Tuesday, May 24, 2011

L'Chayim! Darden GBE Israel 2011

Shalom! I returned to the US on Sunday after a fantastic two weeks in Israel. With all due respect to Brazil, Argentina, Spain, and Sweden, I doubt there could be a better-organized FY GBE experience at Darden!

The purpose of the trip was to focus on entrepreneurship and innovation in Israel, which has become known as the "Startup Nation" -- it has more start-up businesses per capita than any other country in the world. We would be meeting with companies and government officials and working on projects with Israeli startups which were interested in entering the US market. We also would be visiting historical and cultural sites in Israel and learn both about the Arab-Israeli conflict as well as the religious-secular divide in Israel. 25 intrepid Darden FYs (and 2 SYs) would go along for the journey.

Venture capitalist Scott Tobin, who once turned down the chance to invest in Facebook.  Oops.

After rushing through a final week of exams and group projects at Darden, we flew to Israel just in time for its Memorial Day on May 9th. Unlike Memorial Day in the US, which is more about going to the beach than remembering soldiers, the Israelis take their Memorial Day seriously. After a morning meeting with an expat venture capitalist, we traveled to Yitzhak Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, where we watched a moment of silence at 11AM. A siren sounded and everyone left their vehicles, standing at attention. A very powerful moment!

In the afternoon we had lunch with our startup's entrepreneur and then in the evening the Independence Day celebrations began! The contrast between the somber Memorial Day and the exuberant Independence Day celebration is deliberate -- Israelis want to ensure that they remember the fallen who helped create and preserve the Israeli nation state. Independence Day fireworks and music were certainly much more fun, but I was too jet-lagged to really make a big night out of it. The actual holiday the following day was light -- we saw the Independence Museum (where the Israeli state was declared in 1948) and walked around old Tel Aviv and the port of Jaffa.
Outside the Knesset (Israeli Parliament)
On May 11th we traveled to Jerusalem, where we met with the Accountant General (the CFO of Israel) and a couple foreign affairs ministers. In the afternoon we toured the Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust museum, and received a lecture on Israeli business culture following our evening dinner. On our second day in Jerusalem, we met officials at the Ministry of Trade, followed by a visit to the Israeli Parliament (the Knesset). The afternoon was intense -- an afternoon tour of the Jerusalem Old City, including visits to the City of David, the Church of the Holy Sepulchure, and the Wailing Wall.

On Friday, May 13th we traveled to an Israeli commune, the Kibbutz Magal, where we met with irrigation giant Netafim. We toured their facilities and learned about the distinctive lifestyle in a collectivist community. In the afternoon we heard a heated debate between a reform Jewish rabbi and a follower of Orthodox Judaism, after which we recognized the Shabbat, the beginning of the Jewish day of rest on Friday evening. In largely secular Tel Aviv, though, it was plainly visible that this was not being widely observed.

Saturday was a day to work on our group projects for our Sunday presentations. Sunday is a workday in Israel, and my internal clock was a bit off when I was told we would be waking up for an 8:30 AM presentation by the head of PR at Better Place, and Israeli electric car startup. This presentation though ended up being one of the best on our trip. Better Place is pioneering an electric car model in which you rent the battery but receive free charging and battery swaps at a network of convenient automated stations. They launch in Israel and Denmark later this year...check them out!

After listening to Better Place we packed our bags and drove north to Haifa, Israel's third city. At the Technion, Israel's equivalent of MIT, each of the student groups presented to our six startups. We had three solar energy startups (Solar Bead, TIGI, Eternegy), a pharmaceutical startup (Avixenna), a software startup (AIType), and an online Israeli art portal (Omanoot). My team had worked for several weeks with Eternegy, a company which has developed an innovative tracking device which aligns photovoltaic solar panels with the highest energy photons from the sun. Through this project we learned a lot about project development in the solar industry and the challenges faced by those introducing new technologies. Though a lot of work, I really enjoyed this experiential learning component of our GBE.

The final two days of our GBE were spent in the northern part of Israel. We traveled to an industrial park where we met the highly energized founder of luxury soapmaker Gamila's Secret, kayaked on the Jordan River, toured an army base in the Golan Heights, met with the Israeli offices of Qualcomm and Google, and toured the beautiful Baha'i Gardens. Following the end of the Darden GBE, I stayed with a few classmates for the rest of the week, taking a road trip to the Negev Desert, the Dead Sea, the ancient fortress of Masada, the resort town of Eilat, and into Jordan to visit the lost city of Petra.

Darden Professor Gal Raz, our fearless leader
The Israel GBE not only was an exciting and amazing experience, but provided a great supplement to our business school educations. Business today is highly global, and without an appreciation of this your business career is likely to be short-circuited. Israel faces many challenges, for sure, but this emerging economic phenomenon is likely to continue to disrupt existing markets with its new and innovative technologies. I came away with a view of Israel quite different from what you see on the evening news, a view of a country which lives a rather normal lifestyle, albeit with typical Israeli impatience and informality. The Darden Israel GBE provided me with a far deeper view into contemporary Israeli business culture than I could have gleaned from personal travel. My GBE mates and I are grateful to Professor Gal Raz for the effort he made to introduce us to his home country!

Thursday, May 5, 2011


Life in the Darden bubble continues to defy the traditional boundaries of space and time. You wouldn't believe it unless you were here but the last four weeks have flown by in a split-second and I am 48 hours away from boarding a flight for my Darden Global Business Experience to Israel! This week I've wrapped up classes, worked on four group projects simultaneously, started building the foundation for an ambitious Energy Club agenda next year, and tried to find balance by making time for some belly-busting gym action...very important before a visit to the beaches of Tel Aviv!

The triumvirate of roommates all head to Israel next week

My first year at Darden has been ending rather anticlimactically. Unlike high school (or even college) there's no crescendo to the end of the school year symphony...rather it just...sort of ends. You say bye to a couple folks and trust you'll see the rest when you return to Charlottesville in 3.5 months. As one of my Facebook friends posted today, "This is the way first year ends: not with a bang but a whimper (or the click of an "upload" button)."

Well, no time to loiter on this blog post.  Need to grab a quick Cinco de Mayo margarita as a stress relief prior to taking my last exam of the year.  Talk to you soon from the Middle East!