How Shimon Peres Helped Grow Israel Into a Startup Nation

Many have heard Israel called the “startup nation” but relatively few know that this global force in innovation began as a fledgling country, small in size and with no natural resources, less than 70 years ago. Each day, as co-founder of one of Israel’s largest venture capital funds, I get to witness firsthand the breathtaking pace of growth taking place here.

But despite Israel’s current status, it’s the less glamorous part of the startup nation’s origin story that offers the most valuable lessons for any entrepreneur. It’s a story told to me by my father, Shimon Peres, former prime minister and president of the State of Israel, and the great visionary of Israeli innovation who nurtured a dream others thought to be impossible and turned that dream into reality.

In his recently released last book and sole autobiography, No Room for Small Dreams, which he finished writing just weeks before his passing in 2016 at the age of 93, my father details the monumental challenges that had to be overcome, as well as the serious setbacks and sacrifices involved, in realizing the dream of a startup nation.

In 1963, my father, the then-40-year-old deputy defense minister, was shown Israel’s first, room-sized computer. In that moment he knew the Israel Defense Forces had to integrate computers into their operations immediately. But, my father writes in his book, much of the military brass laughed, with one general facetiously asking, “Can you take a computer with a division into the field? Of course you can’t!”

As he overcame resistance from cynics and skeptics alike, my father also had to confront an equally serious, though maybe more difficult, challenge. Just as Israel’s founding generation, to which my father belonged, had set out “to make the desert bloom” with very little available water, my father, in setting out to make the young state flow with innovation, had to grapple with an almost complete lack of available funding.

Many who had achieved what he had by that point—called to serve as the director general of the ministry of defense by Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion at the stunningly young age of 29; serving as defense minister; founding Israel Aerospace Industries; creating RAFAEL, the military technology program that would later develop the Iron Dome anti-rocket system; and establishing the country’s nuclear energy program at just 33 years old—would have balked at the idea of going hat in hand to seek investment.

My father took up the task with characteristic gusto, as he always did whenever he believed wholeheartedly in something, and was laser focused on a single message, deploying his unflappable conviction as his primary sales tool.

Despite the widespread skepticism, the lack of financial resources, and the outright resistance he met, my father soldiered on until he met success. That’s not to say he didn’t face setbacks and obstacles. Of course he did, sometimes on a weekly basis, and generally on a scale hard for most people to imagine, much less overcome.

But the cause he served and the dreams he had were always bigger than any setback, no matter how intractable they might have seemed. He knew that the only kind of adversity that can prove truly fatal to an entrepreneur’s vision is self-doubt, which makes us question whether what we’re doing is really possible and worth it. He also knew that when you believe in something you have to work hard, telling me on more than one occasion: “If you aim to accomplish an important and complicated mission, sometimes you have to cross a desert.”

In No Room for Small Dreams, my father relates that he was once asked by the young founder of a startup what the most important lesson about innovation he’d learned over the years was. Admitting it was a complicated question, my father responded that he’d learned a crucial lesson early in life.

As a young man who’d been born in a small town in Poland and had come to work the land in what later became the State of Israel, he saw that the state was built not with natural resources, but rather by innovators and entrepreneurs. They dreamed of a state and saw that dream come to fruition through creativity, optimism, and hard work.

“We learned that the treasures hidden in ourselves are far greater than anything that can be found in the ground,” he told the young entrepreneur. What he meant was that the human spirit is a spirit of innovation, and no endeavor, however successful, can be truly fruitful if it isn’t rooted in a drive to constantly find ways of doing it better and smarter.

In the world of entrepreneurship we often hear talk of “changing the world.” Though it might be seen as a cliché that makes for good messaging, the phrase taps into a deep and critically important idea about nurturing dreams whose borders extend beyond our own lives. It’s about pushing forward when we fail and, even more importantly, when we succeed.

It’s about doing more and doing better, not because it makes us look or feel good, but because the world needs the treasure that is carried inside each of us. And once we find this treasure we must act, always looking forward to a better tomorrow. It is an invaluable lesson, one my father was able to sum up in No Room for Small Dreams in just six simple words: “Standing still is not an option.”

Chemi Peres is a managing general partner and co-founder of Pitango.

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