The Israeli Who Links Silicon Valley Up With Silicon Wadi

Yasmin Lukatz, Sheldon Adelson's stepdaughter, cut her teeth at the casino magnate’s newspaper but prefers to help Israelis network

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Networking facilitator Yasmin Lukatz, July 2017.
Networking facilitator Yasmin Lukatz, July 2017.Credit: Eyal Toueg

“You have five minutes for the presentation and three minutes to answer questions from board members,” Yasmin Lukatz tells a high-tech entrepreneur who entered the conference room of a law firm.

Lukatz turns on her phone's stopwatch and marks a check next to the startup’s name. Some 15 high-tech pros – angel venture capitalists, lawyers, accountants and analysts – sit around the long table. Everyone has been there since 9 A.M. This is the 15th of at least 25 presentations that day.

They listen, criticize, take notes and move on to the next candidate.

All present have a few things in common. They’re all major players in global and Israeli high-tech, and none of them yet intends to invest in any of the ventures they see. But the most important thing connecting them is that Lukatz invited them to join the project, and they cleared their schedules to volunteer as selection-committee members for her initiative, the SV101 program.

Building a network that includes West Coast high-tech and financial executives is complicated, but Lukatz, a 45-year-old mother of four, has certain advantages, not least that she’s the stepdaughter of the American billionaire and Benjamin Netanyahu confidant Sheldon Adelson.

Lukatz’s mother, Miriam Ochshorn, met Adelson in New York in the late 1980s when he was still an aspiring millionaire in his 50s, freshly divorced from his first wife. They married in 1991, and while they were enjoying their honeymoon in Venice, Adelson decided to demolish his Sands Hotel in Las Vegas and replace it with the Venetian, a hotel and casino containing replicas of the Italian city’s landmarks. The concept revolutionized the gambling industry and the city.

But Lukatz, a Tel Aviv native, developed much of her network over a career that began as an Israel Air Force operations officer and an events organizer at the Tel Aviv Port. She earned an accounting, economics and law degree at Tel Aviv University, after which she worked for the accounting firm Ernst & Young. She later obtained an MBA at Stanford.

Lukatz settled in Silicon Valley 13 years ago, but she visits Israel at least twice a year to choose a group of 10 high-tech entrepreneurs. With a foot on both sides of the Atlantic, she sees herself as someone who bridges the social networks, as it were, between Israel and the United States.

“Everyone in Israel knows somebody through somebody else. They all served with someone in the army. You can reach anyone with a little effort. You don’t have that when you go to the United States. Their networking is built differently,” Lukatz told The Marker.

“As an Israeli, you didn't study with key Americans at school, you didn’t play football or soccer with them at some college, and you didn’t go to university with them. And these are the easiest ways to reach people. The harder problems are overcoming cultural gaps and reaching clients. I want to put Israeli entrepreneurs in the same place as the American entrepreneur. We’re building in Silicon Valley a community of key people who are interested in and love Israeli-high tech.”

Sheldon and Miriam Adelson with Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu at Ariel in the West Bank, June 2017. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Newspaper like a startup

Lukatz headed an initiative three years ago that led to the founding of ICON, the Israel Collaboration Network, a nonprofit that hooks Israeli entrepreneurs up with senior Silicon Valley and American venture-capital executives.

She has also worked with her famous stepfather. When Adelson founded the Israel Hayom daily in 2007, he made Lukatz his representative at the paper. “Starting the paper was totally like a startup for me, but from a standpoint of Zionism, doing something for Israel,” Lukatz says.

She also worked with Adelson in Las Vegas as a consultant and special assistant to the chairman of Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands Corp. But while traveling the transatlantic triangle of Las Vegas, San Francisco and Tel Aviv, she decided after four years with Sands to slow things down and, with a Stanford colleague, founded a startup that developed a monitor to track babies’ sleep cycles.

“It was beyond going from one extreme to another – from a company of 10,000 employees in Vegas to a company of three people. At first we sold the product directly to consumers, but then we joined up with the Belkin electronics company. The model changed, and they started to produce and sell the product under their brand. Afterward, my job at the startup narrowed and changed, and I again sought a career change,” she says.

“I had my fourth child in 2013. I finished maternity leave and started to think ahead. I didn’t want the extremes of either thousands of employees or three employees at a startup, but rather something in between,” she adds.

“So I started meeting with people to learn and understand. I really loved Silicon Valley, the innovative atmosphere, everything happening there. While meeting people from the local JCC, I hit on the idea of organizing a conference to encourage something a little Zionist and strengthen the brand of Israeli high-tech tech. ICON was born.”

ICON’s contact list has 1,500 people – members of the organization, as Lukatz prefers to see them – that include high-tech celebrities like Nir Zuk of Palo Alto Networks; Oren Zeev, an entrepreneur and investor who has lived in the United States since 2002; Noam Bardin, who sold Waze to Google; and Amir Faintuch, the most senior Israeli at Intel.

Among the challenges Lukatz acknowledges is getting more female entrepreneurs involved.

“No doubt it’s a big problem,” she says. “About a year ago, the Israeli consulate asked me to organize for Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely a meeting with female Israeli executives in high-tech who were working in Silicon Valley. I looked at all my lists and all I could scrape up were four female Israeli executives,” she says.

“So I decided to expand the list to people working in startups or venture capital funds, but not at the management level, and in just a second we filled the list with 40 women. The event was an enormous success, and now a very vigorous group of women has formed,” she adds.

“They meet once a month in a meet-up format in which each one contributes her knowledge and experience to the rest of the group. These women’s meetings are fascinating, and registration for them is always sold out. They’ve formed a closed Facebook group. Now we’re thinking how to continue and leverage this.”

Besides high-tech, Lukatz is involved in philanthropy; for example, she’s a board member at Taglit-Birthright, one of the biggest nonprofit endeavors that Sheldon and Miriam Adelson support. The Adelson Foundation has given the project, founded in 1999, an estimated $10 million. Lukatz says she wants to do more for Birthright, which brings young people on trips to Israel.

“We still haven’t reached all the Jews in the world, and we have to bolster its presence in countries outside the United States,” she says. “This project is a wonderful thing for Jewish identity for young people abroad.”

Yearning for Israel

Though Lukatz lives in California, she says Israel remains close to her heart; her family is always thinking about returning. “Every time I visit Israel, I have a feeling that I don’t understand what I’m doing over there,” she says.

“And what do I do there? I went to study and I stayed. My daughter will be drafted next year, so maybe that will shake us up and we’ll return with her, even though there’s no agreement among everyone in the family about this.”

While her stepfather is very involved in politics as a Republican mega-donor, Lukatz says she still needs to learn how she can do the most she can for the goals she advocates regarding Israel. “I believe in involvement and social impact, but what exactly I still don’t know,” she adds.

Adelson has been notorious for making Israel Hayom the mouthpiece for Netanyahu. But the couple has testified to the police this year regarding suspicions that Netanyahu agreed with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes to take steps to weaken Israel Hayom, a free daily, in exchange for favorable coverage in the rival newspaper.

The relationship between the prime minister and Lukatz’s father-in-law made headlines again in recent weeks after a court ordered Netanyahu to provide the dates in which he spoke by phone with Adelson and former Israel Hayom editor Amos Regev. Netanyahu finally admitted that he spoke with Adelson 117 times and Regev 234 times between February 2012 and February 2015.

Lukatz says she has met with the Netanyahus a number of times, but “only at social events.”

She doesn’t see herself becoming involved in Adelson’s businesses. “Public service appeals more to me. I really enjoy my work at ICON, which is also nonprofit and for the community,” she says.

“I was on the boards of several Jewish organizations in Silicon Valley, but ICON is about social action as well and keeps me relevant regarding business. I don’t know what will be, but doing community work attracts me more than joining family businesses.”

She says she’s in daily contact with Adelson, and as far as belonging to a billionaire family is concerned, “It’s a lot of pride. It’s my parents. They do amazing things for Israel. They’re great philanthropists, and I’m very proud of what they do.”

And so does she have a family WhatsApp group – like the typical Israeli family – to share pictures and arrange meetings?

“We don’t have a family WhatsApp group,” she says, “but we’re always sending pictures of us and the grandkids, but by SMS.”