Three weeks ago, I visited David Ben Gurion’s grave. Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, chose to be buried near his retirement home on S’de Boker, a kibbutz in the Negev — a beautiful, desolate endless stretch of rocky hills and sand. His final resting place overlooks a Grand Canyonesque valley facing a great expanse of the rocky desert that symbolizes the challenges of this complex region.
David ben Gurion
I was there for inspiration.This field trip, after two days of wall-to-wall meetings and big party, was the vision of one of the founders, investors, and directors of AnyClip — Erel Margalit. Erel is the founder and leader of Jerusalem Venture Partners. He has crafted a venture firm that is so distinctive from the dozen other firms with which I’ve worked, that I’m almost feel we need a new category name. The firm is part classic ($780mm under management and big returns in telecommunications and semiconductors), part IdeaLab (Erel reminds one of Bill Gross’ legendary entrepreneurial restlessness), and part Ben Gurion – a determined, persistent, driven believer in all that Israel could be.
After a few months getting to know Erel, I realize now that it is no accident that he has located his firm, and, more importantly, his sprawling entrepreneurial campus in Jerusalem. Israel’s Tel Aviv-oriented high tech community views Jerusalem the way those who are based in Palo Alto would view Bakersfield. Only an hour by car, most of my Tel Aviv Internet friends tell me they never, ever venture to Jerusalem.
Erel runs the prominent JVP in a place that has been deeply rejected by the cosmopolitan, modern and increasingly affluent high-tech community in Israel. But Erel has and will stay his ground. His will to remake Jerusalem fuels his life. He knows he can blend the ancient with the modern. On a once broken down set of warehouses, near a defunct train station, JVP has created an incubator, office park, state of the art theater, and restaurant complex. To see pictures of it only 5 years ago is to realize why people think Erel is “totally crazy.”
But come visit. It’s all there and thriving. On campus, there all kinds of interesting companies largely focused on consumer media — a category that has played a distant 4th or 5th Israel’s obsession with the telecommunications, security, and energy that generated huge returns in for JVP and other Israeli firms. My company AnyClip sits across from Double Fusion (Second to Massive in in-game ad sales) and across from The Animation Lab –Israel’s attempt to replicate Pixar.
Erel is a maverick venture investor. He plays by a set of rules that are deeply grounded in his faith that an entrepreneur can do anything. You can stumble and he’ll ask what’s next? He doesn’t like to “prune his portfolio.” David Ben Gurion created a country. So what are you doing that’s so tough? Erel applies this Jobsian faith in the invention and reinvention of companies to the political and economic future of Jerusalem. He sees hope where almost all see despair. On the eve of the Israeli elections a couple of months ago, I listened to Erel talk about his vision for Jerusalem:
I imagine a city that houses companies and office parks that are owned exactly 50/50 by Israelis and Arabs. I see startups that sit next to each other that blend Jewish and Arab founders and are owned by a multicultural syndicate of investors. Jerusalem will become the cultural and arts capital of new pan-regional festivals that celebrate all cultures. Through the opening of Jerusalem, Israel will open and together with the Palestinians, it will become a gateway to the region. Israel wil transform from the R&D center of world to it’s creative hub in close cooperation with the Palestinian inhabitants. Diversity will be seen as a source of strength rather than weakness. Finally, we will have flights from Damascus and Riyadh to Jerusalem.
Each time I recount Erel’s vision of the new Jerusalem to family, friends, and colleagues they shake their head at me like he (and me for even recounting) are living in fantasy world. Hope has been decimated for many Zionists. Intifadas, suicide bombs, rockets falling on both sides instill despair and cultivate vitriol. Jews pride ourselves on not falling into the cycle of hatred towards Arabs that is so morally vacuous and intellectually specious, but these past 15 years have emboldened the ignorant racists among us. And while it’s understandable (how would you feel if your mother/brother/father/sister/wife was killed drinking coffee at a roadside café) it has created a sense of futility that betrays the ideals of Israel’s first entrepreneur.
On my journey into the Negev, I learned David Ben Gurion would not have wanted vitriol. He craved progress. This was a man who spoke of the importance of developing Solar Energy in the 1950’s! He learned 9 languages because he believed he couldn’t read the great works of other cultures in the translation. He located his Zionist ideals in a broad, compassionate view of humanity. Erel’s own words about Ben Gurion transformed into a meditation about Jewish history that tried to put the ancient and the current into context. There was a more nuanced presentation of why the political situation is so challenging. But the intractability does not deter him. Nor would it have frustrated Ben Gurion, who probably would have been excited by the prospects of flights from Damascus to Jerusalem.
As Erel spoke, I thought about how I ended up in this desert with this collection of entrepreneurs who were making semiconductors to enable high definition video on mobile phones or challenging SAP with a user-friendly ERP solution. What made us come here? Israel is only 60 and it’s been a relatively challenging go of it so far. It was as if we stood at Monticello near Jefferson’s grave before the Civil War. Who knew what would happen to the United States then?
Israel remains an entrepreneurial experiment and joining the process is intoxicating. AnyClip, like so many startups, will attempt the theoretically impossible. But we’ll do it with a better chance than a young David Ben Gurion had of creating a Jewish state on a tiny sliver of landed surrounded by Arabs on every side.
As one of the internet’s most thoughtful intellectuals Fred Wilson wrote recently, “sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith.”
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