Miami’s largest university launches course on Israeli entrepreneurship

‘Innovation Nation’ class at Florida International University will expose honors students to local and Israeli business leaders, impart lessons from Israel’s tech scene

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Miami, Florida, on January 10, 2021. (Eva Marie Uzcategui/AFP)
Miami, Florida, on January 10, 2021. (Eva Marie Uzcategui/AFP)

Miami’s largest university will begin offering a course this year focused on Israeli entrepreneurship and innovation.

The Florida International University class, called “Innovation Nation: The Global Influence of Israeli Technology and Entrepreneurship,” aims to impart lessons from Israel’s startup ecosystem to would-be Florida business leaders.

The class will be led by Aaron Kaplowitz and Andi Wolfer of the United States-Israel Business Alliance, an organization that seeks to strengthen economic ties between US states and Israel.

The organization formerly focused on New York-Israel business connections, but recently opened a second office in Miami to develop ties between Israel and Florida, a move that led to the new university class.

“What we’re trying to do is bring together all the elements that comprise an innovation ecosystem and have the students understand the different angles that go into not just having an idea, but bringing the idea to market,” said Kaplowitz, the president of the business alliance.

During the course, students will meet with experts and business leaders, track Israeli startups and draw lessons from both their successes and failures.

“We want them to see that in Israel the startup culture does not look down upon failure. Failure is actually in many ways an asset because of the lessons learned and how founders can apply those lessons to their next venture,” Kaplowitz said.

Science buildings at Florida International University. (CC-BY SA, Comayagua99, Wikimedia)

The students will work in teams to develop their own business ideas during the course, applying lessons learned to their business plans. At the end of the semester, the students will present their ideas for startups and field questions about their prospective businesses.

The class will be held in the university’s Honors College for its top students and will take place once a week in a hybrid format mixing remote and in-person sessions. It will feature a guest speaker each session and include a site visit to a local company.

The speakers will be local and Israeli startup founders, investors, journalists and government officials, including Nadav Kidron, CEO of Oramed Pharmaceuticals; Dr. Noam Wasserman, author of “The Founder’s Dilemmas” and dean of Yeshiva University’s Sy Syms School of Business; Yonit Golub Serkin, the managing director of the accelerator MassChallenge Israel; Wendy Singer, executive director of Israeli nonprofit Start-Up Nation Central; and Maor Elbaz-Starinsky, the consul general of Israel in Miami.

The class will not connect the students to specific companies for job opportunities, but aims to prepare them for finding work in the startup field.

Aaron Kaplowitz, president of the United States-Israel Business Alliance (USIBA)

“If we can get these students to think a little bit more Israeli and if that helps them become more employable, then I think we’ve succeeded,” Kaplowitz said. “If you can think more creatively, if you can learn from other people’s failures, if you have a little bit of chutzpah, then I don’t think that is going to make you a worse candidate.”

The instructors wanted to keep the class size small, at 16 students, believing the course would be more effective at that size, but agreed to increase the enrollment by 25 percent due to a high level of interest.

The public university is the fourth-largest in the US with over 58,000 students.

Kaplowitz said the class is apolitical and he has not heard of any anti-Israel backlash on campus regarding the course.

The university’s dean and Miami’s mayor are both fully on board with the course, and with the business alliance’s larger goal of stoking business ties between Florida and Israel.

“Our students are fortunate to have an opportunity to participate in ‘Innovation Nation.’ They are going to get a crash course on entrepreneurship basic tactics, then they’re going to look at the Israeli ecosystem in tech,” said Juan Carlos Espinosa, dean of the honors college at FIU.

Job searchers at Florida International University during a job fair in Miami, Sept. 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

“Israeli innovation and entrepreneurship continue to help Miami establish itself as America’s next great hub for technology and disruption,” said Miami Mayor Francis X. Suarez. “I believe that the United States-Israel Business Alliance’s work in Florida, together with this forward-thinking course at FIU, will generate creative collaborations between Israel and Florida and strengthen our innovation ecosystem.”

Kaplowitz previously worked at Israel’s embassy in Washington. He was later appointed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to set up Global NY, an economic development initiative aimed at attracting international business to New York State. In that role, he organized Cuomo’s trade missions, which included three trips to Israel.

The business alliance grew out these efforts to expand business ties, partially by helping organize trips by US governors to Israel, including four visits in 2019.

Growing Israeli companies are often eager to expand outside the country’s small domestic market, and often look to New York. Israeli Mapped in NY, a website that tracks Israeli firms in New York, counts 293 startups in the city. The business alliance strives to foster that growth, as well as have the Israeli companies create local jobs in the US.

The Florida initiative, headed by Wolfer, is the group’s first foray outside of the Empire State, and the FIU course resulted from early connections made in Florida.

The United States-Israel Business Alliance believes Florida will become a top destination in the US for Israeli entrepreneurs once the pandemic recedes and business travel resumes, due to the state’s technology scene, infrastructure and energy.

The Israeli companies Wix, Insightec and Memic all have Florida offices, and the Florida-Israel Business Accelerator is housed in Tampa.

Downtown Miami, August 1, 2021. (Daniel Slim/AFP)

“There’s a Tel Aviv vibe in Miami. It has a tech scene that’s coming on very quickly. Our thesis is that as Miami positions itself, and Florida also, as a hub for certain technologies and tries to build itself up as a leader, Israel can play a role,” Kaplowitz said.

FIU, as the area’s leading university, plays a part in that ecosystem, and has strong ties to the mayor’s office, he said.

“FIU is deeply linked to the recent innovation activity surging through Miami, where the tech ecosystem is having its moment,” Wolfer said.

“If you came to Miami 30 years ago, you’d see Israelis active in the real estate scene. If you came to Miami 20 years ago, you’d see Israelis all over the restaurant and hospitality industry. Today, the Israelis are deeply embedded in the tech scene — and in many cases leading the way,” she said.

The Miami mayor’s office sees the value in connecting the two economies to create local jobs and generate revenue for the city and the state, Kaplowitz said. The business alliance is in touch with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s office, which also fully supports the effort.

The Republican governor went to Israel on a trade mission in 2019, and both he and Suarez have been vocal supporters of the Jewish state in the past.

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