Ashton Kutcher: Israel is close to my heart

"Coming to Israel is sort of coming back to the source of creation," Hollywood star says at hi-tech gathering in Tel Aviv.

May 14, 2013 01:03
Ashton Kutcher at hi-tech gathering in Tel Aviv

Ashton Kutcher at hi-tech gathering in Tel Aviv 370. (photo credit: Rebecca Rachmany)

The free beer was flowing, the Star Wars-looking tech-gadget displays were out in full bloom, and the army of T-shirt wearing start-up founders, CEOs and engineers were almost indistinguishable from those who came to see Ashton Kutcher. Except that the fans and groupies were better dressed and were more tanned.

The two worlds, numbering over 1,000, amicably intermingled in the lobby of the Tel Aviv Academic College on Monday night as they waited for the common denominator – Hollywood icon Kutcher – to emerge and impart some wisdom about investing in Israel and maybe, throw a little money their way.

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The Two and Half Men star, along with his business partner Guy Oseary, the Israeli-born manager of Madonna, are partners in A-Grade, a venture capital firm that has made investments in over 60 companies including Airbnb and Spotify.

They were the featured guests at a “Meet the industry leaders” event, which is regularly hosted by hi-tech brainstorming center GarageGeeks in their modest Holon facilities. And based on the buzz and applause greeting their statements, they didn’t disappoint.

“Israel is near and dear to my heart,” said Kutcher when asked by moderator Yossi Vardi – known as the godfather of Israeli hi-tech why he was visiting the country.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to come here several times – this is my fourth trip to Israel. The last couple times I came here, I started meeting a few people that were in the tech space, and started realizing that a lot of the innovation that comes out of here – for pure defense of self – can also spawn commercial endeavors that can be much greater than that.”

“I realized that there was such a wealth of knowledge, that was creating really gigantically valuable innovative ideas.

And Guy and I – three years ago – started pursuing technology investing, mostly because we wanted to change the world. We saw the world changing and we wanted to be part of it. We wanted to help people who had goals and aspirations to bring the world together in a different way.”

Kutcher praised Israel for being the at the epicenter of Internet innovation, saying that the country is “a place that’s managed to embrace its neighbors and create peace within an environment that can be very hostile. I think a large part of that global change has been happening over the Internet and I believe that the innovation that will come from that will be inspired from here. And we want to be a part of that global change,” he said, adding that he and Oseary were in Israel to look for suitable companies in which to invest.

The event aroused so much interest in the tech community in Israel that it was moved from the GarageGeeks regular meeting place in Holon to the larger Tel Aviv facility. However, the expansive outdoor lawn setting was scrapped due to last-minute rain and moved to the crowded lobby and a makeshift stage on a staircase landing.

Kutcher, wearing jeans and baseball cap, didn’t seem to mind the informality.

Displaying an intelligent persona far different from the That 70s Show and Punk’d characters he played on TV, Kutcher goodnaturedly participated when Vardi invited a handful of attendees that he knew to climb the stairs to the makeshift podium and present a 30-second pitch for their company or idea.

Among them was Moshe, a haredi entrepreneur, who together with Vardi, has developed a method to edit video footage in 30 seconds.

Kutcher listened politely, asked some follow-up questions and requested Moshe’s business card.

The same thing happened when Salah Masalha from Kfar Qari walked up the steps following Vardi?s query if there were any Israeli Arab startups in the audience. He presented his plan to enable the Arab world to communicate in English through voice recognition technology, an idea that piqued Oseary?s interest.

“We met earlier today with Chemi Peres, and he’s spending a lot of time on Arab-Israeli startups,” said Oseary. “And what I’m really happy about is the concept of us all working together and not making assumptions about someone by the way he looks or his background.

Our concept is to work with Israeli minds – it’s not white, black, gray, green, it’s Israeli.”

Members of the audience were constantly placing business cards, notebooks and notes on the landing, in the hopes of being a lucky one to get the attention of Kutcher and Oseary. At one point Kutcher bent down, scooped up all the material and placed it in bag he took with him.

He explained how he and Oseary look for the right company to invest in – how just as in a movie he looks for a good story and a creative director, he wants entrepreneurs with originality and the ability to connect well socially.

In addition to the business side of his trip, Kutcher was planning to spend part of Shavuot at the Kabala Center in Tel Aviv, according to a representative of the center. Kutcher’s three previous visits to Israel focused on Kabala study, a practice he adopted after studying in Los Angeles.

“Coming to Israel is sort of coming back to the source of creation – trying to get closer to that. And as a creative person, going to the source of creation is really inspiring. And this place has been really inspiring for me – not only on a spiritual level, but also on an artistic and creative level.”

When asked how someone could be more like Ashton Kutcher, the actor laughed and responded with a story that occurred on one of his previous visits to Israel.

“I was with my Kabala teacher at the grave of Rabbi Akiva and I started crying. I just had this emotional response to being there and the energy there. Because I had heard all these stories about Rabbi Akiva and the incredible sacrifices that he had made. And I said to my teacher, ‘how can I be more like Rabbi Akiva?’

“And he looked at me and he said, ‘you don’t need to be more like Rabbi Akiva, you need to be more like Ashton Kutcher. Because you’re not going to get to the gates and have someone say, ‘why weren’t you more like Rabbi Akiva?’; they’re going to say why weren’t you more like Ashton Kutcher? Why didn’t you accomplish the things that Ashton Kutcher was supposed to accomplish?’”

After a few more questions, Kutcher and Oseary descended the step, were bombarded with more pitches and wellwishers, and headed off into the Tel Aviv night. Some of the startup geeks ventured off as well, a few of them elated at sharing some words or a business card with a potential benefactor. Others lingered looking for one more cup of free beer and wondering when the next big time investor was going to come to town.

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