Immigrants to Israel Find Their Place in the Startup Nation

A conversation about fearlessness, risk-taking and entrepreneurial spirit from the DLD Tel Aviv Innovation Festival.

Eyal Toueg

If Startup Nation is a nation of immigrants, then do those fresh off the boat have an advantage over old-timers in breaking into the entrepreneurial world?

A group of leading high-tech investors and innovators, all of whom immigrated to Israel as adults, were asked to weigh in on this question at a special event organized by TheHive, a startup accelerator program, as part of this week’s DLD Tel Aviv Innovation Festival. TheHive is run by Gvahim, a nonprofit career placement and development agency for new immigrants.

“When you move to a country and nobody knows you, you have to hustle,” said Bob Rosenschein, the founder and former chief executive of Answers.com, an Internet company he eventually sold for $127 million. “You have to be hungrier because it’s not so easy. You can’t call up your uncle or someone who knew you in the army necessarily or even a teacher and get help. You’re on your own, and it’s hard. It’s hard to get a job. It’s hard to find your place, to make new friends. So I think that immigrants start out trying harder, and that’s a good thing.”

Another advantage immigrants bring to entrepreneurship, he said, is their ability to look at things from a different perspective.

“That’s one of the reasons I love to hire immigrants,” said Rosenschein, who grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and moved to Israel 32 years ago. His latest startup venture is Curiyo, a browser add-on that fetches additional information about any web page.

Nevertheless, he said, immigrants tend to be underrepresented in the ranks of Israeli entrepreneurs. “It’s hard to break in, and you need connections. Immigrants come with lots of energy and skills, but it doesn’t mean they’re naturally set up to marshal all the resources that are required for a successful venture. Once you’ve made the decision to come here, it helps develop the toughness in you that’s required. But it doesn’t always translate into becoming founders and CEOs.”

Oleg Korol, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union and a graduate of TheHive, noted that immigrants tend to have a certain fearlessness that comes in handy when launching new businesses.

“Fear is what stops people from doing stuff, but those who have been able to make the move from some place they know very well to another place they don’t know at all have already shown their ability to overcome fear,” said Korol, the founder of Tevatronic, a startup that makes water-saving irrigation systems. The company, he said, is comprised entirely of Russian-speakers.

An aspect of this fearlessness is the appetite for risk-taking that tends to characterize both immigrants and entrepreneurs, said Gali Shahar, the CEO of Gvahim, which was established by the Rashi Foundation.

“Immigrants are definitely risk-takers,” she said. “Immigrating to a new country is about starting over, and they’re definitely not afraid to start over, which is something you have to do a lot as an entrepreneur. The best entrepreneurs in the world fail many times before they succeed. And that’s why immigrants are so important for the Startup Nation ecosystem.”

Eyal Toueg

By contrast, Jimmy Levy, the founder of Galil Software, which is located in the Arab city of Nazareth, said he was not convinced that immigrants are greater risk-takers.

“I’m not sure there’s anything tangible you can point to,” said Levy, who grew up in Canada and immigrated to Israel 18 years ago. “We see some immigrants who are great entrepreneurs, but I don’t know if that’s a result of their being immigrants.”

In his view, immigrants to Israel tend to be drawn to entrepreneurial pursuits for the simple reason that it helps pay the bills. “I lived in Canada, and people don’t have the same drive there to become entrepreneurs because life is a lot easier. Much of the reason that a lot of you, including myself, have the drive to become entrepreneurs is that it’s hard to make a living in this country. It’s hard to buy an apartment, a car, and salaries aren’t great – so you have every reason to push yourself.”

Eyal Toueg