Australian leader has flattering things to say about Israeli business

Thornley is a former Internet start-up founder who returned to Australia after a decade in Silicon Valley.

evan thornley 88 (photo credit: )
evan thornley 88
(photo credit: )
Australia is a wealthy nation with a peaceful history and a long-standing tradition of good government. Why, then, have a group of senior Australian business people and academic leaders made a trip to Israel to find out about how this country does business? The answer, says Evan Thornley, is that Israel has an abundance of one thing Australia is short on - innovation. Thornley is a former Internet start-up founder who returned to Australia after a decade in Silicon Valley to enter the world of politics. He currently serves as a member of the Parliament of Victoria, an Australian state. Thornley says Australia is far behind Israel in the start-up field; his former company is one of only a handful of Australian technology companies listed on NASDAQ, whereas Israel has dozens. And he wants to know why. Australia has many of the prerequisites for hi-tech success that Israel does, including superior education and high-quality people, Thornley says. But in his week of meetings with business executives and researchers he has come across a few clues as to why Israel has advanced and Australia hasn't. Foremost among his conclusions is that the human resources Israel's hi-tech industry has at its disposal is a primary engine of growth. He cites "the commitment to technology education here, which I'm sure is well celebrated - and rightly so," as well as "the growth in computer science and engineering graduates, and the national effort that went into making that happen. "That's created an environment where that industry can flourish because of the talented people it has to work with." Thornley says putting people first is one of the key reasons he has found for Israel's success. The Australian group visited Israeli academic institutions, including the Weizmann Institute and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Thornley says he found "a passionate commitment to excellence, and a commitment to excellence and excellent people as being more important than whatever it is they might be doing." But what Thornley says is the "most profound" thing he learned on his mission is the style of leadership he has encountered when speaking to some of the people who have been responsible for the success Israel has had in the technology sector. "We've met a number of incredibly impressive individuals who seem to have some common leadership characteristics. They have very strong principles and they stick to those principles in a very uncompromising way." That contrasts with Australia's more "harmonious" leadership style, he says, which is much more focused on compromise and making sure "everyone gets a piece of the pie." Thornley says he found Israel's approach to be as prominent in academia as in commerce. "The Weizmann Institute has some very clear principles about the way it chooses its people, how it maintains a physical environment that they think inspires creativity, and the 'iron wall' it has between the commercial world and the researchers," he says. "Those strong views about how to run things are the same as we heard from [Motorola Israel chairman] Elisha Yanay." Thornley is hesitant to guess why there are so many more of what he calls "strong, authentic leaders" in Israel, speculating about what role mandatory military service and Israel's turbulent history might have to play. He thinks that in the same way the Australian private sector can learn about how Israel does business, the public sector in Israel could benefit from the public policy advances that Australia has seen, citing the "Hex" model for funding university education through student loans, and a system for pricing water that is encouraging conservation in the arid country. Thornley has been surprised by the low priority given to climate change in Israel, an issue that he says has risen to prominence rapidly in recent years. "We are one of the biggest victims of climate change, whether in agriculture or tourism, and we are one of the biggest emitters per capita," he says. The delegation also focused on other areas that may hold promise for Australian-Israeli cooperation, Thornley says, including desalination, water recycling and agriculture, especially in the flower industry. "Entrepreneurs are the same the world over," he says. "They tend to be headstrong individuals with a lot of inspirational capacity. It's just that there's a lot of them here."