Birthright Excel fosters startups, strong Israel ties

Leadership innovation program aims to increase ties between young US and Israeli entrepreneurs

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Participants in Birthright Israel's Excel Ventures Program,  June-July 2016 (Courtesy)
Participants in Birthright Israel's Excel Ventures Program, June-July 2016 (Courtesy)

Twenty-six-year-old Jonny Basha, from Phoenix, Arizona, sits behind his laptop in an open, shared-office space at the center of a bustling and hot Tel Aviv. On a table nearby are books about venture capital firms in Israel and the bestseller “Start-up Nation.” Colleagues seated nearby are concentrating hard.

“It has been meuleh (excellent),” Basha says with a flawless grin, showing off the accented Hebrew he has perfected during the 10 weeks he has spent in Israel. “The experience has been really incredible and the networking has been phenomenal. It has been the adventure of a lifetime.”

Basha is in Israel as part of Birthright Israel’s first leadership innovation program, aimed at increasing cooperation between entrepreneurs from leading American universities and young Israelis who have graduated from elite technology units of the Israeli army to help generate new start-ups.

The Excel Ventures program is part of Birthright Israel Excel, which has been running an internship program in Israel for Jewish college sophomores who are pursuing careers in business. Now it has launched a program to focus on technology as well.

Jonny Basha, participant in Birthright Israel Excel Ventures (Courtesy)
Jonny Basha, participant in Birthright Israel Excel Ventures (Courtesy)

“We are taking the same caliber of individuals but with a different mindset,” said Uri Gafni, in charge of innovation and business development for Excel Ventures. “The participants in the ventures program don’t want to be corporate executives but the next Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg.”

In these 10 weeks, 10 students from 10 universities in the US teamed up with eight Israelis and worked together on creating startups. As part of the program they underwent entrepreneurial masterclasses, workshops and lectures; they had intensive mentoring and guidance from a network of industry exports and chatted with veteran venture capitalists and industry professionals.

The Excel Ventures program served as an accelerator for the entrepreneurs: They went through all the critical stages of putting a team together, bringing an idea to life, dealing with investors and carrying out their new concept. The participants were scheduled to present their ideas to industry leaders and VC funds Monday evening.

“Everything is on steroids here,” Gafni said. “In the real world things don’t go so fast.”

Uri Gafni, Birthright Excel Ventures, 2016 (Courtesy)
Uri Gafni, Birthright Excel Ventures, 2016 (Courtesy)

Basha’s team, made up of two Americans and two Israelis, came up with an app to help people improve their accents in English. Meanwhile, the four-person team of 22-year-old Sophie Dezen, the only woman among the 18 participants in the program, came up with an online platform to help children and their parents manage their allowances, along with an integrated marketplace where the children can use their money.

“The experience has been fantastic and I have learned a lot. I didn’t even know where to start, in terms of finding what customers want, how to speak to investors and know what they are looking for, how to pitch a startup and set up a marketing plan,” said Dezen, who is from Atlanta and studied economics and Spanish at the University of Georgia. “It has also made me realize that I want to work in high-tech and that I want to live in Tel Aviv for a while.”

Sophie Dezen, participant in Birthright Excel Ventures, Summer 2016 (Courtesy)
Sophie Dezen, participant in Birthright Excel Ventures, summer 2016 (Courtesy)

Twenty-five-year-old Ron Hagafny, a graduate from an elite Israeli army technology unit who recently shuttered an unsuccessful startup, worked together with fellow Israeli Omri Gotlieb, a former IDF combat soldier, to set up a platform that compiles photos, videos and text into a virtual reality space that can be shared with friends. The new startup already has 50 paying customers and a working product, Hagafny said.

“The atmosphere has been amazing,” he said. “When you are among highly ambitious people, you are led to higher levels. The networking has been great as well.”

The participants were mentored by representatives of Israel’s startup community, including Liat Aaronson, a partner at Marker LLC Venture Capital; Yifat Oron, the chief executive officer of LeumiTech, a subsidiary of Bank Leumi Le-Israel Ltd.; and Amir Pinchas, the head of Operations and Portfolio at Microsoft Accelerators. They also met with more than 150 representatives of the high-tech industry in Israel, while also traveling the country with excursions to the Dead Sea, Masada and Jerusalem.

Strong connections have been formed by the participants with each other and with the mentors of the program, said Adam Lazovski, the manager of Birthright Excel Ventures. “For sure Israel will play a significant part in whatever they will do in the next few years,” he said. “Whether it will be to seek help from some of the mentors they met here or in approaching Israeli investors.”

Industry leaders and heads of Israeli high-tech companies were also keen to pitch in to make the program a success. “There was a 98 percent conversion rate” of people who responded favorably when approached by Birthright, Lazovski said. “A lot of them got help in the early stages of their company and they see it as a way to give back. The American participants are really amazed at the warmth and openness to help.”

Of the 10 US participants, three had never been to Israel before, Lazovski said. “Most of them came with the notion that they want to start a company,” he said. “But the program also helps them get in touch with their Jewish identity and the State of Israel.”

Adam Lazovski, manager, Birthright Israel Excel Ventures (Courtesy)
Adam Lazovski, manager, Birthright Israel Excel Ventures (Courtesy)

The US participants were briefed in advance about how direct, even brash, Israelis could be. And Basha, for one, is going away with some insightful nuggets from his dealings with his Israeli counterparts.

“They have a healthy disregard for rules,” he said with a laugh. “It is very common for them to say we can do this,” even when they don’t have a clue how to. “They are always testing, processing a lot of things at the same time.”

Excel Ventures is funded by the Steinhardt Foundation, the Schusterman Foundation and the Paul Singer Foundation, with the cooperation of other groups such as Ernst & Young and the Rise Community.

Birthright Israel is an organization that offers free trips to Israel for young adults of Jewish heritage. It has brought over half a million participants to Israel thus far.

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