Cisco chairman challenges Israel's NASDAQ community

"We're deeply committed to Israel and intend to expand."

cisco chambers 88 (photo credit: )
cisco chambers 88
(photo credit: )
The combined worth of the 20-plus people gathered around the long table at Beit Hanassi in Jerusalem Monday evening was in the billions - maybe even in the trillions, depending on the currency employed to do the counting. Venture capitalists, they refer to themselves as Israel's NASDAQ community. The host was President Shimon Peres, and the occasion was a gourmet dinner in honor of John Chambers, the chairman and CEO of Cisco Systems, the American computer networks giant and a pioneer of Web 2.0 (interactive) technologies. It was Chambers's first visit to Israel, although he's no stranger to Israeli technology. Cisco has chalked up nine Israeli hi-tech acquisitions, and is aiming for more. "We're deeply committed to Israel and intend to expand," Chambers said several times. Very early in the day, he and Peres visited Nazareth to launch a virtual Mediterranean Community through the Mediterranean Youth Technology Club, and a second project, Digital Cities, that helps connect the Arab community of Nazareth, the Jewish community of Upper Nazareth and the rest of Israel. Residents of both cities can also participate in video conferences and seminars taking place in the Central region, and consult with doctors at Tel Aviv's Sourasky Medical Center (better known as Ichilov Hospital) without leaving home. Chambers is a strong advocate of corporate social responsibility. He said this worked best when several companies cooperated with each other and with the community. Chambers said he appreciated the opportunity to meet the leaders of Israel's VC and hi-tech communities, and observed that in the brief period since his arrival, he'd seen that Israelis were capable of dealing with tough issues, and that their enormous candor had surprised him. Banking on that candor, he asked those around the table where Israel was successful, where it had failed, and why. He was told about Israeli flexibility, innovation, technology, and engineering capability. Some people expressed pride that major American hi-tech concerns had created R&D centers of excellence in Israel, while others said Israel had been exploited as an oasis of cheap engineering, and that the country had the talent, know-how and capacity to enable local companies to go global without being incorporated into a foreign enterprise. It was suggested that if Cisco wanted to broaden its base in Israel, it should focus on homeland security due to Israel's enormous expertise in the area. Chambers was also told that while China had far greater manpower, the choice for investment was Israel because while the Chinese could copy anything, innovation was Israel's strong point. That appealed to Chambers, who said, "Venture capital is not about money, it's about expertise." He also said that acquiring companies was about retention, about keeping engineers and top management. Peres made a plea for those sectors of society that had high unemployment: haredim, Arabs and young people, all of whom he said suffered from discrimination in the labor market. "We have been unfair to them," he said. One of his guests who is involved in several social responsibility projects both in the Arab and the Jewish communities, said the Arab problem was difficult to solve. A very large proportion of Israeli Arabs were undereducated, he said, and when the best and the brightest opted to go into hi-tech - unlike in medicine - they are turned away with the excuse that they don't have enough experience. It's a catch-22 situation, he said. If they don't have experience, they can't get jobs; and if they don't have jobs, they can't gain experience. Another guest, while expressing willingness to employ Arabs and people from other high unemployment sectors, stipulated that jobs would be allocated based on merit and not affirmative action. Peres reiterated his peace valley vision of turning 520 km. of border area between Israel, Jordan and a future Palestinian state into a powerhouse of economic cooperation, seized the chance to do so yet again. Now he looking for pledges of large-scale financial involvement, and wants to have it up and running within three months. "In 10 years time," he said, "it may revolutionize the whole set-up. I believe it can be done." "Don't forget that peace is a product" that results from hi-tech, universal, global and individual collaboration, Peres said.