Lessons Learned from the Start-Up Nation, Israel, and the West Bank

Guest Post By: Jillian Santos, a 2023 Foster MBA Graduate. She is a Global Business Center Study Abroad Scholarship Recipient, and she studied abroad through a Study Tour to Israel and the West Bank, during Spring Break 2023.

Over spring break I went on an INCREDIBLE, life changing trip to Israel and the West Bank as part of a UW MBA Study Tour. 

The most important thing I learned was the phrase, “Yalla” which means “let’s go”. 

End of trip family photo!

I’m naturally a big over-thinker and I tend to analyze situations to the point that the moment passes—I have several volumes of What I Should Have Said filling up my brain. This time around though, I wanted to take full advantage of the Study Abroad program and chose the option that felt the most foreign and new and scary: Israel and the West Bank. Israel being a place that is heavily associated in the Western mind as an area of conflict; naturally, I waited until I was already accepted and too late to drop out before telling my mom.

Right from the jump upon landing, we were already face-to-face with the political situation in the area when some of our classmates were detained at the Tel Aviv airport and questioned for hours on end. One classmate ended up being turned away entirely. We had been warned about these possibilities but no amount of training quite prepares you for the actual experience. 

There wasn’t too much time to dwell though because we had an absolutely jam packed and aggressive schedule. We traveled up and down Israel from Tel Aviv to Haifa to Jerusalem to the Dead Sea and back again. Days were spent waking up early from the jet lag and trying to get a workout in plus scarf down some hotel breakfast in time to not get called out for being late to our tour bus. Visiting companies and places of significance during the day and staying up late talking about everything at night. Yalla!

Sunrise on the first day in Tel Aviv

The people of Israel were unabashed about what they think and I found the country’s low power distance score and high uncertainty avoidance on Hofstede’s scale of cultural dimensions to be very appropriate. The people we met were overwhelmingly open and chatted freely about topics here in the US that we often steer clear of like politics and religion. We had the rather unique and special opportunity to speak to business leaders in all sorts of industries and backgrounds. Being able to hear directly from business leaders in Israel and then turn around and get the seemingly conflicting perspectives directly from Palestinian business leaders the next day could be disorienting but it demonstrated to us how complicated the situation is and taught me that there are ways for both sides to be right. 

Yalla does not only mean “Let’s Go”, it is also a lifestyle! Israel’s economy is a hub for high-tech and entrepreneurship and it bears the nickname “Start up Nation” and Silicon Wadi (Silicon Valley in Arabic). The government has been strategically fostering an environment to nurture new businesses and it is working. In 2022 alone, Israeli startups raised an unprecedented $20 billion in VC funding, an impressive 30% surge from the previous year. Businesses here are trying new things, they are breaking molds and doing whatever it takes to get a win. There is no time here for formalities and hierarchy and great ideas can come from whatever place. Yalla!

Saar Safra, CEO and Co-Founder of Beewise, giving a tour of R&D

During the trip we got to visit a start-up pushing the boundaries of what is and isn’t meat and cultivating steaks in their labs using plant building blocks but real cow DNA for the blue prints (Aleph Farms), a business obsessing over what makes a great home and using tech to optimize long term rentals for digital nomads (Homez), and an automated solution for optimizing ever growing cloud costs (Zesty). We were able to hear directly from founders, including Foster’s own Saar Safra the founder of Beewise a start-up based in Israel serving the US market to save the honeybees and consequently our entire, fragile ecosystem using AI. I pitched to him that the Queen Bee, Beyonce, would be a great brand ambassador and he was not opposed. So, Beyonce, if you are reading this, Yalla, definitely check them out!

Over the course of the trip we also went beyond the business stuff and also mixed in visits to areas of cultural significance and one of the most moving parts of the trip for me happened unexpectedly in Jerusalem, or The Old City. 

Jerusalem holds deep significance to the Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths and we received a wonderful and highly informative tour from our beloved guide and were wowed by the intricate architecture and history. There was a long line for something called the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and a small group made plans to return right at opening the next day in order to make it back in time to get on the tour bus.

The 6:30 am Crew!

By some miracle I made it to the 6:30 am meet up and found myself in a short line to see the thing. The vibe was – different—compared to when we had been there before. The day prior there were tourists taking photos and selfies jammed into every nook and cranny and multiple tour guides giving their speeches all at once. This time, there were only a few other dedicated early birds quietly shuffling around and praying. The next moment, the first notes from an organ playing a beautiful and solemn song started coming from the Greek Orthodox choir having a morning service in another section of the church. I am not a very religious person, but suddenly the weight and importance of this place and this city over which wars have been fought and people wait a lifetime to visit just hit me and I was filled with emotion. The spirituality in the air there is so thick you can cut it with a knife.

I returned from this trip with new perspectives on resilience in business and in life. While I am still prone to overthinking, but now, I have a short but full of meaning mantra for myself, Yalla! Keep trying, there is always a way!

If you are reading this as someone who is on the fence about whether or not to do a study abroad trip, I urge you to put on your Yalla mentality and just do it! There is no substitute for cultural immersion, the doors the “we’re students” card opens up, and the opportunity to bond non-stop with your MBA colleagues for 10 days straight.