Last November, I boarded a United Airlines flight from San Antonio to Tel Aviv – something I had done 50 times over the last 22 years.
I generally went for two-week trips; enough time for business development, visiting with clients, friends, and family, and enjoying and discovering a new part of Israel.
This time I was going for what became an initial four month journey to focus on an engagement I had with Rackspace with a mission to #BeHelpful to the startup ecosystems in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, and Nazareth. The #BeHelpful theme came from Rackspace Vice President of Social Strategy, Rob La Gesse.
The idea behind this was for me to serve as a value-added resource – sponsored by Rackspace – focused on helping startups in the areas of technology public relations and communications strategies. Most startups don’t have budgets, let alone even think about communications as a key differentiator in their business strategy.
Through a combination of doing free seminars, holding office hours at more than 20 accelerators, incubators, and startup spaces, collaborating with the venture capital firms who were funding these companies, and doing one-on-one mentoring sessions, I was able to offer sponsored advisory services and give qualifying startups a chance to build their companies on Rackspace infrastructure at no charge, for a period of one year, through their innovative startup program.
In the process of working, living, and serving as a Brand Ambassador for Rackspace, I discovered something else that went above and beyond anything I expected.
Sure, I knew that Israel had the second largest startup ecosystem in the world – after Silicon Valley with some 4,000 startups – at my doorstep, and that Israel ranks number three in the world behind the U.S. and China in terms of the number of NASDAQ publicly traded companies. I could state statistic after statistic about Israel, but there was something more going on here.
There are thousands of really smart people working there who are probably running around, either thinking about, or working on, a side project that could indeed become a unicorn company. They could be. I really don’t know.
But what I do know is sometimes you have to look beyond the statistics and hype of these stories and drill in a bit deeper to realize that for a country of 8 million people, it’s pretty amazing to think that almost everything you touch in your life that has made it easier to communicate, share, create, be a bit healthier or safer, probably has something from Israel under the hood.
I learned this early on during my journey of discovering Israel. Twenty years ago, I was mostly focused on the original equipment and design manufacturers – the companies who actually made the hardware and software for what became the infrastructure and plumbing of what we now know as the Internet.
This cycle, and the time I was able to spend in Israel, helped me discover something else: Israel is becoming a world leader in using technology to solve massive societal issues. They are doing this in water, energy, the environment, and medicine. Startups not just from mainstream Israeli society, but those on the periphery – the Israeli Arabs and the Orthodox (Haredim) – are encouraged to be part of social accelerator programs such as Mass Challenge Israel and Presentense, which have specialized programs aimed at social impact.
I’m in New York City writing this story, and I just left an event where I heard from the founders of a new type of accelerator and venture fund called Takwin aimed at serving the Arab Israeli entrepreneurial market.
Being away from home for four months was in itself a unique life experience. I rented an apartment in Tel Aviv via Airbnb and discovered how little I need in my daily life.
As long as I had WiFi, my Israeli cell phone number, and my camera to share and tell stories, I was a pretty happy camper.
Not having a car was liberating. I walked, took public transportation, taxis, and only on two occasions I found the need to rent a car. While I missed not having a washer and dryer, I became good friends with the guy who owns the laundry service around the corner.
I missed San Antonio, my friends, my family, and my daily routine. I discovered that being away, you create new routines, adjust accordingly, and live in the present.
I considered myself very lucky and blessed to do something I had only experienced 41 years ago when I was a junior at Antioch College – living, studying, and working overseas. Beyond working and my engagement with Rackspace, this really became my second junior year abroad.
I realized that I was pretty much the same, that I still listened to a lot of the same music as I did four decades ago, and that perhaps the major difference was that I now had two (adult) children, a mortgage, a credit card, and my music was stored in the cloud.
On March 1, I returned for one month to meet with the wonderful people I get to work with at Rackspace, take part as a speaker at SXSW, make a trip to New York City to take part in the Israel Dealmakers Summit, connect with members of the Isa startup ecosystem in Manhattan (there are some 200 Israeli companies here), and return home for one more week before I head back to Israel for another 90 days on behalf of Rackspace.
On Wednesday, April 1, from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., I will sharing my insights on Israel’s startup and innovation economy at Café Commerce, located at the San Antonio Central Library downtown. You can register here for the free event.
I will not only share my insights on what I learned, but share what I believe is ahead. I also see opportunities for our wonderful city to more closely align with Israel’s startup and innovation economy, particularly in areas such as cybersecurity, water, and healthcare.
Going forward, my goal is to continue splitting my time between living in San Antonio and Tel Aviv. I am hoping to connect our two communities closer together to see where this might lead us. I know I am lucky to be doing this, and want to give back and share in anyway I can.
*Featured/top image: Photo of me with Danny Gold, the inventor of The Iron Dome. Courtesy photo.