A Jewish awakening in Silicon Valley
Two young Israeli expats have led the charge with their Jews For Entrepreneurship accelerator.
Winter 2010 Palo Alto. A tall, balding, scruffy man wearing a beanie begins talking about entrepreneurship and an app that allows people to send text messages free of charge. The audience, about 40 in total, consist of Jewish entrepreneurs mostly of Russian descent looking for advice on how to commercialize their ideas.The man was Jan Koum, who co-founded WhatsApp with Brian Acton. Their app was popular at the time, but they had few employees and the limited funds they raised from friends. Less than six months later, well-known venture capital firm Sequoia Capital will begin negotiating their investment in the app; within a few years, it will become the most valuable messaging app in the world when it is acquired by Facebook for $22 billion.The idea to bring Koum to speak in front of Jewish entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley was spearheaded by two Israeli expats, 31-year-old Jenny Belotserkovsky and 34-year-old Michal Tavrovsky. The pair decided at the time to provide an opportunity for Israeli entrepreneurs and the Jewish American community to advance their own startups and help connect them to the Silicon Valley ecosystem.“Michal has known Jan since 2001, when they were both part of the Jewish-Russian community in San Francisco. He was happy to come talk about how to successfully engage users especially outside the US and how to monetize without including advertising,” recalled Belotserkovsky, who met Tavrovsky several years prior.
Belotserkovsky stumbled in to the world of entrepreneurship incidentally. At the age of 11 she left Israel for San Francisco following her father’s relocation. She later received a B.A. in Economics from University of California, Berkeley and worked in companies like Credit Suisse and Lehman Brothers. When the financial crisis hit in 2008-9, she began working at a medical devices company and received her first taste of the tech world.
She began going to tech gatherings in Palo Alto, where she met Tavrovsky who was planning events for the Jewish community of San Francisco. “We saw that many Jewish programmers and engineers came to the events. Many people had lost their jobs and were looking for new opportunities, like entrepreneurship, to help them get back on their feet,” said Belotserkovsky.
They launched a series of entrepreneurship events the one Koum, from WhatsApp, inaugurated. Later, these gatherings turned into pitch meetings with Jewish investors and senior executives in Silicon Valley’s tech community like Dylan Smith, who together with Aaron Levie another Jew co-founded the popular cloud storage service Box, which is currently trading on Wall Street at a valuation of $1.5 billion.
The pair began giving weeks-long seminars for young entrepreneurs and three and a half years after the first event with Koum at the beginning of 2013 they launched their first accelerator in San Francisco, and later New York, under the name Jews For Entrepreneurship. JFE connects Jewish and Israeli startups and helps them through the pre-seed and seed phases.
Why do you need to host events and launch accelerators for Jewish entrepreneurs in a place like San Francisco, which has an abundance of knowledge and similar events?
Belotserkovsky: “First of all, you want to foster a significant Jewish community. We felt the Jewish community in Silicon Valley and other places was very quiet. People here aren’t super Jewish. It was important for us that entrepreneurs connect with their Jewish identity not religiously, but communally. Everyone here is involved in technology and we wanted to build a community that will share its knowledge, be involved, and connect entrepreneurs that might elicit investments from other members of the community.”
However, she clarified, “Not all the investors that come to our Demo Day are Jews or Israelis. But they do want to be involved and be exposed to the knowledge and innovation the entrepreneurs bring. It’s good for Israel and it’s good for Israeli companies.”
“We help companies on the starting block”
Alongside JFE runs another successful accelerator in Palo Alto, UpWest Labs, for Israeli startups that want to try their luck in Silicon Valley; and, this year another program launched, NFX Guild, which includes leading Israeli angel investor Gigi Levy.
“We are different because we take companies that are taking their very first steps,” said Tavrovsky, “Unlike UpWest Labs, which is looking for later stage companies, and NFX, which is seeking startups in specific sectors. We focus on the early stages.
“It is more difficult because you have to teach them everything from a very early stage how to be a startup, how to define your vision, how to see where your company will be in five years from now. On the other hand, they are very young and that makes them relatively flexible with the design and structure of their company going into the future.”
Belotserkovsky added that there is little to no competition between the accelerators. “First of all, there is a large Israeli ecosystem and there are enough startups for everyone, so we can work together. Beyond that, we are trying to set up one of our startups with NFX and one of the NFX co-founders, Stan Chudnovsky, even took part in the accelerator in the past. And as part of our pitch events unrelated to our accelerator work we hosted a company that graduated UpWest Labs.”
Twenty of the 25 startups that graduated the accelerator successfully raised funds; most recently, its Israeli startup Orca founded by Tomer Sasson raised $500,000.The company developed an app that provides students with updates on social events held on their campuses.
Another of JFE’s graduates is Credex co-founded by Ofir Avigad, Elan Perach, and Nir Asaf which runs a barter platform for local businesses.
Snappy by Hani Golstien and Dvir Cohen also finished JFE’s fourth graduating class; it provides a specialized mobile experience that allows users to send friends and colleagues real personalized presents in a snap, instead of another gift card that gathers dust.Inst-Ore, which finished the most recent class, was founded by Nadav Raviv; the startup combines smart links that are personalized for various platforms with its foremost focus on Instagram.
“Encouraging a creative spirit”
JFE accelerator provide Jewish and Israeli startups the opportunity to come to San Francisco or New York for three months, and for 3% of their company receive $5,000 and mentoring, as well as access to senior investors mostly Jewish from JFE’s network. They include BitTorrent developer Brahm Cohen, AppNexus President Michael Rubenstein, CBS Interactive CIP Peter Yared, and Amobee co-founder Zohar Levkovitz.
The accelerator run by Belotserkovsky and Tavrovsky is funded by the pair, though they have considered bringing in partners to strengthen its operations and bring more Israeli startups to San Francisco in the future.
Between these ventures, the two continue practicing their hobby painting and even held on to their own gallery for two years in Sausalito, a port town on the other side of San Francisco Bay after the famous Golden Gate Bridge, until water ruined its contents.
“I have been painting since I was a little girl in Israel,” said Belotserkovsky, “We are thinking of hanging some of our paintings at the accelerator. It provides inspiration and encourages creativity. At Airbnb, they brought painters to speak to employees and inspire a creative spirit in their engineers.”
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on January 21, 2016