Studying a start-up phenomenon

A one-of-a-kind university course requires students to visit Israel to gain an understanding of local innovation and thinking.

GROUP of business students 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
GROUP of business students 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For many college students in the United States, spring break is traditionally a time to unwind from the rigors of academia and have a little fun in the sun in places like Daytona Beach, Palm Springs or Cancun. But for a group of undergraduate business students from Washington University in St. Louis, this spring break provided them a hands-on opportunity to continue their studies thousands of miles away from their home campus.
Thanks to a course offered through the university’s Olin Business School, titled “Business, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship in Israel,” the students are required to visit Israel as part of their curriculum and meet with some of the top movers and shakers in the hi-tech business sector, to discover for themselves how Israel became known worldwide as the “Start- Up Nation.”
The semester-long course, the only one of its kind in the US, was founded three years ago by 38-year-old Prof. Steven Malter, the university’s assistant dean for student development and strategic initiatives. Several students interested in learning about Israeli businesses approached him after reading the book Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, written by former Jerusalem Post editorial page editor Saul Singer and president George W. Bush adviser Dan Senor.
The book, which now serves as the course’s main textbook, illustrates how the tiny nation of Israel, despite being involved in violent conflict with its neighbors since its founding, has become a world leader in hi-tech start-up companies, medical technologies and business innovation. Malter was inspired to build an entire curriculum around the book’s message.
Following six weeks of classroom learning about Israel’s economy, business sector, politics and more, this year’s group of 18 students – both Jews and non- Jews – embarked on an eight-day adventure, traversing the country to witness the start-up phenomenon for themselves.
From dawn to dusk, the students have been visiting some of the country’s most successful companies, including Teva Pharmaceuticals, Solaris Synergy and Given Imaging, to hear from their leaders how they were able to succeed in the global marketplace. The group also met with professionals in the fields of government, media and education.
Allie Plotsky, a senior from Agoura, California, studying psychology along with accounting and economics, says that while this is her third time in Israel, “my experiences on this trip, not as a tourist but as someone who sees herself as a future entrepreneur, allow me to see a different side of the country.”
She says she is amazed by the implementations of ideas, where they stem from, and the processes Israelis take to get there. One day, she adds, she hopes to invest in some of the companies she encountered on this trip.
“The businesspeople I have met here – it seems to me that it isn’t just about the money, but they are committed and passionate [about] what they are doing, and believe in their company’s missions,” she says.
Plotsky, who is Jewish, admits that “to know that such innovation is taking place here in Israel gives me a direct attachment and is so meaningful and special.”
Jeremy Scherman, a freshman from Detroit, concurs with her assessment of the local business leaders’ attitudes: “It’s not just about the money, but rather the ideas, the innovation.”
He adds that he has discovered that “Israelis are not afraid to chase their ideas, to go for it,” while it seems to him that people in the US are more hesitant to take risks.
Scherman, who is doing research on the impact of the government on business here, was most impressed with the time the group spent with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev.
“He was very intense, but inspiring,” he says. “On this trip I’ve discovered the long-term benefits for Israelis to have some chutzpah, because of their surroundings.”
Also on the trip was Tammy Orahood, the Olin Business School’s director of international programs and global initiatives. Orahood, who is not Jewish and was in Israel for the first time, was most impressed by the leadership she saw business executives displaying.
“Learning about the business decisions these leaders make under duress is something that can’t be taught in a classroom,” she says.
She is especially proud of the relationship that Olin has established with the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, which includes a student exchange program between the two schools. According to her, Olin students even have the opportunity to do internships at Israeli start-ups while they study here.
ONE OF the true highlights of the trip for the group, according to Malter, was a talk by Singer himself. Malter says Singer stressed to the group that while Israelis might be asking themselves, “Where is our Nokia [our huge conglomerate]?” the rest of the world was turning to Israel and asking, “Where are all our start-ups?”
“There is no doubt that, as stated in Start-Up Nation, Israelis learn crucial leadership skills from their mandatory army service,” says the Washington University professor when asked how he would explain he country’s start-up success. He also cites “the networking that is done during time spent in the army. When these young people go out into the workforce, they already have so many connections, which is no doubt advantageous.”
He marvels that while the rest of the world suffered during the global economic crisis, Israel managed not only to come out unscathed, but to show a positive growth in gross domestic product. He attributes that fact to the Israeli culture of “innovation, and not having a stigma of failure.”
As the group prepares to go out for dinner in downtown Jerusalem, Scherman is busy finishing a blog post on the official class website. Though the students don’t have any assignments while they are learning in Israel, their blogs will be used for term papers upon their return to campus.
Malter says he is extremely impressed with this year’s crop of students. “I hear the level of questions they’ve been asking the executives here in Israel, and they are excellent. This group is really taking advantage of the opportunity to meet with business leaders and to get an inside perspective, which I believe will truly further their educations and eventually their careers.”