Collective greatness: reflections on my Excel ventures

A friend of mine recently moved from Florida to Tel Aviv. Each morning, she stops at the same coffee shop on her way to the office. She speaks only broken Hebrew, but still manages to make Hebr-ish small talk with the employees at the coffee shop when she picks up her daily macchiato. A few weeks after starting this morning routine, she received a knock on her office door: knowing that she’s American, one of the baristas came by asking her to take not even his, but his younger sister’s English placement test for school so that the sister could place out of a class.

This story perfectly encapsulates the outgoing, familial culture that I fell in love with during my ten weeks in Tel Aviv. To some, this upfront, direct, relatively shameless attitude is off-putting. In the states, we’re taught to be polite, to beat around the bush, not to ask too much of others. Yet, in Israel there’s no need for these formalities. The simple, beautiful reality is that Israelis treat everyone like family.

In startup world, they say choosing your co-founders is marriage. That said, there was no better way for me to join the Israeli family than spending ten weeks building a startup alongside two Israelis through Birthright Israel Excel Ventures. At the heart of the Tel Aviv tech scene, this innovative global initiative joined 10 young American entrepreneurs and graduates of leading universities with 10 Israeli graduates of elite technology units of the IDF, and provided us with the building blocks and training needed to establish a technological startup.

My new family, however, extends beyond my two Israeli co-founders. After long days and even longer nights in the office, countless coffees, personal talks (PTs), mentor meetings and bus rides back to the B’nei Dan hostel, I can safely say that the entire Excel cohort has become a part of my family. From stuffing my face with what could only be called a feast of a Shabbat lunch with an Israeli fellow and his whole family, to having my mentor invite me to stay at her home when she found out I extended my time in Israel, I truly felt that I was welcomed into Israeli life with open arms.

It became clear to me that this familial attitude permeates throughout all of Israeli culture, and tech and business are no exception. The CEO of Facebook Israel, Adi Soffer Teeni, put it nicely herself: it’s all about the ecosystem. For such a small country, Israel has been abnormally effective at producing successful startups not because Israel happens to have more genius entrepreneurs than anywhere else, but because Israeli companies form and grow in a unique, unparalleled environment of mutual support.

This May, I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, home of the prestigious Wharton Business School. Unlike the intensely competitive culture I experienced in my Wharton classes, Tel Aviv’s startup ecosystem demonstrated that you don’t need to have a cut-throat, dog-eat-dog mentality to succeed in business. Whether from the mentors and business partners who took Excel fellows under their wings this summer, or the many speakers who came in to share their stories and experience with our cohort, I was consistently impressed by the lengths Israeli companies go to raise each other up, not cut each other down.

In particular, I was taken by the sense of community and encouragement from Israeli women in tech. Never before had I been to a talk where the speaker specifically made a point to encourage young women in the audience to participate. In Tel Aviv, most of the women who came to speak to the Excel cohort were adamant about fielding an equal number of questions from both male and female audience members. Unsurprisingly, this attitude of empowerment goes hand in hand with the fact that at 35.5% (which is still low but that’s a post for another day) the proportion of Israeli women in high tech is nearly 11% higher than in the US .

Reflecting on my time with Birthright Israel Excel Ventures, it is abundantly clear that I was a recipient of support from many ends of the Excel family tree. Looking ahead, what I take with me is a desire to pay this help forward and take the familial Israeli attitude with me in my future career endeavors.

About the Author
Hilary graduated from the University of Pennsylvania this May with a degree in Cognitive Science and Consumer Psychology. After finishing the Excel Ventures program, she recently started a job in San Francisco as a Product Manager for the Australian leader in enterprise software, Atlassian.
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