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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Wall Street Journal reviews Start-Up Nation

In Tuesday's edition, the Wall Street Journal reviewed Start-Up Nation, the best seller by Dan Senor and Saul Singer. Curiously, the reviewer seems to have similar questions about the authors' theory about the country's technology leadership that I have without having read the book:
One important question that "Start-Up Nation" raises is: Why Israel and not elsewhere? The authors—Mr. Senor, a foreign-policy official in the George W. Bush administration who now advises an investment fund, and Mr. Singer, a columnist for the Jerusalem Post—dispose, a bit too blithely, the argument from ethnic or religious exceptionalism, dismissing "unitary Jewishness" or even individual talent as major reasons for Israel's high-tech success. (George Gilder, in a recent book treating some of the same matters, "The Israel Test," disagrees: "Israel today concentrates the genius of the Jews.")

Instead, Messrs. Senor and Singer point to a "classic cluster of the type Harvard professor Michael Porter has championed [and] Silicon Valley embodies": the tight proximity of research universities, large firms and start-ups, a talent pool drawn from around the world, and an ecosystem of venture capital and military and other government R&D funding. In addition, they contend, Israel has a unique entrepreneurial culture that combines individualism, egalitarianism (a penchant for organizational flatness) and nurturing.

Where does this culture come from? Mainly, the Israeli military. "You have minimal guidance from the top," Messrs. Senor and Singer write, "and are expected to improvise, even if this means breaking some rules. If you're a junior officer, you call your higher-ups by their first names, and if you see them doing something wrong, you say so." High-school stand-outs are recruited into elite military units and trained intensively, with an emphasis on technology. When they're done, everything required to launch a start-up "will be a phone call away. . . . Almost everyone can find some connection to whomever he or she needs to contact to get started." Israel is a country, it seems, where everyone knows everyone.

It is also a country with mandatory military service before college. For nations that want to emulate Israel's start-up success, Messrs. Senor and Singer advocate similar mandatory service, military or otherwise, to get "something like the leadership, teamwork, and mission-oriented skills and experience Israelis receive." The trick is to combine what's learned in the Israeli Defense Forces (or its non-defense equivalent elsewhere) with an almost abrasive individualism and the kind of self-reliance that occurs in a country that has to go it alone to survive.
Yes, I buy into "the Jews" theory that Gilder expounds. But my chance to see Senor and Singer's argument in print is in the mail already as of yesterday. (Same publisher as Gilder's by the way).


At 5:48 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

There is nothing like this in the Arab World. One is hard pressed to think of any Arab contribution beside the oil and even at that they aren't preparing their own people for the day when they will no longer have it.

Israek has had to innovate simply to survive. And if nations are judged by how well they prepare for tomorrow, Israel can be confident about future, its timid and mediocre leadership notwithstanding.


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