The felafel factor

Ed Mlavsky attributes his hi-tech success to old-fashioned hutzpa.

How does a boy who grew up in war-torn London, the son of Yiddish-speaking East European immigrants, become a highly successful scientist and engineer and later head of an organization formed to promote research between American and Israeli companies?
The answer can be found in this intriguing and unusual autobiography, which the author says began as "random jottings" but developed into an informative and often amusing journey from those unpromising beginnings in Stoke Newington, North London, in 1929, then on to America and finally in Israel. The book provides the long answer. Ed Mlavsky frequently provides much shorter answers to the keys to his success: hutzpa (what he terms "the felafel factor"), a penchant for facetiousness and a lack of respect for authority.
His family background provided no clues as to his glittering future. His mother was "a typical Jewish homemaker," his father a milliner and "an ardent Zionist" - Mlavsky himself was active in Habonim - and while they kept kosher at home until food rationing made it too difficult and he and his siblings "were dragged off to synagogue for the High Holy Days," he says that his Jewishness "sat fairly lightly upon my shoulders."
The first signs that he was bright came at eight, by which age he could cope with advanced algebra, but his mathematical ability never advanced beyond that, even though his mother thought he was "the brightest kid ever."
He was evacuated in 1939, as were thousands of others, and was about to be separated from his two friends until, "apparently in anticipation of a life in Israel, where queues are treated as an access suggestion rather than a requirement," he persuaded the lady in charge to let them be housed together. After the war, he went to university in London to study chemistry, but after a year he took a chemistry-related job. The book then frequently lapses into the technical, but Mlavsky warns the reader to skip those parts.
Accepting a job offer in America, he later became manager of a laboratory and later president of a company involved in research into solar energy.
But the even bigger change in his life and career came in 1979 when he was appointed executive director of BIRD, the Israel-US Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation, an appointment no doubt influenced by the success of his previous post at Tyco International, during which more than 20 companies were bought and annual revenues grew from $1 million to $30 million and eventually to $30 billion - "not bad," Mlavsky modestly recalls, "for a madcap start-up by a bunch of PhD dreamers."
In Israel, he soon realized that the British and American way of doing business would not serve him well. What was required was directness - "brusque was in." That approach seemed to work and during his 13 years at BIRD he initiated 300 projects between American and Israeli companies in the field of hi-tech. BIRD, he remarks, "is credited with being the precursor of Israel's thriving venture capital industry."
Although not averse to blowing his own trumpet, the Technion blew it much more prestigiously, in 1994 awarding him an honorary degree "in honor of his enormous contribution to Israel's economy through the fostering of investments and projects in research and development which, as a result of his unique talents and ceaseless devotion, have led to the creation of a great number of leading science-based industries throughout the land." Praise indeed!
He also received an award from Israeli venture capital fund Gemini, which he helped found. It cited his "unique contribution to the development of the Israeli hi-tech industry."
Mlavsky has had a number of career changes - all with great success. Should he want another change, this book shows that he could do worse than become a writer or even a stand-up comic.
Before making aliya seven years ago, the reviewer was deputy editor of the London-based Jewish Chronicle. He is also a former London correspondent of The Jerusalem Post.