Give To Get: Some Hints from Israeli, European and American Success Stories

In the end of June, thought leaders from around the world gathered on a wide range of topics at the Israeli President’s Conference entitled “Facing Tomorrow 2011.” This was the third conference of its type in as many years, dedicated to designing a better tomorrow. Almost every topic connected to the Jewish people and to Israel was discussed by 200 leaders half of whom came from outside of Israel. Participation in the conference was open to the public and free of charge.

With a concentration of so many personalities in one place, many side events, both formal and informal, took place.

I attended one such event in an unlikely place: A converted garage in the industrial area of Holon, not far from Ben Gurion Airport. This is the place where a group called “Garage Geeks” meets. Approximately once a month for the last year and half, about 200 people come to discuss technology and new ideas with high-profile guests. I‘ve participated in several of these evenings which are always fun and informative.

Often, the presenters are used to speaking in conference halls and board rooms, but here we immerse them among the entrepreneurs, hackers, gamers, engineers and designers who are at the core of Israel’s start-up culture. Wearing jeans and t-shirts, drinking beer and bar-b-quing, we brainstorm, ask questions and exchange ideas. All pretense is cast aside.

The list of the presenters at the last evening I attended was an all-start cast:

* Stanley Fischer, the Governor of the Bank of Israel
* Sir Ronald Cohen, Founder of Apax
* David Fischer, VP of Advertising and Global Operations at Facebook
* Robert Stephens, CTO of Best Buy and founder of The Geek Squad
* Martin Varsavsky, Founder of Fon and serial entrepreneur
* Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikimedia

All this was coordinated by leading Israeli entrepreneur Yosi Vardi.

Each of these men gave a short presentation and answered questions. Then, those who were not running off to catch a plane, mingled with crowd.

What struck me most was that all of these very successful people encouraged everyone to share. Their message seemed to be that by sharing and encouraging others to benefit from what you are doing or from what you have – be that your wealth, your technology or your ideas – the benefit to you and to everyone else will be greater than if you try to keep your project proprietary. This seems to be a very Israeli idea, Israel having socialist roots and a underlying kinship among its inhabitants.

Professor Stanley Fischer, Governor of the Bank of Israel, illustrated how Israeli hospitality extends to investments as well. With some of the most liberal foreign investment regulations we welcome foreigners who pour money into our economy.

Fischer told us that after a presentation in Europe, he was asked if Israelis aren’t afraid of foreign investors. (I thought of how many Americans are afraid of the Japanese buying up Manhattan.) He laughed, saying it was the first time he had been asked that question and that Israelis are flattered that foreigners think that their companies are worth investing in.

It is no secret that Israel has the largest number of companies on the NASDAQ Stock Exchange outside of the USA and is second only to Silicon Valley for the number of start-ups per capita. Not only do individuals and venture capitalists invest here, but companies like Intel, Motorolla, IBM and Google have a large presence here. We welcome these foreigners and encourage their investment in Israel. As a result, our economy is booming.

Stanley Fischer’s son, David, is the VP of Advertising and Global Operations at Facebook. He joined Facebook after being at Google where he helped build Google’s online advertising network into the largest in the world. Prior to that, David served as Deputy Chief of Staff at the United States Treasury Department during the Clinton Administration.

David asked us to look at how powerful sharing is. As an example, he said that when comparing websites where you may post photographs, there are more features available on other websites, but most people use Facebok because it is easiest to share their photos with their friends on Facebook. Building sharing into any new technology is key to its success, Fischer told us.

Sir Ronald Cohen is a pioneer of the UK venture capital industry, having co-founded Apax Partners in 1972, the largest private equity firm in Europe. He invested heavily in Israel, but spoke to us about social entrepreneurship. Sharing the wealth for the greater good not only benefits the society, but actually is profitable. Cohen spoke of a project in Britain where investors sponsored the rehabilitation of prison inmates. The cost was less than incarceration and the convicts were less likely to be repeat offenders. There was both a long-term social and fiscal profit to the pilot project.

Robert Stephens is the CTO of Best Buy and founder of The Geek Squad. Now, with over 25,000 Agents, The Geek Squad is the world’s largest technology support company. They have turned the sharing of their technical knowledge into big business.

Martin Varsavsky is the founder and CEO of FON, the largest WiFi network in the world with over 4 million hotspots. The way it works is their customers share their routers which connect computers to the Internet so that customers have two connections they are paying for – a private connection and a public connection. By sharing the bandwidth they are paying for with others, they can, in exchange, connect at other homes and businesses. This has created the largest wireless network in the world.

The final example from that evening is Wikipedia, a household name, where everyone goes to find out information. People self-regulate the accuracy of the information freely contributing and raising warnings. There is no charge for this resource which has replaced our sets of encyclopedias. Jimmy Wales, the founder of the Wikipedia project, told us his most important decision regarding Wikipedia was to make it a non-profit organization. With other assets, the financial benefit is always a consideration, but with Wikipedia, he can always just do the right thing.

There are more than 82,000 active contributors working without pay creating Wikipedia. Tey are working on more than 17,000,000 articles in more than 270 languages Every day, hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world collectively make tens of thousands of edits and create thousands of new articles to augment the knowledge held by the Wikipedia encyclopedia. It is the ultimate in sharing knowledge.

The event I attended was free. Everyone was asked to bring some food or drink to share with everyone else. And there was plenty for everyone.