Some Chinese investors come to Israel looking for big business deals, but others come to Israel for the attitude.
“Before we came to Israel, we were told about the start-up spirit in Israel, but this is a case where seeing is truly believing,” said Amy, an executive in a pharmaceutical firm. “To us, the attitude that one is allowed to fail and still be a thriving member of the business community is very unique. The social sanctions and even ostracism on ‘losing face’ is very deeply embedded in Chinese culture. In Israel, you don’t have that – and in fact rising from failure is seen as heroic.”
Amy is far from the only Chinese visitor to marvel at the Israeli way of doing things, according to Udi Aharoni, CEO of Lahav Executive Education, a Tel Aviv University project that organizes and runs executive training programs in management, business skill, and other related areas for professionals in a wide range of businesses in Israel. Two years ago, said Aharoni, the organization got the idea to run trips for Chinese executives who wanted to see the Start-Up Nation in action for themselves.
In fact, it’s the bestselling book of that same title by Saul Singer and Dan Senor that got the ball rolling, said Aharoni.
“I always say that we Jews have had two major literary successes – the Bible and that book. People all over the world have been inspired by it, and many of those in the Chinese business world who read it in their native language expressed a strong interest in seeing things for themselves.”
Thus was created the Lahav overseas program for Chinese executives, part of a long line of executive programs that Lahav has instituted over the past 46 years. Although a project of TAU, Lahav does not issue degrees, nor are its courses worth credit toward a degree. It does, however, issue certificates in business administration studies, financial administration, corporate management, sales and marketing skills, and other business-related programs in courses that run from several days to several months.
For visitors from China and elsewhere, like Brazil (each national group gets its own program), Lahav runs a program to familiarize participants with the country’s business ecosystem, Israeli society and culture, and Israeli history. The program also includes tours of companies, as well as of historic and religious sites.
Lahav runs dozens of programs for overseas executives a year, especially for visitors from China, who by far constitute the largest delegations. “They feel comfortable with us because we are a university and we are not trying to sell them anything,” said Aharoni. “It’s a sort of neutral ground where they can get the lay of the land and decide on their level of engagement with Israel.”
Along with Stanford in the US and Oxford in England, the Lahav program is the preferred one among Chinese businesspeople. “That puts us in a pretty unique group,” said Aharoni.
The program furnishes some surprising revelations for both sides. For example, Yu Kuan, owner of a Beijing art gallery, sees Israel as a conservative, religious society – something that may surprise Israelis, who see their country as a more modern society. “The family ties here are very strong, much more than in most Western countries, and religion looms large among many Israelis,” even those who consider themselves secular, he said.
To Israelis, the candor with which Yu Kuan and Amy talk about their government is also surprising. “We cannot say we are a totally open society, but we are much more open than North Korea,” said Amy. “And there is a lot of political activity, especially on local levels.”
The open market and economic freedom policies the country implemented in 1989 have definitely had an effect on the country’s political life, she said, adding that top Chinese businesspeople who do a lot of work in the West are not seen as a “negative influence” on the “socialist paradise,” but are actually very highly respected. “The government leaders consult with the heads of the big companies like RenRen and Alibaba. It’s a global world today, and the leadership realizes that it needs to be open if it wants to succeed in that world.”
Observing Israel’s start-up culture up close gives Amy and Yu-kuan food for thought – specifically on how to apply lessons learned in the Start-Up Nation to their own lives. “No question that culture is a very strong force,” said Yu-Kuan. Children in schools throughout Asia – China included – are taught to fit in, to contribute to the greater good instead of doing what is best for themselves, to keep a low profile in the face of older and wiser people – in short, almost the opposite of the things Israel’s tech culture is lauded for.
“Obviously it is a process,” said Yu-Kuan. “It is going to take a long time to drive these lessons home for our society. But the government is 100% behind these efforts, because they realize that if China is to go beyond being the world’s factory, it is going to have to learn to innovate. You Israelis have obviously figured out how to do that – and we are now your students.”