Discovering the Start-Up Nation: A Unique Experience in Israel with Digital Transformation MBA Students

This article reflects on a student delegation trip to Tel Aviv, exploring the city's vibrant start-up culture through visits to companies like Ernst & Young, Microsoft, and Daimler. It highlights the unique aspects of the Israeli entrepreneurial mindset and the lessons learned from experiencing the local innovation ecosystem.

With the arrival of fall in Germany and the return of cool, wet days warning us that Winter is on its way, it’s already hard to believe that just a few weeks ago I, along with 17 students of the Master of Digital Transformation program, was basking in sunshine, enjoying a picture-perfect sunset overlooking the Mediterranean sea from our rooftop balcony at a beach hotel in Tel Aviv.

And yet there we were – not, actually, on vacation to enjoy the salty water and 30 degree weather – but as a registered delegation for the DLD Innovation Festival taking place over 2 days in September as well as to visit some companies with offices in Tel Aviv. Our mission: learn more about why Israel is so influential in the Start-Up scene, especially in areas of Tech, Cyber Security, and all things digital. Mix that with good weather, excellent food, and some unique cultural experiences, and you could say we may have had one of the best ‘Klassenausflüge’ GBS has had the pleasure of organizing.

That’s not to say we can take all the credit. The idea actually came from the students themselves – Julian Brinckmann heard about the DLD event taking place, and asked if GBS would be willing to support such a student trip. The company visits were organized by the students themselves, who searched for connections within their networks and managed to offer 3 amazing tours while we were there. Julian, together with fellow students Miro Haydar and Louisa Mayer organized the overall schedule for the week, including group dinners and cultural tours in our free time. GBS was happy to support the organization of group accommodation, and delegation registration for the conference.

With most of the group arriving to Tel Aviv by Sunday, we had a packed program from Monday – Thursday. Kicking off early on Monday morning, we visited the Ernst & Young Wavespace in the heart of the city, to learn about what exactly is so attractive for companies to come to Israel, and what drives their unique ability to be so successful in start-ups. The two hour visit gave an excellent overview of the culture, the school system (which encourages an entrepreneurial drive from a young age), and the influence the military has on innovation in the country. Lesson one we take with us: a failed Start-up is not considered a failure. No one cares if you didn’t succeed once – leave it behind and move on to the next one. Do we feel like we’ve failed in Germany, if our Start-Up is not successful?

Other companies we had the opportunity to visit during our time in Tel Aviv were Microsoft, and the Daimler Innovation Center. Located in an industrial park some distance outside of the city, Microsoft boasts three enormous office buildings among a sea of other big-name companies establishing presence in Israel. As impressive as the offices were, with trendy cafés, game rooms, plenty of dogs and even a convenience shop for employees inside, hearing about the work being done there was the absolute highlight. Presentations from the team leading development in Cyber Security (over 70% of the work done in the Israeli offices) particularly in the field of IoT, as well as the progress Microsoft is making in Artificial Intelligence were insightful. But the highlight was surely the visit to ‘The Garage’, an innovation space available to all employees where they are free to come whenever they like and experiment, use specialized equipment, and develop any idea they want. Lesson two we take with us: there are only two places in the world where you can literally drive through all the icons on your desktop: Silicon Valley, and Tel Aviv.

Our final company visit took us back to the center of the city, where Daimler’s relatively newly established Research & Development office isn’t all that far from EY’s offices. Another trendy office space at the top of a skyscraper with a lounge space, kicker tables, and offices with amazing views (and another dog!), we had an intimate chat about the small team working here, and how Daimler has begun partnering with start-ups in Israel to boost innovation. With a focus on innovative mobility solutions, state of the art software development, and IT security. Our third lesson, then: the future of Mercedes mobility may have a German name, but it’s being developed in Israel.

Of course, the company visits were just part of our trip – we still had the DLD Innovation Festival to visit! With an array of events ranging from the Start-up Boulevard, a long list of speakers and panel talks on a wide range of topics, meet-ups, hackathons, dinners, and even the chance for a ride in a self-driving car developed by Yandex, there was no shortage input over the two days. With endless networking opportunities and participants from across the globe, there was something interesting for everyone interested in insights into the high-tech hub. Another unique experience offered by DLD: some students had the opportunity to attend the first ever International Conference on Entrepreneurship in Palestine, held in Bethlehem. Not only did this day offer eye-opening insights into what start-ups in Palestine are achieving, it offered a direct and heartfelt representation of the struggles facing Palestinian entrepreneurs to reach international markets and at times unexpected political touch, reminding us of the struggles still present between Israel and Palestine. Speakers ranged from the President of Palestine himself, Mahmoud Abbas, to the CEO of ProSiebenSat.1 Media Max Conze and the founder of DLD, Steffi Czerny, to a number of Palestinian start-ups showcasing their companies. With a tour of Bethlehem ending the day, it was an opportunity to experience Palestine up close and personal. The final lesson we take away, then, is this: Tel Aviv may embody a unique Israeli mindset, but it is indeed an international und multicultural hub for High-Tech talent.

Sharing platters of Shawarma, Hummus, and Shakshuka nearly every evening in Old Jaffa, the group bonded over everything we had experienced in our week in Israel. What was so different here compared to Germany? Are they really so much more willing to take risks, to fail, to try again? Is it the history, the culture, or indeed the influence of the military (every conversation always beginning with: what unit did you serve in)? Maybe it’s a mix of all of these things. Maybe we’ll have to return next year to find out ...