A Deep Dive Into the Heart of the Startup Nation

After a trip to Silicon Valley in 2017 and to the MIT in 2019, the Centre for Entrepreneurship’s third Learning Expedition took participants to Israel, a country equivalent in size to a French département that has the highest number of startups per capita in the world (1 in 6,000). What are the reasons for this “entrepreneurial miracle”, and how does it work? Loanne Guérin and Laura Salesse (first and second year students respectively in the Master’s in Finance and Strategy), two of the twelve students chosen to take part in the adventure, tell us about their experience.

What made you decide to take part in this expedition?

Laura Salesse: When it was time to apply, I had already begun my journey as an entrepreneur. Through my experience in societies and several internships at startups, I had gained some experience of the field and most importantly, I had a clear goal: to work in the field of venture capital. After following the first two Learning Expeditions on social media, I attended an event with the participants of the previous year at MIT, and then sent off my application.

Loanne Guérin: The startup industry had appealed to me for a long time. The day I received an email outlining the programme, I was certain that I wanted to take part. It seemed too good to be true! It was like a dream occasion to discover a high-performing industry, which also has an interesting cultural dimension. I applied straight away. I thought that the programme should have been more well known within Sciences Po.

The expression startup nation was invented in reference to Israel. What does it mean?

LS: The term “startup nation” comes from a book by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, published in 2009, which tried to put into words the emergence of this extraordinary entrepreneurial scene that seemingly had come out of nowhere. The entire economy seemed to be gearing towards entrepreneurship, technology, and innovation, despite (or perhaps besides) the numerous geopolitical, geographical, and demographic constraints. More recently, in France, Emmanuel Macron contributed to the popularisation of the term “startup nation”, but used it in a very different context...

LG: I would say that the term is especially indicative of a mindset and a philosophy that combine an entrepreneurial drive with a focus on science and engineering as the “destinations” of this effort. This structure is really crucial for understanding what’s unique about the startup scene in Tel Aviv. Then, on the economical and geopolitical side, there is the importance of the relationship with the US, which is relevant in several ways: the involvement of American investors in Israel, the presence of multinational American corporations (which all have centres for Research and Development in Tel Aviv), and the frequent introduction of Israeli startups to the NASDAQ. These back-and-forths are an integral part of the “startup nation” model: Tel Aviv is like a lab that incubates and then exports onto the American market, which is much bigger than the domestic market in Israel.

How has this “entrepreneurial miracle” come about? 

LS: Everybody we met had a different response to this question. Overall, four main factors emerged. First, the existence of an external geopolitical threat, which has motivated innovation on the technological front. The second was the compulsory military service, which creates military units within which there has formed a kind of technological elite. Thirdly, the availability of large-scale financing, especially in venture capital. And the fourth was the cultural phenomenon of chutzpah, which we approached with a theoretical mindset before we went, and later found had a genuine presence: it’s a kind of nerve, a determination or even militancy with which many people we met seemed to act. This character trait, which can make people move mountains, could also come across as shocking - when it translates, for example, as the total absence of “sugarcoating” in business meetings...

LG: The “miracle” has historical origins. It’s closely linked to the history of the Jewish diaspora, and the way in which its members valued knowledge as a resource that was valuable even in times of adversity. It’s worth remembering that Technion, a university in Haifa that is often compared with the M.I.T., was established thirty six years before the foundation of the State of Israel. Then, like Laura said, the formation and education of talent is closely related to the development of the military, where young people spend two to three years in close groups, creating a tight-knit and durable network. During our visit to the Technion, the Director of the Design Tech Lab showed us a Whatsapp group called the “Magic Box”: a list of names of people who met in the military and who are now active in a number of different fields, where adverts and recommendations are made (for instance, “I’m looking for a coding whizz”) and are often very quickly answered. Another notable cultural difference: in Israel, chutzpah (the culture of pluckiness) exists even within the army, where you are encouraged to think about the orders given and to call authority into question...

What did you find surprising?

LS:  The biggest surprise for me was the huge contrast that exists in day-to-day life between the dynamic of the workplace and the context of violence. For example, in the same day there can be a meeting with an investor, and one hour later there’s news of a bombing just one hour down the road...

LG: So many things that I don’t know where to start! But I have to say the university programmes that are open to children from the age of 4 or 5, or BScs open to twelve year olds - that really shows how highly sciences are valued, societally speaking.

What was impressive?

LS: I was impressed by the city of Tel Aviv, it’s a really lively, interesting, nice place where I would have gladly stayed longer...

LG: The existence of an “economical exceptionality” like Tel Aviv, in the middle of a desert, and so close to the historical site of Jerusalem, demands admiration. You travel from one world to another in under two hours. The same is also true for the gap between the Orthodox Jewish population, many of who live in poverty and voluntarily in isolation, and the population of this “startup nation”, who are in constant dialogue with international innovation...

What was disappointing?

LS: I was disappointed to have so little time there, and could have spent hours talking to each person that we met about their careers and their projects.

LG: More than disappointed, I was troubled by the way in which the conflict, for those we met, seemed to be a given and faraway fact, like an almost unchangeable element of the world. Tel Aviv is a bubble in which it’s easy to ignore what is going on right outside.

What are you doing now? What has this experience changed about your careers, or your vision of entrepreneurship?

LS: I’m coming out of this experience with an even greater passion for the domains of entrepreneurship and innovation. I’m currently interning at Idinvest Partners, a private equity company, where I’m focusing on fast-growing businesses. The experience has allowed me to better understand the Israeli market, in which lots of investors are involved. It has already enriched my career. 

LG: This project has given me three main things. Firstly, the desire to specialise in environmental innovation, especially in an urban context (such as water management, green spaces, and urban agriculture). It has also rekindled my interest in science and even more in maths, which I had almost lost since getting my double Bachelor’s degree at Sciences Po and UPMC. I realise now that it’s possible to put sciences to the task of projects that can have a real social and environmental impact. Lastly, the trip gave me a huge interest in getting involved in entrepreneurship, in making the leap, without overthinking it!

What message do you have for those hoping to apply to the 2021 Learning Expedition?

LS: Get involved, without a doubt. The Learning Expedition is a chance to discover a country, and to meet those who form its entrepreneurial ecosystem. It’s also an opportunity to form close relationships with students of different Master’s programmes over a week (and for the future).

LG: Apply! And put yourselves forward, whatever country it is. It’s an incredible experience, from which you return with new ideas and energy. And each ecosystem represents an entire culture: it raises exciting questions about society, history, and culture.

The Learning Expedition is an annual programme supported by the Centre for Entrepreneurship and is open to all Master’s students.

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