Elie Wurtman: The man with the golden touch

‘From the rockets to corona, I’m not going to let the noise get in the way of what we want to accomplish.’ A conversation with entrepreneur, wine maker and Zionist, Elie Wurtman.

ELIE WURTMAN in his office: This is my drive, to build things of significance that connect us internationally to benefit the country and the people. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
ELIE WURTMAN in his office: This is my drive, to build things of significance that connect us internationally to benefit the country and the people.
‘Corona is a moment in time that slowed everything down. On a personal level, it was a great opportunity to sit down and reflect. From a business perspective, it was a moment of panic,” says entrepreneur Elie Wurtman, co-founder and managing partner of Jerusalem-based PICO Venture Partners. “If I go back to March, to the magic of going to isolation, I was a few weeks ahead of everyone else, before the lockdown. My instinct was, we are having a ‘black swan’ moment.”
For the 50-year-old father of three, the uncertain coronavirus era has proved otherwise. Two of PICO Ventures’s 18 companies made headlines in the midst of the crisis. In early June, the cloud service company Spot.io was sold for $450 million; and Vroom, an online used car company, went from making severe budget cuts in March to hitting a market cap of $5.5 billion after the IPO late last month.
“It is part of a cycle of going from panic to acceleration of the technological innovation that we foresaw years ago when we made various investments, and corona was the best test for our investments across the portfolio,” he says.
Some the 18 companies that are part of PICO’s portfolio include Jolt, a business school with interactive group workshops; Sepio Systems, a cyber security company that detects and mitigates hardware-based attacks; and Spot.io, which was founded with the goal of revolutionizing the cloud infrastructure services of companies by optimizing storage and reducing cost.
“One conversation that I had 18 times with 18 CEOs was that our responsibility was to keep things together, to keep as many people employed as possible – even if it means tightening our belts across the board – but we should not be sending people home,” Wurtman recalls. “You bear responsibility for families and people’s livelihoods. This is one important piece of the puzzle.”
It isn’t surprising that Wurtman would take on such a responsibility, seeing that PICO stands for “People, Ideas, Community and Opportunities.”
This is not the first time Wurtman has experienced business downturns. His companies survived the meltdown of the Dot Com bubble and the 2008 financial crisis, which for him meant growing a much thicker skin to approach unforeseen crises to come. Back again into a reality where businesses were dropping at a staggering rate, Wurtman held on to the lessons he had learned in the previous meltdowns.
“In times of high stress, people lose sight that ‘this, too, shall pass.’ Sometimes, when we are in the trough, we can’t see the horizon,” Wurtman reflects, remembering the poem “The Trough,” by Judy Brown. “Eventually, the waves will carry you back and you will be able to see the horizon clearly. Our goal was to set things up to get ready for the emergence,” he says.
WURTMAN’S DECISION to invest in Vroom is an example of seeing the horizon clearly. When walking into a car dealership in the US in 2014 from Jerusalem, he questioned the entire business model, whose seemingly essential aspects included walking into a store and talking to a salesman. Identifying an inefficient and significant market led PICO Venture Partners to lead the first venture investment in the company and Wurtman to join as executive chairman with long-time friend and partner, Allon Bloch, as CEO.
“Vroom’s business accelerated for a variety of reasons. When physical showrooms closed overnight and the virtual showrooms stayed opened, we were the only show in town. The experience of having a car delivered to your front door fully clean is a pretty compelling thing and COVID-19 accelerated that.”
Vroom’s remarkable deal history is indeed one of extremes. When closing the deal with investors from Texas back in 2014, Wurtman had to excuse himself and place the call on hold in order to head to a bomb shelter as sirens raged in the background during Operation Protective Edge.
“I told them, ‘Could you wait a minute? I need to do something and I’ll be right back.’ And I leave the office to the reinforced concrete stairwell, watch the Iron Dome intercept [the rockets coming from Gaza] then I go back to the call and close the basic terms of the Vroom deal.”
The surrealism of Israeli society paved the way for the story of a company that reached its peak success during the even more surreal reality of the pandemic.
“We always face challenges and we see how we can create a better future – it’s a mentality,” Wurtman says. “From the rockets to corona, I’m not going to let the noise get in the way of what we want to accomplish.”
https://images.jpost.com/image/upload/f_auto,fl_lossy/t_Article2016_ControlFaceDetect/460397THE TEAM AT Jerusalem-based PICO Venture Partners (Photo Credit: Courtesy)THE TEAM AT Jerusalem-based PICO Venture Partners (Photo Credit: Courtesy)
Vision and contemporary Zionism
Wurtman’s vision goes beyond the technological revolution and market disruption from the hi-tech success stories. Looking into the future while honoring the past and deepening the roots in tradition is the basis of the narrative of change that permeates the stories of his enterprises.
“This is my drive: to build things of significance that connect us internationally, to benefit the country and the people.”
Growing up in a Zionist home in Philadelphia with parents who were ideologically dedicated to the people of Israel has been the basis of his vision. The Wurtman family believed that one could not practice Zionism from the American suburbs and therefore decided to make aliyah. Living in Israel, however, was not a dream that one dreams individually, his parents Enid and Stuart believed. While still living in Philadelphia, they created an organization aimed at bringing Soviet Jews trapped in the USSR to Israel, becoming prominent activists in the cause of Soviet Jewry.
“At the time in the 70s, the battle cry was two-fold – to get the Jews out of the Soviet Union and the Zionist call to build the Land of Israel,” Wurtman relates.
 As a young adult, he grasped that the powerful messages he received during his upbringing – the Zionist vision of building the Land of Israel, bringing people together and strengthening the Jewish people – had many different outlets.
Being a central player in the Israeli start-up and hi-tech scene, however, is one of the facets of Wurtman’s dream-come-true reality. His initiatives throughout the years are threads carefully woven, fulfilling a vision that is part of a continuum of Zionist history, which dates back to the first settlements – a moment of history from which he draws inspiration and lessons to be learned and reapplied to modern Israeli society.
“The intersection between agriculture, love of the Land of Israel and the desire to fill the land can be expressed in many ways,” Wurtman emphasizes: “through working the land and caring for the land responsibly, as well as building companies, caring for entrepreneurs and employees – having the right goals and the right set of values that will fundamentally help us build better societies and a better world.”
Agriculture, therefore, gained a prominent place among Wurtman’s projects. In partnership with Napa Valley winemaker Ari Erle, Wurtman founded Bat Shlomo Vineyards in 2010, located in the moshava of Bat Shlomo in the Hof Hacarmel region. The moshav, dating back to 1889, was funded by the first settlers who graduated from an agricultural training program established by Baron Edmond de Rothschild. It was part of his vision of paving the way for the first Zionist settlements and supporting and nurturing the importance of working the land.
“Phase One of our Zionist experience was agricultural, settling in the land, which is our experience in Bat Shlomo where we set up a vineyard – because I believe in the values and experience of the pioneers.”
Regavim, which also applies this view, is another project in which Wurtman is a partner. The innovative high school program located at Kibbutz Tirat Zvi in the Beit She’an valley integrates agricultural work with academic studies. Together with the school, Wurtman piloted a new social-enterprise model – the school’s students plant and tend Bat Shlomo Vineyards and thus fund their education through their agricultural work.
“This place represents contemporary Zionism, which must involve caring for the land with an environmental approach.”
Elie Wurtman gives a TED talk (Credit: Courtesy) Elie Wurtman gives a TED talk (Credit: Courtesy)
Contributing toward a better global future
Wurtman’s journey not only harkens back to the roots of Zionist history but is also intrinsically connected to Jerusalem’s turbulent hi-tech history, which collapsed with the Dot Com bubble and the Second Intifada. A longtime Jerusalem resident, he strongly believes that the capital’s main challenges are the very same elements of greatest potential for prosperity.
The hi-tech scene is regaining its strength in Jerusalem, home to more than 460 technology companies and 23 venture capital firms. Its tech start-up scene has grown 102% since 2012, according to Start-Up Nation Central. The capital’s cultural diversity – Jews and non-Jews, secular and religious, veteran Israelis and new immigrants – makes the city’s inhabitants potential entrepreneurs who are well-versed in navigating through challenging waters. This is what Wurtman calls the “Jerusalem DNA” – an environment that breeds highly resilient, bright and creative minds that learned from an early age to maneuver through the capital’s unique milieu.
Beyond the reestablishment of Jerusalem’s hi-tech dynamo, another important aspect of Wurtman’s vision is a change – or rather a refinement – concerning the entrepreneurship culture. One of his goals is to change the view that only financial entrepreneurship is boundless and must be invested in as much as possible, while social entrepreneurs are valued through different lenses.
“I challenge funders to recognize the value of social projects and entrepreneurship and to direct resources to social projects that could disrupt entire industries.”
Not far from PICO Ventures’ headquarters, in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood, is PICOKids: another manifestation of Wurtman’s vision of social entrepreneurship emphasizing people, ideas, community and opportunities. PICOkids brings together social and business entrepreneurs into a technological hub for nurturing the creativity of children and teenagers from all layers of Jerusalem’s society – from secular to religious, Jews and non-Jews, and from every financial background.
“It’s a youth movement,” one of the participants said, “where we build projects together and try to solve issues that otherwise would never be thought about in school.”
The most striking aspect of PICOKids ties back to Wurtman’s own family journey to Israel – of working together for something greater than individual success; of encouraging an ideology in which exercising compassion, expanding the intellect and developing technology are means for creating a brighter collective future.
“Our goal in PICO is to bring together meaning and purpose alongside drive and financial goals – you create the magic that can take us to a peak,” Wurtman adds.
Bringing seemingly disparate ideas together – highly technological mindsets that are symbiotic with nature through responsible agriculture and environmental awareness, as well as a rooted global citizenship that honors history and tradition – is necessary for bringing about much-needed change and fulfilling the contemporary Zionist vision.
“Economic prosperity fundamentally leads to a better reality for the people,” he concludes. “If Israel can be a catalyst through our innovation and positive mindset, I think we are contributing locally and globally to a better future.”