Thanks to generous support from the Keller Center’s Princeton Startup-Immersion Program (PSIP), a cohort of undergraduate and graduate students, myself included, is working in companies all over Tel Aviv, the Silicon Wadi of the so-called start-up nation.
To me, PSIP Israel is a novel opportunity to explore a place so unknown and so far removed from anything I am familiar with. Israel was a jumble of letters from newspaper headlines, a nation associated with heated politics, cutting-edge startups, ancient religions, and apparently good hummus. How does this concoction make sense? Who are the people who make up this mysterious place? Working and living full-time alongside Israelis have been revealing, and here are five things I have learned about my colleagues so far.
1) They are straightforward and full of chutzpah
Borrowed from Yiddish, chutzpah is a curious amalgam of brazen nerve and shameless audacity. It is fine to ask people about personal details like their age or salary. There is nothing wrong with interrupting and arguing with your company’s CEO at an office-wide meeting. Nobody bashed an eyelash when, at a public lecture, somebody in the audience raised a question, and another person interjected, pointing out that the question was irrelevant, and could the speaker please move on?
But what might seem to us to teeter dangerously close to presumptuous or plainly rude, Israelis consider the normal way to navigate through life. Sometimes this means a hefty dose of balagan (chaos, in Hebrew, as is often heard uttered with exasperation every now and then). But other times, this is a necessary nudge to the status quo.
2) Hierarchy? What hierarchy?
The company’s VP of Business Development is not Mr. Linder, but simply Omri with whom you fist-bump over Turkish coffee and share dog pictures on LinkedIn. The current Prime Minister isn’t Benjamin Netanyahu, but just Bibi. There is respect for leadership, but the communication is informal and inclusive.
3) Multitasking masters
Nobody is defined by any single rigid title. In any given day, my project manager is simultaneously a caring mother, an accomplished novelist, an inspiring innovation coach, and a savvy businessperson. In our meetings, the company’s resident computer graphics guy gives us crucial feedback on our work, on top of running a marketing venture on the side and being a pious man who commutes to the office every day from Jerusalem. And have I mentioned that he was formally trained in clinical psychology?
4) Everybody has a history
With mandatory conscription into the Israel Defense Force for the majority of both Israeli males and females, by the time you meet them in the workforce, their lives have been chiseled by years of army experiences in this war-torn region. Life is not necessarily a straight, uniform trajectory. Hearing about the experiences of others, many of them simply unimaginable, makes you realize that your reality is just one among many.
The population is also incredibly diverse. The establishment of the State of Israel after WWII, influenced by the Zionist movement to re-establish a land for the Jewish people, was followed by massive immigration waves of Jews worldwide into the nation. This is reflected in the multitude of cultures represented here: shop signs in Russian, syrupy Arabic pastry, restaurants serving Ethiopian injera, young Filipinos sprinting past you on the streets. But the journey to Israel was not a breeze for all. Many people in your everyday life are the very people who have, for instance, directly suffered and lost family members during the Holocaust. One can read about history, but living among it is a uniquely poignant experience.
5) There is a sense of camaraderie
Israel, in particular Tel Aviv, is often referred to as one of the world’s most prominent tech clusters. Popularized by the Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter, the term cluster is a unique model for economic development defined not only by its geographical location, but also by the social glue that holds it together. As a relatively small country with roughly the land mass and population of New Jersey, it is often said that here, everybody knows each other. Perhaps they served in the army together, went the same school, or share mutual friends.
There is, however, also a sense of community that runs deeper that merely being acquaintances. “There is something about Israel. I love the people here. I feel safer and protected here,” said my project manager. To many elsewhere in the world, this might seem like a ludicrous notion, coming from somebody who lives less than a day’s drive from the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt - places you are likely to see featured with, if anything, inhumane violence in media headlines.
On the streets of Tel Aviv, security guards search through your bag as you enter any public space. A military conscript sitting next to you on a train could have a rifle strapped to their shoulder. Imagine that on the NYC subway. But altogether, this is what Israel ultimately is to its residents - a community.
- - Nuss Visatemongkolchai
Nuss is a senior in Chemical and Biological Engineering with an academic focus in economics and entrepreneurship. For more information about PSIP Israel, visit the PSIP Israel blog and stay tuned for more updates from the PEC.