Israel By Design: Who Will Help Meet The Next Challenges For Start-Up Nation?

Source: Forbes | Published March 30, 2015 by Giovanni Rodriguez

In the Spring of 2011, I had what I would later realize was a life-changing, transformative experience. I was working for Deloitte Consulting, helping the firm build a social technology practice. The job, though challenging, allowed for the occasional pro-bono excursion, and I took one such excursion to consult for a team at The White House that was looking for ways to more effectively engage Hispanic leaders throughout the US. The volunteer gig led to another – this time working for the DNC, assisting with Hispanic engagement strategy and tactics for the 2012 election – then ultimately led to the launch of my firm that was founded on the commitment of helping large organizations to evolve by empowering the people they serveIn short, what started as a volunteer effort, and somewhat of a vacation, eventually became my vocation as a cross-cultural consultant. But looking back on the experience, I can confidently say that this professional transformation was no accident. It happened by design — by intent and by inclusion.  And that’s why it was transformative.

By design, I don’t mean by the sleight of God’s hand, though friends and family who are more religiously bent might disagree. What I mean instead is design thinking, a set of principles for guiding engagement with human beings that’s at the foundation of most of my work.  My latest volunteer effort – leading a delegation of Hispanic entrepreneurs to Israel – reminded me of the design principles that must be applied in all great social movements. And the first principle, often ignored or misunderstood, is that the movement must originate with the volunteer will of the people you are trying to engage.  At the behest of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we – the delegation – were invited to Israel, to explore the cultural and commercial connections between Hispanic entrepreneurs and Israeli entrepreneurs, as an exercise in citizen diplomacy. What Israel wanted: ideas for how Israeli startups can engage a complex group of people who will make up more than one third of the population in the US by mid-century. What we wanted:  to learn from leaders in the world’s second largest region for start-ups.  We were not paid for our work; there was mutual benefit.  We were simply asked to listen, speak, and volunteer our recommendations. And although the itinerary was largely constrained to conversations about technology – our entire delegation is based in Silicon Valley — there was no formal brief. In fact, we kind of wrote the brief ourselves, after we arrived. On day one of our seven-day visit, we met with Saul Singer, co-author of Start-Up Nation, a book that has repositioned Israel as a global powerhouse for invention and implementation. Singer told us Israel should aim for a new goal: to become “an accelerator of emerging ecosystems around the world.” So we set out to ask, “what gaps must be closed – demographic, geographic, infrastructural, psychological – to meet that goal”? That became our brief, as volunteer citizen ambassadors, by our own design.

The second design principle, again often missing in cross-cultural engagements: the voice of the people – on both sides, and in all its complexity – need to be heard.   We worked with organizations on the ground to connect with a good cross-section of Israeli society: Jews and Arabs, men and women, rich and poor, liberal and conservative. Even if some of the people we visited were not, we entered conversations with a pluralistic view not just because this is our view, but also because it was the only way to engage people with diverging opinions on the fate and future of tech in Israel (again, the focus of our brief). But sensing that this would be one of our tasks even before writing the brief, I assembled — with the help of my colleagues — an Ocean’s Eleven for the delegation: Antonio Altamirano, an entrepreneur and expert on developer ecosystems throughout the Americas; Tom Cervantez, attorney and founder of Harvard Angels; Laura Gomez, entrepreneur and early Twitter TWTR +0.78% employee who was the firm’s international team’s first hire; Michael Lopez, a consultant and veteran marketer in the entertainment industry; Pilar Manchon, an expert in natural language processing who recently sold her company to Intel INTC -1.53% where she is now a GM; Jesse Martinez, serial entrepreneur and founder of the Latino Startup Alliance; Deldelp Medina, founder of Avion Ventures, one of the first accelerators serving Latinas; Danny Navarro, a marketer and expert connector at Google GOOGL -0.94% for Entrepreneurs; Pablo Perez, serial entrepreneur and CEO of the LAM network; Danny Sanchez, a pastor and expert in conflict resolution who has been recognized by the White House for his work with street gangs; Mario Tapia, an investor and leader of a global network of mobile tech entrepreneurs.  Some of us have Jewish ancestry. At least one of us, we believe, has some Arab ancestry. All of us are Hispanic, and can identify with the storyline of outsiders all over the world, but especially in the Middle East.

Which brings us to the final and perhaps most important design principle that informed this journey: the will and the voice of the people are the instruments of human agency. On the surface, our visit to Israel may not have come at the most auspicious time. It was less than one week after an election that deeply divided the nation. But guided with tools and practices that have been used time and time again to cross cultural borders and build bridges, we are a hopeful lot.

No illusions here that the work will be easy. But there is work to be done, by many people — paid and unpaid — and it can be defined. Over the course of the next two weeks, I will share what we learned and what we are recommending.  It’s been quite a journey.  But we’re just getting started.