Lessons and Impressions from Colombia (2016)

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I first visited Colombia in 2009 with about 15 other young leaders from North and South America. We met with then-President Uribe, then-minister Manuel Santos (the current president), former president Gaviria, and various other economists, business leaders, and journalists from around the country. The hot topic at the time, as it had been for years, was security. FARC, the guerrilla group that at one point controlled huge swaths of land in Colombia, was in decline, though still causing problems. Then-President Uribe got much of the credit for the improving security situation. Riding this popular support, he was petitioning the country to amend the constitution in order to enable him to serve a third term and continue implementing hard-nosed security policies. It was an interesting time to be there. After we left, the people ultimately rejected Uribe’s plan (much to the relief of those who cared about Colombia’s democratic institutions) and instead elected Santos, his defense minister, to succeed him.

In the years since, Colombia has continued to thrive. I visited again a couple weeks ago. To my delight, discussion about amending the constitution to enable strong-hand security didn’t come up once. Sure, security and drugs are still part of the country’s story but less and less so. Instead, there are other, more uplifting themes to talk about: an emergent middle class of 15+ million people (out of a population of 48 million); an economy that benefits from market-oriented policies (unlike some of its neighbors); a substantial regional entrepreneurship ecosystem; tight relations with the hemisphere’s superpower, the United States. On this last point, a local paper I saw in Bogota had the huge headline “Colombia’s New Best Friend” above a picture of a smiling Obama and Santos. (By the way, I believe the U.S. Embassy in Bogota is one of the largest in the world after Baghdad, Islamabad, and Beijing.)

On my most recent trip, the itinerary was heavier on entrepreneurs. Based on both anecdotal meetings/conversations and more comprehensive statistics and trend lines, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Colombia has established itself as a top entrepreneurship ecosystem in the region. There are meaningful businesses being built there and, like Dubai in the Middle East, talented entrepreneurs are using Colombia as a base to serve a broader regional population. That’s a critical dynamic: because the individual country markets aren’t large enough to sustain large enterprises on their own, the country/city that becomes a hub for regionally-ambitious entrepreneurs becomes very powerful indeed.

As is typical with emerging ecosystems, lack of capital is an issue. As one local investor put it to me, Colombians understand Colombia but are not in general as familiar with early stage, high risk entrepreneurship. Tech people — Silicon Valley people, say — understand high risk entrepreneurship investing, but do not understand — and do not care to understand — Colombia. Too few people fall in the middle of that venn diagram. More on these themes, later.

For now, here are some other quick impressions from my handful of days in Bogota and Medellin:

  • Gone are the days of being fleeced by a crooked taxi driver who sees Gringo Dollar Sign when you get in the car. Uber is a game changer: cheap, plentiful, safe, convenient. And talking to my Uber drivers revealed some of the more interesting conversations with locals I had during my stay. One driver was the local sales partner for Box. Another was an entrepreneur attempting to start the Kayak of Colombia. Another was a pop singer. They all knew Uber was based in San Francisco (“Where ya from?” “San Francisco” “Oh, where Uber is!”). They loved Uber as a force for good in helping them make ends meet.
  • Colombia offers dollar holders predictable lifestyle arbitrage. I took UberX for 10 mins and it cost me $1.50 USD. A reasonably upscale hotel (24 hour room service, modern fitness center equipment) will run you $85 USD a night.
  • There are five countries that drive the economic conversation in Spanish-speaking Latin America, it seems: Chile, Argentina, Peru, Mexico, and Colombia. (Brazil is its own category.)
  • Speaking a foreign language that you’re not fluent in can be thrilling and depressing — sometimes within the same conversation. When I would complete a full conversation or transaction in Spanish, I beamed inside with pride. When the conversation or context switched out of a predictable hospitality zone or polite chit chat, and the other speaker realized my language limitations, it was depressing. The intensity of the depression depended on whether the other person’s English was better than my Spanish; so long as my mediocre Spanish was better than their English, I had some consolation. All in all, after Cuba for New Year’s and then Colombia the other week, my tourist Spanish is pretty proficient (I navigated some travel hiccups perfectly in Medellin airport, where no gate agents or airline reps spoke English!), and I suspect a couple months of focused study would get me to business proficient.
  • Over the past decade, Colombia has benefited from Argentina’s political instability (and economic stupidity) in terms of talent, trade deals, and the like. I met and heard about several Argentines who had made their way to Colombia to build their careers. That said, with the new government in Buenos Aires, there seems to be something of a revival of hope about Argentina. We’ll see if some of their exported talent returns home.
  • Why are Medellin women supposedly the most beautiful in the world? I asked a local that question and he gave me two reasons. First, breast implants. Like in Korea, teenage girls in Medellin are encouraged quite openly by friends and family to think about “enhancing” themselves. Second, Medellin was historically the base for some of the more powerful drug cartels. The drug kingpins imported the most beautiful women in the country (and region?) to Medellin to keep them company.
  • The Mayor of Medellin is a charismatic fellow, and in a speech to an entrepreneurship delegation of the Global Entrepreneurship Congress, he reminded us of a pretty startling fact: in 1991 Medellin was the most dangerous city in the world. One year, Pablo Escobar killed 4 out of the 7 presidential candidates. Today, Medellin is an innovation hub. Anyone who thinks the fate of a city or country is pre-determined should visit Medellin. The end is not fixed.
  • Travel is a constant learning opportunity. I love taking note of little cultural nuances. It’s a reminder of how arbitrary any one country’s norms are. Little of what we do in our native country is The Right Way to do something; it’s just the way somebody way back did it and generations since have copied it. In Colombia, as one small example, people send tons of audio messages via WhatsApp. Look around in a crowd of people and you’ll see somebody holding the phone to their mouth (but not to their ear) recording audio messages. I can’t remember the last time an American sent me an audio message; in Colombia, after 24 hours on the ground, I had already received three.

Travels in 2015

San Francisco is an amazing place to live in. But there’s so much in the world to see and so many interesting opportunities elsewhere that travel has become a big part of my personal and professional life.

2015 began for me in Maui. My first time in Hawaii, to ring in the new year with friends, proved to be as relaxing as Hawaii’s reputation promised.

Keynote speeches brought me to places like Cancun, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Nashville, Austin, and Seattle. For fun, I traveled to Turkey (amazing!), Egypt, Copenhagen, Tanzania (safari!), and the Balkans. No bad stops among them.

I was grateful to be included in the American Council on Germany’s Young Leaders fellowship and the Schusterman Reality Tech group in Israel. I got to know Germany and Israel well and became friends with young leaders from both countries. I hope to spend more time in each place.

I spent decent amount of time on the east coast of the U.S., for a wedding in Cape Cod (my first time there) and had extended visits in two of my favorite U.S. cities: Washington D.C. and New York. Closer to home, I was reminded of the never ending desert landscape of Nevada during my first Burning Man experience; the stunning beauty of the California coast at the Post Ranch Inn; and the perfect year-round weather of San Diego.

I’m on nodding terms with Dubai airport now, where I was twice in 2015, including an extended 8 day stint for work. Dubai airport now boasts more annual travelers than London Heathrow. And the city itself is unlike any other.

I ended 2015 — and rang in New Year’s 2016 just a few weeks ago — in Havana, Cuba. Have a great 2016, wherever your travels take you…

Lessons and Impressions from Cuba

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Totally fun to be driven around in this old car.

I spent New Year’s in Havana. Now seemed like an ideal moment to head there. Within a year, there’ll be commercial flights to Cuba from the United States. Tourism will boom. The island will get broadly available internet access. The old cars might be slowly replaced with modern cars. And so on. While great for the people of Cuba — always the most important consideration when contemplating the effects of globalization  — it will make it a less interesting place to visit as a tourist.

Havana is, overall, still quite poor. There aren’t any super luxurious hotels. There aren’t fancy restaurants, and the vast majority of restaurants are still government-owned. There isn’t widespread internet access or cell coverage, and that which exists is prohibitively slow and expensive (even for Americans). Credit cards aren’t accepted anywhere and the ATMs don’t work for foreigners. Outside of the old town in Havana, you see all the classic signs of poverty: run down homes, stray dogs, many people sleeping in one bedroom. One tour guide told us that the government monthly food rations hardly last a couple weeks.

The Cuban government is slowly loosening its authoritarian grip on its people. Just in the last few years people have been able to buy and own real estate. Just in the last few years they can now travel outside the country (other countries are reticent to offer visas but at least it’s no longer the Cuban government that’s the main problem). Just in the last few years international news and entertainment, illegally smuggled in via weekly shipments of USB sticks from Miami, has become de facto acceptable among sophisticated residents. More and more, it seems like Cuba is embracing elements of the market economy.

Some random impressions and lessons from the trip:

  • In the taxi from the airport to our casa particular — an Airbnb equivalent — we drove on smooth, paved streets, with “Hello” by Adele blasting on the radio. I was not expecting to hear Adele within 10 minutes of hitting the road in Cuba.
  • It didn’t take long to notice something different, though. A huge image of Che Guevera was lit up on the wall of one building as we drove into the city. And we began passing old American cars from the 50’s.
  • Cuba was super humid. Welcome to the Caribbean. The sweating was non-stop. Not fun. You take a shower, and begin sweating the moment you step outside.
  • The most crippling effect of the embargo for tourists — which persists, even as Obama has re-instated diplomatic channels — seems to be the stone-age banking system. No ATM machines accept American cards. Long lines to change money. No credit cards.
  • Learning about socialism — even as it slowly weakens under Raul, Fidel’s brother — was fascinating. Our tour guide was assigned a job after college by the government. He received food rations each month. “Why is this building so run down?” we asked someone. “Because the government hasn’t fixed it yet.” Can you imagine a government being responsible for maintaining every building in an entire country?
  • Although Russian cars are still on the road, there isn’t much fondness for Russia in general, obviously. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 89, Cuba’s economy — heavily subsidized by the Russians — plunged into a prolonged crisis. In the 90’s, food was scarce. Poverty rampant. They had to re-build their economy. In the 80’s, English was the language of the enemy. Today, Russian language is rarely heard in schools, and English is the clear secondary language on the island.
  • There are a bunch of fun, obvious tourist things to do in Havana. We had a drink at the Flordita bar, where Hemingway supposedly hung out and where the daiquiri was created. We enjoyed a meal in Havana’s Chinatown — Chinese and Mexican food serve as comfort food abroad for Americans. Hotel Nacional, the old famous hotel that played a cameo in The Godfather 2, sports a nice pool area and good views. Maybe the best thing we did was rent an old American Chevy for an hour, hire a driver, and just drive around in a convertible for an hour, feeling like we were in a time capsule.
  • There are two currencies in Cuba. This will be the source of societal unrest soon: uneducated taxi drivers who are driving tourists around and getting paid in the tourist currency — 25x the local peso rate — are making a lot more money than doctors and lawyers.
  • On the first day, as we hunted for a store from which to buy bottles of water, I asked someone where a supermercado was. Then I realized there weren’t supermarkets in Cuba. When we finally found a small market — filled with mostly generically labeled food — they were out of many staples. “There’ll be beer tomorrow, but not today,” the market owner told us.
  • Thinking of going to Cuba? This Medium post has a lot of good info for U.S. passport holders. It’s way easier than I thought it would be.

One of my beliefs about travel is that there are places that are good to live in, places that are good to travel to, and they’re not always the same place. Los Angeles is my go-to example: great place to live in, not a great place to visit as a tourist. Most poor countries are not especially enticing to live in, but those with fascinating histories, bright futures, or otherwise unique cultures, can be excellent places to spend a week or two as a tourist. Cuba fits in this boat. The recent Cold War-era history is super interesting. The economic structure of socialism is interesting. And the culture is still vibrant: dancing, music, cigars, and a generally friendly people. The locals seem unusually present in the moment since no is staring down at their phones. I found myself more present too, being off the grid for a full week. An unexpected benefit of visiting an unconnected island!

Lessons and Impressions of Egypt

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After a week in Dubai for business, I headed over to Cairo for the RiseUp Entrepreneurship Summit. The conference was stunning in its scale. Some 4,000 registrants crowded into several sprawling campuses to network, listen to speakers, and get exposed to the entrepreneurial dream. I also spent a day being a tourist. As always, the locals on the ground were exceptionally nice and helpful and oftentimes inspiring.

Here were some of my takeaways from visiting Egypt for the first time.

Pure chaos. From the moment you land in Cairo, you begin to spot cultural norms that are telling. After the plane touched down, while it was still moving and taxi-ing to the gate, the local Egyptians just got up and started taking their bags out of the overheard compartments. The flight attendants didn’t bother to try to stop them. Then, upon exiting the airport and getting in my driver’s car, the driver noticed me looking for a seatbelt that doesn’t exist. “Don’t worry,” he says, “You don’t need one. You’ll see.” We began our seatbelt-less drive into downtown Cairo. We never moved faster than 15 MPH. The traffic is so stifling that even if there were an accident no one would get hurt since everyone’s moving so slowly. The slow speeds don’t stop folks from honking, though. The honking squeals non-stop throughout the city as cars maneuver on roads without lanes and pedestrians attempt to cross streets with no cross walk signal.

One day, with a guide, we stopped and watched a bunch of drivers attempt, through sheer force, to convert a two-way street into a one-way street to accommodate the direction they were heading. Quite literally they all just turned into the two way street and took over both lanes in order to block the cars trying to head down the street toward them. The tour guide, an Egyptian who’s traveled a lot internationally, cursed his compatriots for ignoring most the basic rules of the road. And then he said wistfully, “The thing I love most about the U.S. is how cars pull over to the side when emergency vehicles flash their sirens.”

When I relayed these anecdotes to some locals, they affectionally referred to Cairo as “organized chaos,” a phrase that didn’t totally resonate. I found the chaos more energy-draining than energy-adding — especially as a pedestrian.

The legacy of the revolution. “There was no Egypt for the couple years after the revolution of 2011,” one local told me. By which he meant: laws were not really enforced. Uncertainty reigned.  The uprisings — which gave rise to the broader Arab Spring — ejected an unelected despot but created a power vacuum then filled by the Muslim Brotherhood, who were subsequently overthrown in a coup by the military. During these years of tumult, the civic institutions of Egypt eroded. Smart people left. Tourism plunged. The country is trying to pull itself up and out of all this. It’s a work in progress. Those who have stayed are committed to defining the next chapter in Egypt’s history. They are the reason for hope.

Entrepreneurship ecosystem. Many smart people who feel powerless to change the politics of the country are turning to entrepreneurship instead. And many people who are simply lifelong entrepreneurs through and through are stepping up and beginning to organize themselves. There’s a nascent entrepreneurship ecosystem in Egypt led in large part by the remarkable Ahmed El Alfi, who’s renovated the Greek Campus to be a hotbed of startup activity in Cairo. He also launched the regional startup accelerator Flat6Labs. My good friend Chris Schroeder (who’s in the photo above with me) wrote a book that is the definitive account of 21st century middle east tech entrepreneurship — it features Alfi. On the flip side of most of what’s broken in the middle east lies an opportunity for an entrepreneur to build a solution. Opportunity is the flip side of frustration.

Interestingly, one entrepreneur we met with described his very impressive business as a “form of resistance” against the government. Resistance through capitalism; resistance through global trade. It’s quite moving to hear these sentiments and quite true, I think. Running his company is one of the best ways to shape Egypt’s future with the values that he believes in. This motivation does complicate a traditional business analysis of his company, though, since it’s not purely — or even primarily — being driven to maximize shareholder returns.

The word among Egyptian entrepreneurship ecosystem leaders is that what’s holding back the entrepreneurs is lack of capital. Money hasn’t caught up with the talent yet. Seems likely. Markets tend to be efficient…eventually. In Silicon Valley, where capital for startups is abundant, perhaps too abundant, we tend to forget just how special it is to have dozens of investors compete for the opportunity to invest in a startup. Growth markets like Egypt seem to be a couple institutional, mid to late stage investors away from an environment in which most of the credible local entrepreneurs can raise seed and early stage funding from local investors (and get terms that are ever more founder friendly). Will these investors be funding billion dollar Silicon Valley style unicorns? Not for awhile, but that’s not the only way to generate great venture returns — and it’s certainly not the only model for building a great business.

One small but interesting regional dynamic: Given the overall volatility in the middle east, Dubai has emerged as a regional hub that attracts the most international talent and capital. More than one Egyptian entrepreneur prefaced a conversation with me in Cairo by saying, “I haven’t moved to Dubai because…” Where the best local talent ends up will determine which ecosystems thrive.

I didn’t spend enough time in Egypt to make any meaningful conclusions about what’s happening there economically (and certainly politically). But the shift of geo-political power from west to east, the rise of a global middle class empowered by technology, the faster spread of innovation through interconnected populations — these are some of the central stories of our lifetime. Egypt will be part of this story. American investors like Dave McClure recognize this macro trend and are putting their money where their mouths are. More from Silicon Valley will follow. Why? Because entrepreneurial people chase opportunity even when there’s risk — perhaps especially when there’s risk. And the next great opportunity is on the frontier, where billions of people are coming online with smartphones…

Pyramids. As Richard Nixon might have said, the Great Pyramid of Giza is a very great pyramid indeed. So amazing to see the scale up close and personal. It’s a short drive from Cairo and it’s a great time to visit because of the lack of tourists.

Embassy areas that feel like war zones. It’s eerie to walk around the row of embassies in Cairo, including the streets around the U.S. Embassy. It’s quiet because armed soldiers walk around on blocked off streets. Ginormous blocks of concrete stack up along the roads. Our tour guide reminisced that when he was a kid growing up in Cairo he would go over to the American embassy on the weekends and watch movies in the grass yard inside the courtyard, right under the American flag. American kids would pass out candy. Today, you can hardly see the flag from the outside, obscured as it is by the concrete and barbed wire. Our guide asked wistfully, “What has happened to the world?”

Selfies for everyone. A striking moment in the gate area flying from Dubai to Cairo: A woman fully veiled in a burqa making multiple attempts at the perfect selfie.

Trump in the Muslim world. Muslims are listening to Donald Trump’s bigoted proposals. The damage to the American idea is incalculable.

Lessons and Impressions from Israel

During the Israel-Gaza Conflict last summer, something interesting happened on my social media feeds. Certain friends began consistently sharing articles in support of Israel. Certain friends began consistently sharing articles criticizing the Israeli government. The only thing that my smart friends, who otherwise agree with each other on most issues, could agree on in this case? That the media was horribly biased against their position.

Floating in the dead sea, one of the tourist highlights of a week in Israel
Floating in the dead sea, one of the tourist highlights of a week in Israel

I stayed out of the fray last summer because I was — and still am —uneducated on the complex history surrounding the state of Israel. Plus, even if I knew more, I’m not sure I’d have anything new or useful or deep to add to the analysis. But, I’ve resolved in recent months to try to address my underlying ignorance. I read From Beirut to Jerusalem, which was a terrific introduction. I’m currently reading Righteous Victims. And most importantly, a couple weeks ago I traveled to Israel in person and spent a week in the country.

I’ve been interested in visiting Israel for some time. Jewish culture was all around me growing up in San Francisco. Although not Jewish myself, I had many Jewish friends, learned about Jewish culture, food, and song in school, and attended about a dozen Bar Mitzvah ceremonies in the seventh grade. But seeing a place in person elevates your appreciation of the culture. There’s nothing like being on the ground.

It was a highly structured, very busy week sponsored by the Schusterman Foundation. We were 50 entrepreneurs — all but one hailing from SF, NY, or LA — traveling around together meeting with various former government officials, tech entrepreneurs, and touring the sights, for 14 hours a day, seven straight days. The week we were there happened to be the beginning of the recent uptick of violence in Jerusalem.

Here are my lessons and impressions from the trip.

Continuous context for a week. For seven days, I was in the same place with the same people: continuous context. That’s rare, especially for those of us who lead portfolios of many activities. What’s more, the entire agenda was fixed by others, so I made no decisions about how to spend my time — all the way down to when the wake-up call was set for my hotel room. You end up with an opportunity to really engage and be present in the moment. It’s an all-too-rare experience that I wish I had more often. It’s what I love most about these sorts of leadership fellowship trips: it’s an opportunity to go deep, continuously, in the same place with the same people on the same topics.

Vulnerability in group settings. Throughout the week, we delegates spent time together in small groups to reflect on the trip and share stories from our lives. These small group discussions brought forth some of the most poignant moments of the entire experience. People shared deep, dark secrets, and everyone else respectfully listened and sympathized. As tears flowed and hugs were exchanged, I felt emotionally connected to certain people in a way that was surprising. I hardly knew these people — why did I feel, in one sense, so close? It’s what happens when you put the same people through an intense, foreign experience for at least 48 hours; when there’s structured time to open up and share; and when there’s a facilitator who can guide the protocols.

A land of contradictions. I had three competing impressions of Israel when I stepped back and reflected on where, physically, I was standing. First, for billions of Muslims, Christians, and Jews, the land of Israel contains some of their most sacred sights. People spend their life savings to travel to Israel and connect with a religious heritage that stretches back millennia. Israel is holy and old, I thought. Second, walking the modern streets and gorgeous beaches of Tel Aviv, you feel like you’re in a reasonably cosmopolitan, advanced society. Israel is secular and new, I thought. And the third feeling I had, when I realized I was just a couple hour drive from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, is that Israel is smack dab in the middle of the most volatile place in the world: Israel is so, so fragile.

The desert induces awe. I’ve written a lot about awe. I’m intrigued by the idea of making awe-inspiring experiences a focal point in planning a life. On one of our last nights in Israel, we drove out deep into a crater and walked on our own path away from everyone else. It was a perfectly still night, a bit warm (I was wearing a t-shirt), totally quiet, and sparkling clear sky dotted with thousands of stars. I wish I could have spent hours there, just staring up, and thinking. I separately felt goosebumps — one practical manifestation of awe — when we arrived in Jerusalem by bus. As we crossed the checkpoint and began driving into the holiest place on earth, our tour guide said, “Ladies and gentlemen, look out the window to your left. Welcome to Jerusalem.” Then he blasted this song on the bus speaker system. Drop the mic.

Is Israel like David or Goliath?  In one sense, Israel is a country surrounded by other countries that say they want to annihilate it. Anti-semitism continues to rumble around the world. Only 60 years ago, six million Jews were exterminated in the holocaust. The Zionist story was deeply improbable; despite its worthy success so far, it arguably still is improbable. Israel, then, is David. In a different sense, Israel is by far the most stable, most rich, and most militarily advanced country in the region. It maintains the military and economic backing of the global superpower in America. While Palestinians languish in poverty, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are positively first world economies. Israel, then, is Goliath. The metaphor you gravitate to reveals a set of bundled attitudes on Israel/Middle East politics in general.

Two state solution pessimism. A former spokesperson from the Israeli government spoke to us on our first day to offer assorted views on the current “situation” — the euphemism used to describe the current unnamed waves of violence. She sounded off on Israeli politics, the history of the middle east, the demographic situation, the various religious groups within Israel, and the U.S./Israel relationship. After an hour of remarks and Q&A, one idea was strikingly absent from the discussion: a state for Palestine, or the two-state solution in general. Not mentioned once. I found that incredibly revealing. There is not a lot of optimism among Israeli intellectuals that there’ll be a two state solution anytime soon.

“Dialogue with the other side.” A common refrain from enlightened observers and nearly all of the solution-oriented Israelis we met with: Peace in the region will only happen if the two sides, Israelis and Palestinians, engage in dialogue with each other in order to improve mutual understanding and remember the other side’s humanity. I wholeheartedly agree. As Peter Beinart recently pointed out, “Talking endlessly about a group of people without talking to them is a recipe for dehumanization.” But while dialogue and mutual understanding sounds good in theory, you don’t hear about it happening very much in practice. Take our trip as just one example: Over the course of seven 14 hour days in Israel, our group spent a total of 30 minutes hearing the remarks of one Palestinian teenage entrepreneur. The teen entrepreneur worked on a business idea with an Israeli as part of a non-profit bootcamp. He was the only Palestinian we heard from and we didn’t have the time or space to dig deeper into his perspective or the Palestinian perspective in general (which, as I understand it, begins at fundamental starting point that they are being occupied — a word that didn’t come up over the week). I’m curious how much philanthropy is devoted to the cause of connecting Israelis and Palestinians to engage in a real exchange of views…

Morality binds and blinds. At its worst, the political debates in the middle east seem to consist of two sides talking past each other, building up straw man arguments, finding confirmatory evidence to support their pre-existing views, and beating the other into intellectual submission. Why? Both sides, quite understandably, assign strong moral, religious valence to their views. And once morality enters the picture, forget trying to have a rational discussion. As Jon Haidt says, morality binds and blinds: “It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.”

Complexity doesn’t mean moral equivalence. “You should leave in a week with more questions than answers,” our guides told us when we arrived in Israel. It’s certainly the case for me. Our main tour guide, the amazing Michael Bauer, did a great job describing the complexities, dueling viewpoints, and deep religious convictions behind many of the more extreme points of view in the region. Is there one single capital T truth about Israel, its people, its landmarks, its history? No. But that doesn’t mean we should throw our hands up and excuse ourselves from making any sort of judgment call. Surely at certain moments in history certain actors were more clearly in the right or in the wrong?

12105748_10153702463709108_6079581157327907623_nForget the past. “No one agrees about the past. Perhaps we can agree on the future,” one Israeli told us. Shimon Peres, a Thomas Jefferson like figure in Israel, told us the same: Don’t think about the past. Only try to invent a better future. Something about this sentiment struck me as very American.

The Israel tech scene. Eric Schmidt said recently: “Tel Aviv is a close second to Silicon Valley. Nowhere in the world is comparable, not even Boston and New York.” It’s a genuinely impressive entrepreneurship ecosystem, with sophisticated investors, serial entrepreneurs with big exits, and the support of a nation that embraces and indeed uses the phrase “startup nation” at every turn. Consumer internet and vitality-dependent products are less a force in Israel due to its size. Hard sciences and deep tech reign. We had a fun time hearing from Waze co-founder Uri Levine — he’s already started several more ventures since selling Waze to Google and is plowing some of his fortune back into the ecosystem by investing in scores of other entrepreneurs. Successful entrepreneurs backing the next generation is a classic sign of a healthy ecosystem. The only sad part about Israeli tech? That there seems to be so little interchange of ideas, capital, and talent between Israel and its Arab neighbors who are also experiencing a boom of entrepreneurship.

Department of Cultural Norms, an On-Going Series.  After a listening to very moving talk by a holocaust survivor, we took a picture with him at the museum. We assembled for our group photo shoot, surrounding the survivor. Then a museum rep said, “Okay guys, ‘Survive’ on 3! 1, 2, 3..Survive! It was super jarring. I think it was a classic lost-in-translation cultural moment in terms of how Americans understand the significance of the 1-2-3 routine when taking group shots. Culture can be so subtle sometimes.

Voice Projection. I’m beginning to think that your ability to project your voice is a top skill for life success. At countless times in the trip, I failed to hear someone — or the opposite, I did indeed hear very clearly a speaker — because of a person’s ability to project their voice that could be heard by 40 people around a big circle. In business, literally being heard in a large, crowded conference room is not actually something everyone can achieve.


Big thanks to the good folks at the Schusterman Foundation for sponsoring the trip, Erik Torenberg for the heads up on the trip and playing co-facilitator, and the various other participants and new friends for the insights and the laughs.

Other lessons and impressions: Indonesia | China | Greece | Argentina | Korea | Turkey

Balkans | Chile | Cyprus | Germany | UAE | Italy | Qatar