Want to be a billionaire? Come to Israel

The Start-Up Nation has what it takes to ‘grow’ super-entrepreneurs, according to a UK thinktank

Warren Buffet (L) discusses future plans for the expansion of his newly acquired business Iscar Metalworking with previous owner Steff Wertheimer (R) in Tefen, Israel on Monday, Sept. 18, 2006. (Photo credit: Big R /Flash90)
Warren Buffet (L) discusses future plans for the expansion of his newly acquired business Iscar Metalworking with previous owner Steff Wertheimer (R) in Tefen, Israel on Monday, Sept. 18, 2006. (Photo credit: Big R /Flash90)

Aspiring billionaires should consider a move to Israel, according to a report released Monday by the UK’s Centre for Policy Studies. The new study examines where “super-entrepreneurs,” defined as billionaires who have appeared on Forbes’ lists of the world’s richest people who earned their fortunes instead of inheriting them, are able to develop and thrive. Israel is the second-best place in the world to “raise” a billionaire entrepreneur, behind Hong Kong.

Israel, according to the center’s “Super-Entrepreneurs: And How Your Country Can Get Them” report, has the right conditions for breeding billionaires, who are only the tip of the iceberg of a society that encourages enterprise, innovation, education and leaves entrepreneurs alone to come up with the innovations in advanced industries that create wealth.

The survey of the 34 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which served as the basis for the center’s report, shows that Israel has about two billionaires per million people. Third on the list was the United States, with about 1.4 billionaires per million people, followed by Switzerland (1.3), Singapore and Norway (1.2 each), and Ireland (less than one). Israel has a bigger population than any of the list’s top seven countries, besides the US.

Sixteen self-made billionaires out of a population of eight million may indicate nothing but good luck or nefarious activities, but the center was careful to weed out billionaires who may have appeared on the Forbes list but were not honest entrepreneurs and hadn’t made their money “the hard way.”

Russia would likely not have appeared on the list, the report said, though it has not yet been accepted as an OECD member. “The former Soviet Union is particularly characterized by billionaires who appear to have become rich by taking over previous government companies after the fall of communism. Corruption and political connections have played an important role in their wealth formation. Many Russian billionaires have, at best, taken assets from the public, rather than contributing to economic growth. Others appear to be a mix of creators and rent seekers.” Those are not the kind of people the center is talking about, the report said.

The billionaires that the center is interested in are the ones who have appeared on the Forbes list between 1996 and 2010 and are responsible for founding half the largest new firms created in the world since the end of World War II.

Israel has the right stuff for billionaire-breeding, the report said. Among other things, successful entrepreneurship is “a numbers game. If you only start one company, and pursue a single business idea, you are much more likely to fail than your neighbor, who tries a number of different ideas over a long period of their life.” Many Israeli entrepreneurs who establish successful high-tech companies and either sell them or take them public end up starting new companies. For example, Uri Levine, former CEO of Waze, recently started two new companies.

Israel has industries conducive to growing billionaires, the report added. “You can potentially become a billionaire pursuing almost any business idea, but are much more likely to succeed if you do so in a rapidly growing (and novel) field — as biotechnology and information technology have been during the past decades.” According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, about half of Israel’s exports are in just those areas.

The report cited education as a key factor in billionaire development. Despite the college dropout legacy of tech figures such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, “super-entrepreneurs tend to be well educated and appear to be exceptionally bright. Even including the many college dropouts, only 16 percent of US billionaire entrepreneurs lack a college degree, compared to 53% of the self-employed and 54% of salaried workers.” According to the Academic Ranking of World Universities (considered by education industry experts as the most authoritative ranking of academic institutions) Israel is home to three of the world’s top 100 universities: Hebrew University, the Technion and the Weizmann Institute.

The report discusses about 1,000 of the world’s top super-entrepreneurs, but the center said it is important to remember that anyone living in a society where education, true entrepreneurship, drive, ambition and conducive government social policies, such as a manageable tax burden, could take advantage of those resources to develop their own business or tech idea and perhaps end up on a future list of billionaires.

The report did not name any of the billionaires in question. According to Forbes, there are 18 billionaires in Israel. Some, like Eyal and Idan Ofer, inherited their fortunes, making them ineligible for the center’s list. Forbes says that six of the 18 made their money strictly in IT or biotech, among them Gil Shwed and Marius Necht, who started Checkpoint; Teddy Sagi of gambling empire Playtech; and Morris Kahn of the Aurec Group. Although he made much of his fortune in manufacturing, Stef Wertheimer, who owns four high-tech parks, is also a technology-savvy self-made billionaire.

The US, the report said, has produced far more super-entrepreneurs than has Europe. Of the 100 largest public companies in America, the report said, 31 were founded by an entrepreneur during the postwar era and created over four million jobs. Of the 100 largest European firms, only seven were founded in the same period, creating about one million jobs. The US has four times more self-made billionaire entrepreneurs per capita than Europe does.

This, despite the fact that the US and other top billionaire countries had significantly lower rates of self-employment than most European countries. Greece, Turkey, Spain, Portugal and Italy, all countries with a far lower per capita rate of billionaires than the US, had about twice as many self-employed workers as the US per capita. The report did not cite a self-employed worker statistic for Israel.

The report noted that entrepreneurship and self-employment are not necessarily the same thing. “Entrepreneurship also includes the ambition to innovate and grow,” said the report. “And in this respect, the majority of self-employed individuals are not really entrepreneurial: the majority of the self-employed — the taxi drivers, builders, farmers, plumbers, shop owners, gardeners, fast food vendors, hairdressers and the white collar class of lawyers, doctors, consultants and accountants — would not claim to innovate and have limited potential and ambition to rapidly grow their business.” The self-employed individuals who can be legitimately called entrepreneurs, the report said, are those who are the “creators of innovative and growth-oriented firms” — the kind of firms, the report’s data shows, that Israeli entrepreneurs specialize in.

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