A City on the Rise Meets the Startup Nation in Jerusalem

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View of the Mediterranean Sea and Tel Aviv from the offices of Google Israel. Photo by Winslow Swart.

View of the Mediterranean Sea and Tel Aviv from the offices of Google Israel. Photo by Winslow Swart.

Hand-hewn monolithic limestone edifices tell of the city’s historical, colonial and cultural past as a context for the region’s diversely rich societal ethos. A city embraced in its storied heritage, while firmly standing in its present and future. Visitors are drawn to its carefully preserved and restored landmarks, remnants of past eras and empires while enjoying the most modern convention facilities and accommodations, along with traditional, contemporary and international cuisine.  For a city of 1 million, it maintains a uniquely, small town feel even within its urban core.  Since its inception, it has been a destination for pilgrimages, a crossroads for trade, and a rallying point for geo-political and military campaigns. But for most within its boundaries, it is home.

At once, these statements loosely describe the fabric of both San Antonio and Jerusalem. This is my effort to compare and contrast these two historic cities.

While in Israel recently, I was struck by the similarities between the “Startup Nation” and our aspiring city on the rise.  It is clear that our life here in South Texas is quite different in almost every way.  We do not live in a world of scarce and inflated resources and the constant threat of annihilation that drive such high levels of innovation and ingenuity critical to our very survival. They do not live in a world where failure and complacency are options and creature comforts, the norm. In talking a few steps back, there are some remarkable parallels, contrasts and learnable features worth mentioning.

Friendship City

San Antonio’s official “friendship city” is the coastal, metro-city of Tel Aviv (population 415,000). Interestingly, it is hill country-esque Jerusalem (population 804,000, including extra-territorial jurisdictions the population is 1.2 million, nearly the same size as San Antonio) that serves as a better contrast, informant, and a source of lessons we can learn from, and perhaps emulate. While similarities exist, one cannot overlook the stark differences in culture, age, antiquity, urban density and the sheer scale of the ancient architectural infrastructure and artifacts.

The “Cardo” ruins of the main commercial street in the Old City of Jerusalem from the Roman era. Photo by Winslow Swart.

The “Cardo” ruins of the main commercial street in the Old City of Jerusalem from the Roman era. Photo by Winslow Swart.

We do share a common heritage. After the Spanish Inquisition (1478 – 1834) Sephardic Jews were expulsed from Spain and scattered throughout the Old and New Worlds. Many settled in Northern Mexico settling the territory of Coahuila y Tejas under the Spanish crown as conversos, or crypto (hidden) Jews.  Some returned to Israel. Remnants and artifacts of the Sephardic culture are found today in both San Antonio and Jerusalem.

Cultural Diversity

70 cultures have descended upon Israel from across the globe over the past 70 years, bringing with them their languages, traditions, customs, business acumen and their food.  Nowhere is this more palpable than in the “shuk – the Mahane Yehuda open marketplace in Jerusalem.  The shuk is an amazing blend of smells, sights, sounds, old world specialization, farm-to-market economy and the high-paced intense haggle of a Turkish bazaar. It is fabulous that there is so much cultural harmony in the city, despite reports to the contrary.

During the recent intifada – a barrage of 100 missiles launched into southern Israel from the Gaza – I shopped, talked, walked, ate and prayed with Christians, Druzim, Muslims and Jews from Israel and all over the world. The Old City has a unifying quality that is also one of the unique characteristics of San Antonio.  In this way, I felt completely at home. Coinciding with the City of San Antonio’s recent  Non-Discrimination Ordinance and Bexar County’s newly enacted Plus 1 Employee Benefits plan supported by the newly launched  inclusivity training initiatives, last month Israel passed into law the illegalization of discriminatory acts within the state-wide school system, with specific language to include the LGBT community.

Food Culture

Israel is a globalized society straddling both the modern and the ancient. A perfect example is Jakko’s Street, situated on the side-street/alley right next to the Mahane Yehuda shuk.  Every day, chef  Zakai Hooja walks through the 10 block market place selecting fresh items from his favorite Persian, Iraqi, Uzbeki, Syrian, Yemeni, Moroccan, Latin and European vendors for exquisitely fresh fish, meats, grains, veggies and spices.  He converts these raw ingredients into world-class fare that holds its own next to any celebrity chef of world fame.

 The Yehuda Menahe “shuk” or open air market place in the center of Jerusalem. Photo by Winslow Swart.

The Mahane Yehuda “shuk” or open air market place in the center of Jerusalem. Photo by Winslow Swart.

The walls at Jakko’s are decorated with stolen mid-century street signs and simple kitchen items that can be found at shuk sundry stalls giving Jakkos’ a warm urban flair. Center stage is the grill and sauté station focusing attention on the alchemy at hand, as has become expected in a modern bistro. Despite the attempt at humble/chic, if you’re on budget this is not the place to go. Fortunately, some of my people in Israel worry not of such things. For the closet gourmand and aspiring Anthony Bourdain, a 30 minute hunting and gathering spree in the shuk can yield a phenomenal array of ingredients ready to challenge your skills and delight your friends. I had a couple of days like this.

Sustainability

SAWS and our City have been pushing water conservation and have gone so far as to give away low-flow toilets and two-button toilets. Ever since the 1980s, I noticed that in Japan, toilets have two flush control options, large and small. Europe has these as well. And so does every single bathroom in Israel.

Most homes built before 1992 have been retrofitted with two-button toilets. SAWS has given away about 200,000,  “so many, that we discontinued the program last year since we saturated the qualified residential market, and now that only high-efficiency toilets are available through retailers,” said Anne Kenny Hayden, SAWS communications manager.

This next one is a great opportunity for CPS and SAWS to truly collaborate: Every single roof top in Israel has a solar water heating unit. Most homes also have a manual switch to conventionally heat water when solar gain had been sparse on a given day.  The units are compact and relatively inexpensive. This is another opportunity for our city to lead in the sustainability realm. I call for a pilot program. No pun intended.

Modern Street Car

The modern street car system in Jerusalem connects very key points – shopping, major attractions, and it serves commuters while spanning considerable enough distances where walking is a poor option.  The current San Antonio Modern Street Car plan seems a bit dwarfed by contrast.  If we commit to connecting the Pearl to downtown and to the King William/Southtown, then we have a winner.

A modern street car on Yafo Street connecting commuters with commercial centers and tourists with historical landmarks in Jerusalem. Photo by Winslow Swart.

A modern street car on Yafo Street connecting commuters with commercial centers and tourists with historical landmarks in Jerusalem. Photo by Winslow Swart.

At the very least, this should be the plan for phase two. Including commuters with key commercial centers, as well as tourist destinations, will put us on the on the right track. Again…no pun.

Startup Ecosystems

Tel Aviv is unquestionably the Startup Nation’s epicenter for innovation where companies like Google, Microsoft, Intel and the entire mobile communications industry have a significant global presence. While in Tel Aviv, I had the opportunity to present on entrepreneurship to the startups at Google’s Geekdom like digs, “The Campus.”

A typical street in the Old City (of stone) Jerusalem. Courtesy photo.

A typical street in the Old City (of stone) Jerusalem. Courtesy/author photo.

The vibe there is similar to the Capital Factory in Austin, in that there is a sense of hyper-competiveness in the quest for brand recognition and venture capital. More similar to Geekdom, is  tech accelerator “The Junction” in Tel Aviv – where I also had the chance to speak – here more than 20 entreprenuers at a time are hand selected for the quality of their “team-ness” and less for the brilliance of their tech ideas. This was the 11th such “Wave” of Junction-based teams. There is even a wall of fame of funded companies from prior “waves” that is quite similar to the T-shirt wall of TechStars  graduates  at Geekdom. When director Nitzan Cohen was giving me the Junction “pitch” it was almost identical to Jason Seats explanation of TechStars mission. Small globe. Jerusalem, which is home to its’ fair share of successful high growth companies, held a recent forum of 100 Jerusalem-based tech entrepreneurs including OurCrowd, the world’s biggest high-tech crowdfunding  firm for accredited investors.  Jerusalem was a base of operations for Google, Microsoft and Intel over the past 30 years, long before they landed offices in Tel Aviv. It becomes readily apparent that Jerusalem is not to Tel Aviv what San Antonio has been, and is still perceived to be, to Austin. San Antonio has a nascent startup ecosystem, though decidedly on the rise and the advantages of doing business here are many. We in the Alamo City have our own entrepreneurial swagger, distinct from Austin, and this is apparent in the Holy City as well. As we continue to build our confidence and the number of high growth companies in the Alamo City, we can better stand as peers to the cities of comparison.

After Thoughts

What makes Israel and Jerusalem both thriving and enduring is both a strong sense of cultural identity and the relentless obsession with creating the next great thing. In San Antonio, we also walk a dual path of preserving our heritage and legacy while rising to the occasion of becoming one the nation’s great cities. Israeli’s’ have the gift of fiercely honest conversation. We have the gift of excessive politeness.  It may serve us to adopt an added degree of respectful dissent when working through the bigger issues facing our city’s future, without losing our southern charm.

*Featured/top image: View of the Mediterranean Sea and Tel Aviv from the offices of Google Israel. Photo by Winslow Swart.

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One thought on “A City on the Rise Meets the Startup Nation in Jerusalem

  1. I’m curious – Is Jerusalem a city in the territory of Palestine or Israel? According to Wikipedia it is the seat of power of Palestine and it is where Israel maintains government institutions. On Google Maps and Mapquest there is a line (Armistice) on the map view but I can’t find a physical border. I have never visited the city but I have been nearby.

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