Israelis bring ‘magic fairy dust’ to LA conference • By KELLY HARTOG Jerusalem Post correspondent LOS ANGELES – In 2009, Yossi Vardi – one of Israel’s most successful entrepreneurs – joined forces with American businesswoman and entrepreneur Sharona Justman – to create the Israel Conference in Los Angeles.
The idea was a simple one: establish opportunities between Israeli and US businesses; and hi-tech communities by inspiring entrepreneurs and investors from both countries to meet, discuss ideas and create ventures. The idea took root and has continued to flourish.
California not only houses Los Angeles, one of America’s largest cities, it’s also the seventh largest economy in the world and has been dubbed “Silicon Beach,” with many hi-tech companies and startups, setting up shop in and around Los Angeles’s beach communities.
The 2014 conference was held October 30 and 31 at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles – a museum and educational center devoted to sustaining Jewish heritage and American democratic ideals.
Panels and discussions focused on everything from cybersecurity to the Hollywood film and television industry.
In her opening remarks, Justman said one of the purposes of the conference was to “show the power and strength of how the Israeli economy is touching the world. The more Israel is known for what it delivers and less for what newscasters like to talk about, the stronger Israel becomes.”
Highlighting how the Israeli economy can impact California, one of the main panel discussions of the conference was ‘The 2014 California Gold Rush,’ focusing on the memorandum of understanding signed in March between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and California Gov. Jerry Brown.
Moderated by deputy editor in chief of The Wall Street Journal Rebecca Blumenstein, the panel consisted of Consul-General David Siegel, LA City councilman Bob Blumenfeld, water expert and former CEO of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power David Nahai, and founder and senior fellow at the Milken Institute, Glenn Yago.
Speaking of the possibilities that the memorandum has opened up, Siegel noted that it’s California’s first comprehensive agreement with an international partner. “It relates to everything from dealing with the California drought to cybersecurity and technology.
[The MoU] offers many opportunities for partnering with Israeli companies,” he said.
Focusing on the current drought in California, Nahai noted that the memorandum embraces seven particular areas but that water and energy are at the top of the list.
“Israeli companies have a lot to offer,” in these areas, he said.
Yago underscored that point saying that when it comes to water, Israel knows how to survive drought conditions. “Israel has had the lowest measured rainfall in 125 years,” he said, but 83.5 percent of their water is recycled and in the last 10 years there’s been a real push on desalination as well.”
He noted that Israel currently produces 20% more water than it consumes through recycling and desalination. And he pointed out that the United States currently only reuses 5% of its water.
Yager predicted that in a year from now, based on work with Israel, there would be “measurable impacts on water conservation and production,” in California.
Siegel said these days, particularly in the aftermath of the Gaza war; people are very pessimistic when it comes to Israel. “But they’re missing a big chapter in this story.
“Israel and California are coming together in ways that we have never seen before and other countries are waking up and this is one of the stellar achievements that will be written about Israel’s international reach and partnerships.”
Accentuating this strength, Vardi sat down to talk to 24-yearold wunderkind Noam Bardin, CEO of Waze. Fourteen months ago, Bardin sold the wildly popular navigation and traffic app to Google for $1.1b.
The poster-boy for hi-tech received a huge welcome and ahead of the discussion, attendees were asked how many of them used the app. Every hand shot up in the air. Even Vardi admitted he “cannot live” without Waze.
Bardin was happy to talk openly about his success and discuss important strategies for Israeli entrepreneurs hoping to break into the US market. “One thing we did really well was to combine hardcore functionality with a fun user experience,” he said.
Just having a great experience isn’t going to be enough, he explained. You have to provide a utility as well. “For us it’s a combination of analytics – tracking what users do – and also about where you want the product to go. Users are not going to tell you what they don’t know or use a feature that doesn’t exist,” he added.
He spoke too about the difference between working with a small company and making the transition to a large one, given that he now works at Google. “The core difference between a start-up and a corporation is that in a start-up the whole company is about the product whereas at a corporation it’s all about the corporate brand.
The religious fervor in a start-up, having that one reason for living, doesn’t exist in a large company.”
Nonetheless, he said Waze has still maintained its strong identity, even under the banner of Google.
“We retained our marketing, communication and sales teams. At the end of the day I’m the buffer [between Waze and Google]. We’re independent but now we have deep pockets and we’re constantly pushed to think bigger.”
Among the most talked about sessions, was one of the many that looked at the powerful nexus between Israel and Hollywood, particularly in the field of television.
In a session entitled “Power On,” panelists Jennifer Salke, entertainment president of NBC, Bert Salke (her husband), president of Fox 21, the cable/unscripted production arm of 20th Century Fox TV, and David Lonner, CEO of Oasis Media Group spoke with Vardi about the recent success of many Israeli-adapted productions and why Hollywood is so in love with Israeli shows.
Two of Bert Salke’s signature shows are Homeland and Tyrant from Gideon Raff, and Jennifer Salke is involved with an Israeli- based show set to air shortly in the United States called Allegiance (Avi Nir – CEO Keshet Media Group). Yet another show currently receiving excellent reviews is The Affair, (Hagai Levy); and The Dig (Avi Nir) is currently in production at Jennifer’s sister company, USA. In fact, Nir’s Keshet Media Group has eight shows on US television, with more in production.
Asked why Hollywood television executives are coming to Israel to look for shows, Bert said “Hollywood goes anywhere we believe talent and stories lie, and there’s a treasure trove in Israel, a level of creativity. That’s what drives Hollywood.”
Jennifer added, “It’s no secret that there’s a premium on creativity, originality and original voices, and when you look at the material that’s coming out of Israel – especially in the hour format – it has something the material here doesn’t have.”
Trying to pin down what it is that makes Israeli shows so compelling, Jennifer said, “Given the political and cultural format and the fact that young people go into service at 17, it creates a deeper, thinking, soulful, well-informed kind of culture that has come up creatively.”
Bert added that to grow up or live in Israel is a “unique experience I think you feel you’re part of something bigger than just yourself. I think you think about things in a deeper way. Life, frankly, is more valuable. The kind of shows that have really made their mark, whether it’s In Treatment or Homeland are about deep, emotional issues and they resonate existentially.”
Jennifer said that Israeli shows “balance creativity and real human stories with the knowledge and the substance of someone who has been informed by the experience.
“I think,” she said, “that creates the magic fairy dust of what Israel brings to the table.”