Is Jerusalem’s ‘Holy Air’ the Secret to Startup Success?

I strengthen you and I help you, I uphold you with My victorious right hand. Isaiah 41:10 (The Israel Bible™)

What’s the secret to startup success?

“If you want to become Mobileye then you have to come to Jerusalem,” said Julia Kagan, a senior associate for Jerusalem Venture Partners, referring to the global leader in the development of vision technology for Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) and autonomous driving. “It’s the holy air.”

Kagan was speaking as part of a panel titled “Innovation, Technology and Economic Growth” at the Jerusalem Leaders Summit, which took place earlier this week at the Inbal Jerusalem Hotel. The Nov. 18 event brought together and engaged an international delegation of entrepreneurs and business leaders from America, Britain, continental Europe and India with the goal of advancing policy initiatives that champion the expansion of free and fair trade.

This was the third such summit. The first one took place in 2015.

“The Jerusalem Leaders Summit is a high-level public policy conference in Israel where participants can witness firsthand how in Israel the desert blooms, innovation thrives, and timeless principles are affirmed,” said summit co-founder Joel Anand Samy.

This was certainly the case during the innovation session, where speakers were able to showcase the modern accomplishments of the ancient and holy city.

Lior Shabo, founder of the Jerusalem Parliament – a network of young, Jerusalem-based leaders from the worlds of business, social entrepreneurship, public policy, grassroots activism, journalism and politics for monthly networking events – and a seventh-generation Jerusalemite, said he is seeing a renaissance in Jerusalem.

“Ten years ago, people wanted to give up on the city and thought, ‘this is the end,’” Shabo said, noting that with its population of nearly 1 million – the largest city in Israel – Jerusalem is ranked the country’s poorest large city. This is in part because nearly 40 percent of residents are Arabs living in the eastern part of the city and ultra-Orthodox, both communities who historically have not been well-integrated into the workforce.

“This diversity created a challenge,” Shabo said. “But Jerusalemites have turned it into an opportunity and a new, creative way of thinking.

“Jerusalem is a microcosm of Israeli society, so when we create a new solution it is eventually adopted by the rest of Israel.”

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That is exactly what Jerusalem has done and is doing. Shabo said there have been successful and optimistic efforts to bolster these two populations.

Take BizMax, the first accelerator designed and catered for ultra-Orthodox entrepreneurs interested in developing their own startups. BizMax offers an innovative business area for men, including an advanced work environment, networking and other backing that successful entrepreneurs need when they are getting started.

Hanan Brand, founder of Made in Jerusalem (MadeinJLM), an NGO that connects and promotes Jerusalem’s tech and startup community, said that in the last five years it has come apparent that while Israel has many startups it lacks talent. He said only about eight percent – 350,000 people – of the Israeli population works in tech.

“It’s not enough to support Israel’s rapid innovation,” Brand said. “The solution is to train the Arabs and ultra-Orthodox to fill this void.

“In our city, we are making them part of the startup ecosystem,” he continued. “This will mean a better future for our economy.”

Kagan said she is optimistic.

When asked why she thinks Jewish people, including Israelis, win so many Nobel Prizes in comparison to the rest of the population, she said this is largely because of our difficult Jewish past.

“We were not so popular when we lived outside of Israel,” Kagan said, referring to the Holocaust and other tragedies that came before it. “I believe one of the driving forces of our success is knowing that we can only trust our minds and nothing else.”

She also quipped that the stereotype of the nagging Jewish mother is true.

“When I was 18, my parents said I was studying engineering,” Kagan said with a laugh. “They did not ask me what I wanted to study. They said, ‘You are studying engineering.’ The only question was what type.”

She continued, “Even the ultra-Orthodox study all the time – they are learning Torah. A focus on education is also a key to success.”