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Israel, Famous as ‘Startup Nation,’ Reaches Out to Asia’s Future Leaders

By Larry Luxner

Saurabh Sharma, who's pursuing a master's degree in environmental studies at Tel Aviv University, wants to develop eco-friendly solutions to manage municipal waste in his native India.

Peter Jiang, a one-year exchange student at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, hopes to promote Jewish and Israel studies at Chinese universities upon his return to Beijing.

Vietnam's Linh Ha, a senior at the Eastern Mediterranean International School in suburban Ramat Hasharon, is passionate about sharing Israel's start-up experience with the world. She recently helped write a documentary about Israeli education produced by VTV1, Vietnam's national TV channel.

The three are among 11 promising young leaders from eight countries enrolled in the Israel-Asia Center's 2016-17 Israel-Asia Leaders Fellowship program, an innovative leadership experience now in its sixth year.

The program capitalizes on Israel's reputation as a world leader in innovation and venture capital. Dozens of inventions used throughout Asia— from the electric hair remover to capsule endoscopy, from drip irrigation to the disk-on-key — originated here.

Ambassador Mark Sofer was the keynote speaker at the Israel-Asia Leaders Fellowship
The concluding event and reception for the 2016-17 Israel-Asia Leaders Fellowship featured keynote speaker Ambassador Mark Sofer. Guests included Israeli and Asian diplomats, friends and supporters of the Israel-Asia Center, trade organizations, journalists, and members of Israel's business and academic communities. ( Photo: Maya Hadash / Israel-Asia Center)

With only 8.7 million people, Israel is dwarfed by at least 25 Chinese and six Indian cities in population. And geographically speaking, China alone is 462 times the size of Israel.

Yet the Jewish state boasts more than 200 foreign R&D centers, including those operated by Google, Facebook and Apple as well as Korean electronics conglomerate Samsung, Chinese mobile phone maker Huawei and Singapore telecom giant Singtel.

"As a Vietnamese studying in Israel, I see a huge lack of information about Israel in Asia in general, and in Vietnam in particular," said 18-year-old Linh, the program's youngest fellow ever — and clearly one of its most enthusiastic.

"People don't know really what's going on there, what makes Israel as a start-up nation. I feel it's my responsibility to fill this gap and to bring more information about this country back home," she said. "There's just so much to learn about Israel: the innovation, entrepreneurship, mentality and the chutzpah."

Mark Sofer, Israel’s former ambassador to India discusses Asian business opportunities
Mark Sofer, Israel’s former ambassador to India and its next ambassador to Australia, discusses Asian business opportunities at a May 21 reception in Tel Aviv marking the conclusion of the Israel-Asia Center’s 2016-17 Israel-Asia Leaders Fellowship program. ( Photo: Maya Hadash / Israel-Asia Center)

Linh spoke May 21 at a Tel Aviv reception marking the conclusion of the 2016-17 fellowship program and attended by about 50 diplomats, dignitaries, business leaders and others, including Mark Sofer, Israel's former ambassador to India.

"Tonight, we're completing the sixth year of that program," said Rebecca Zeffert, founder and executive director of the Israel-Asia Center (IAC). "We've put 62 people through the program from 12 different countries — including countries that have no diplomatic ties with Israel such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Our alumni are heading up the Asia operations of Israeli companies and vice-versa, establishing Asian accelerators in Israel, working for Israeli embassies in Asia, and setting up Israel-Asia ventures."

Collectively, she said, these alumni have organized more than 60 delegations of investors and journalists, launched 10 Israel-Asia ventures, coordinated 51 conferences and events, and secured tens of millions of dollars of investment from Asia in Israeli companies.

"When we first founded the Israel-Asia Center, we were thinking about how we could make a real impact," explained Zeffert, who launched the Jerusalem-based nonprofit in 2009. "If Israel is to develop long-term strategic partnerships with countries in Asia, we need to invest in the very people who'd be driving that relationship forward in the years to come— whether in business, government, culture, education or innovation."

She added: "Many Asian students who choose to come and study in Israel were living in foreign students' bubbles on campus and didn't have access to high-level professional networks. They were going back to their home countries, entering senior positions in their fields, but their connections to Israel were being lost."

Rebecca Zeffert, founder and executive director of the Israel-Asia Center and Michal Sarig-Kaduri, IAC’s director of programs and strategic partnership
From left, Rebecca Zeffert, founder and executive director of the Israel-Asia Center (IAC); Michal Sarig-Kaduri, IAC’s director of programs and strategic partnerships; and Vietnamese high-school student Linh Ha, the IAC’s youngest-ever Israel-Asia Leaders Fellow, listen to a presentation at a May 21 reception in Tel Aviv honoring the conclusion of the IAC’s 2016-17 Israel-Asia Leaders Fellowship program. ( Photo: Maya Hadash / Israel-Asia Center)

To remedy that situation, for the past six years, the IAC has been training young Asians on an annual basis, a select number of young people who show potential to be future leaders in their fields. The eight-month comprehensive program runs in parallel to their existing studies, she said, and includes seminars with government officials, diplomats and business executives as well as skills workshops, field trips, networking events, mentorships and one-on-one consultations.

"This program generates trust, mutual understanding and partnerships for life," she said. "These are young people committed to strengthening Israel-Asia relations."

Sofer, who became head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry's Asia-Pacific Division after his post in India, praised IAC in his keynote speech. He said "Israel owes you a debt of thanks" for bringing Asian students to the Jewish state and investing in the country's growing relationship with some of the world's leading economies.

"Today, it's clear to all of us that Asia is the present and the future," he said. "China and India together have 2.8 billion people, but there are other huge countries in Asia — the Philippines with 105 million, Vietnam with 100 million, Indonesia with over 230 million, and the list goes on. These are not just numbers, but young people who will bring their individual countries into a new area, and countries looking for personal, professional and national developments in areas where Israel can be of huge assistance."

Sofer said Israeli officials took a conscious decision 15 years ago to "pivot toward Asia," which alone accounts for 30 percent of Earth's land mass and 60 percent of its population.

"It isn't really a monolithic block like Europe, where everybody has more or less the same standard of living, religion, same type of government," he said. "It's not like Latin America, where everybody is Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking and more or less Catholic. When you hit Asia, you hit a complete and utter heterogeneous bloc, and it's very difficult to find the lowest common denominator."

Even so, he added, "not a day goes by without a serious Chinese delegation in Israel." That's no surprise, given that two-way trade between Israel and China has jumped from $51 million in 1992 to nearly $16.5 billion today.

Galia Albin, CEO of Almeida Holdings speaks on women's empowerment
Galia Albin, CEO of Almeida Holdings, presents “How to recognize your strengths and own your successes” at a Women's Leadership & Empowerment Workshop sponsored by the Israel-Asia Center. ( Photo: Maya Hadash / Israel-Asia Center)

Holo Zheng, a 2014-15 Israel-Asia Leaders Fellow, manages Tel Aviv-based Techcode Israel, the first Chinese incubator in Israel. As such, Techcode has already brought nine Israeli startups to China.

"A lot of people ask me, why did you come to Israel? Only a few years ago, there were maybe 500 Chinese here," she told her audience, describing her excitement at winning a scholarship to study business administration at Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan University.

"That was a life-changing moment that went beyond my expectations," she said. "Now if you ask anyone in China about Israel, they talk about innovation. We see Israel as a gateway to a lot of innovations."

Yet Israel urgently needs people who speak Mandarin, Japanese and other Asian languages. Sofer, who's been named Israel's next ambassador to Australia, said Israel has a long way to go; it established diplomatic relations with China and India only in 1992.

"We are still in the process of learning. These relationships are fairly new; 25 years in the history of China or India is a blip," he noted. "This year alone, our prime minister has gone to Asia twice in the last three months. Our prime minister went to China and Singapore, and the president went to Vietnam. I don't remember a single instance in my 35 years in the Foreign Ministry that the prime minister and president were abroad on the same day — and both were in Asia. This is proof of where we stand."

Larry Luxner is the Tel Aviv-based news editor of The Washington Diplomat.




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