Opportunity vs. Opportunity Cost [Israel’s Orna Berry on Entrepreneurship]

We’ve heard much about Israel, the Startup Nation. So it was with a lot of excitement, that I met Orna Berry, one of the key figures of Israel’s startup community. She was the first woman to become a Chief Scientist in Israel’s Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor. Her research showed for the first time, how distributed programs could run faster, says Wikipedia. She was an officer in the Israeli Air Force. She left science to become an entrepreneur in early nineties.

In 1995, Berry sold Ornet Data Communications Technologies, a company she co-founded with others to Siemens. It was the first of many Israeli startups that have since been sold to a European company. Now, as the Corporate Vice President and General Manager of Israel Center of Excellence at EMC, she is promoting entrepreneurship within the company.

Dr. Orna Berry, Corporate Vice President and Israel Center of Excellence General Manager, EMC (Image Credit: Wikipedia)
Dr. Orna Berry, Corporate Vice President and Israel Center of Excellence General Manager, EMC (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

What can a country like India learn from Israel? What are the cultural traits that make Israel unique? Although I had formed my own hypothesis about all this after reading a couple of books and posts on Israel (Startup Lessons from Israel), I was looking to hear it from someone who has been through the journey.

Here’s an edited excerpt from my interview.

What makes Israel different? What are the factors that made it a startup nation?

Firstly, the learning is mutual. Many things that are done in India, are not marketed as strongly as it should. Probably because of Indian nature. For instance, I’ve spoken to many people about deployment of cloud. And that way, India is really advanced. You see flexible companies and multinational corporations that operate in India and from India. Also, you need to take into consideration that the number of Indian born executives who run companies is very large. Many people in the United States managing large venture capital funds are from India. This is going to feedback into India very soon. If you reflect what I said about India back to Israel, its about Knowledge, culture of making a difference and impact. It is also about the way you understand risk, which is very much also about the ability to fail.

What makes Israelis entrepreneurial in Nature?

The aspirations are higher than the ecosystem provides. Whenever you are dissatisfied with your situation, you can either give into it or improvise for a solution to take you beyond. To bypass the meager means and natural resources and the will to live an economically independent life is a strong reason.

Have you had to face such situations in life?

As a woman, I went to study Science where I believed discrimination would be minimal. Then when I worked in industries and people wouldn’t listen to me enough, even though I was the CTO of the company, I just went and formed a company. Many times in my life, I needed to choose between what would be the result I want to achieve and the price of actually going in that direction.

Your learning from the journey as an entrepreneur?

The biggest decision I made was when I moved from Science to being an entrepreneur. I was offered an entrepreneurship program and all kinds of things. Entrepreneurship is not something you learn. I found myself a mentor who was an executive in the Israeli industry and I listened to him very carefully to avoid as many mistakes as possible and learn as fast as possible. Even to this day, I say that it saved me the cost of a business school.

You’ve played a key role in Israel’s startup journey. What are some of the conscious steps that you have taken to making Israel a dense technology cluster?

It is always about the results. It sounds simple but it is not. People will won’t like you first. Then they envy you. Some won’t want you to succeed because it implies that they need to work hard. But you need to know where you are going. Going forward, making those achievements is critical for India and Israel. Whenever we make a decision that has a national meaning, it is about the kind of results we want to see.

What can Indian emulate from Israel? Are government backed venture funds the solution?

Only the first generation of the venture fund had special incentives from the government. Once they were successful, the following generations did not have government participation. Not everything you do needs to be sustained. But you need to set the trends. Government set that trend for high growth activity and higher educational contribution. Contribution based on education creates economic value out of very little physical requirement. The value of professions based on knowledge and not based on physical resources is very high. That is something that needs to be addressed with taxes, incentives, ease of doing business and other ways.

From a trade point of view between India & Israel, besides defense & security do we see more happening?

Yes. The biggest collaboration has been defense. My view is that in any topic you touch, there is growth. There is growth in water reuse and alternative energy.

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