israel provides a unique opportunity for our students to study and understand the intersections of history, culture and business,” said Grushka-Cockayne, a native of Israel. “Hearing from entrepreneurs, investors, and from government and political leaders about the ways that culture, history and society interact to create this powerful innovation and startup ecosystem forms a powerful case study for our students. Through the visits to historical sites and interacting with the Israeli people, our students are able to sense how the day-to-day life is influenced by a fragile political landscape, which results in a ‘get the job done’ mentality. The students also understand the importance of such factors in different global contexts.”
Darden students’ exploration ranged from discussions with leaders at large firms such as Mobileye to meeting the CEO and co-founder of Twiggle, a startup working in artificial intelligence to improve natural language search functions online.
The students also visited Naan Dan Jain, an agricultural technology company based in Israel’s largest kibbutz — the nation’s communal settlements. Students saw the intersection of Israeli culture and community reflected in the kibbutz as well as how local needs drive innovation in agricultural technology and lead to global business success.
During a visit with business leaders at Mobileye, the autonomous driving technology company acquired by Intel for $15.3 billion last year, students saw an example of how Israeli entrepreneurs create new technologies at the leading edge of global industries and successfully build thriving companies.
In addition to hearing about the elements of Israel that had contributed to its success today, students heard candid thoughts from leaders about Israel’s future.
Jon Medved, CEO of OurCrowd, an Israeli venture capital firm that uses a unique global crowdfunding model, commented on the prospects for Israel to shift from the startup nation to a “scale-up nation.” In recent years, Medved said there has been growth in later-stage investments and bigger deals for Israeli companies, noting over $23 billion of exits for Israeli startups in 2017. As more entrepreneurs successfully exit firms through acquisition or otherwise, Israel grows a larger pool of talented leaders with experience to fuel more firm development and growth, Medved said.
The group also discussed whether Israel’s success in creating new companies that were ultimately acquired by multinationals was an ongoing competitive advantage with Dr. Eyal Kishon, co-founder of Israeli VC firm Genesis Partners and founding chief technology officer of the Yozma Project, a public-private partnership that helped to kick-start the venture capital ecosystem in Israel in the 1990s.
During a panel of business leaders, including Darden alumni Stav Yoffe (MBA ’14) of Innoviz Technologies and Ofer Baratz (MBA ‘15) of Algatechnologies as well as Adam Cohen of Payoneer and Ori Fingerer, co-founder of WeissBeerger, students heard about what the Israeli ecosystem contributed to those firms’ success and some of the challenges for Israeli entrepreneurs looking forward.
In a country of just over eight million people and incredibly low unemployment, competition for talent is fierce. Students had the opportunity to hear a unique perspective on talent, diversity and inclusion in the Israeli context at Sodastream, a company that employs Israelis, Palestinians and members of the Israeli Bedouin community at their manufacturing facility in Rahat.
Students also met with public officials at the Knesset, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Israel Innovation Authority to better understand the role that public-sector investment and public policy play in fostering Israel’s success.
Talking with a pilot in the Israeli Defense Forces gave students an understanding of the role of mandatory national service at both a national and personal level. Students also visited important cultural and historical locations in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Dead Sea, including the world Holocaust remembrance center, Yad Vashem, gaining insights into the important forces shaping current dynamics and challenges in Israel.
“Our students need to be able to understand the range of factors shaping different business environments, including the unique interactions between public and private sectors in different countries,” Beardsley said. “It is important to recognize that business best practices are found around the world. Israel is the top-ranked country in the world in terms of R&D investment and one of the leading startup and VC hotspots in the world. Appreciating the forces of culture and history as they investigate the Old City in Jerusalem, talking with leaders of some of the world’s most innovative firms and hearing from legislative leaders in courses like this one enable our students to develop deeper appreciation for how to learn in diverse, global contexts in ways that will help them succeed.”
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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