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University of Illinois' Gies College of Business students meet with Former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.
University of Illinois' Gies College of Business students meet with Former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.

Illinois business-school students get onsite tips from the ‘startup nation’

A group of 35 top students from the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois spent 10 days in Israel to learn about innovation and entrepreneurship from leaders and companies.

On the heels of a crushing defeat for BDS at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 35 top students from the university’s business school, Gies College of Business, spent 10 days in Israel to learn about innovation and entrepreneurship from “The Startup Nation.”

The for-credit trip, which was part of a growing partnership between the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Tel Aviv University, intended to create immersion into Israel’s accelerators, incubators and venture capitalists.

“Israel is well-known as the ‘Startup Nation’ and its prominence in international business cannot be ignored,” said Jeffrey R. Brown, dean of the Gies College of Business. “Israel’s well-established reputation for innovation in technology and agriculture makes it a natural partner for the cutting-edge research at UIUC,” he told JNS.

According to Brown, the trip intended to give the students a head start at turning business concepts into viable companies that will impact Illinois, the United States and the world.

In addition, visiting various companies with “a similar culture of a desire to make the world a better place through their products and business practice,” also employed the principles of business and ethical responsibility that Brown said is foundational in the Gies coursework.

“They got to see it in action,” he said.

University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business students at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The delegation met with other students of the Tel Aviv University and military veterans of the Israeli Defense Forces, and had sit-down meetings with a cross-section of luminaries in business, political dignitaries and Israeli cultural figures, including John Medved, CEO and founder of OurCrowd, an equity-crowdfunding platform for accredited investors; Leonid Bakman, founder and president of the Israel Innovation Institute; and former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.

‘Entrepreneurial spirit is strong in Israel’

Andrew Michelotti, a senior at Gies College of Business, maintained that before the trip, although he had an understanding of Israel’s religious, political and historical significance, in addition to its success as a nation of innovation, he was surprised by “how close to the past and yet to the future I truly felt throughout my visit.”

He noted that “in Jerusalem, everywhere you walk feels incredibly special as you stand on 3,000 years of history. However, visiting companies such as Mobileye, BlueSnap and OrCam blew me away with their disruptive innovation and products that will shape our future. This taste of the past and the future was unlike anywhere I had been before.”

Moreover, “visiting multiple startups and innovative companies inspired me to seek opportunities for innovation as I begin my career,” he added.

According to Brown, such a “formative, exciting experience” was the norm for the students. He maintained that “to engage with executives in some of these companies and learn firsthand how an idea evolved into a company was inspirational, and fostered their startup aspirations.”

In addition to their business meetings, students also visited historic landmarks and natural wonders such as the Dead Sea, in addition to spending Shabbat at the Western Wall with Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel, co-director of Chabad at University of Illinois and Champaign-Urbana, who was instrumental in getting out the vote against BDS on campus, which was defeated by a nearly 2-1 margin.

In Brown’s hard-hitting response to the BDS movement on campus, he stressed that “whatever the stated motivation for a Boycott, Divestment [and] Sanctions movement, the effect of it—limiting opportunities for engagement—is, in my view, antithetical to the core values of a great public university.”

He further said “we believe that engaging with many countries through educational and research exchange is the hallmark of the free expression valued at our university,” adding that “the entrepreneurial spirit is strong in Israel. It is strong in Gies College of Business. We want more of our students to experience this vibrant business culture in the future.”

And, it may be needed now more than ever before.

“Business today and technology today is changing at a rapid pace. Our world is becoming more and more integrated,” said Brown. “It is imperative for our educational mission that we help our students develop into business professionals who can thrive in this environment, who can help businesses innovate to grow in this environment and who can steer the business community toward improving the world for all people.”

He continued, saying “this cannot be done in a vacuum. We need to have faculty members who interact with other faculty and professionals across the globe to create courses and curricula that will develop the professionals needed by the business community.”

Israel, Brown said, should not be treated differently than any other partnership that is critical to students’ success in the industry. “There are more startups per capita in Israel than any other country in the world, and its international business community is vibrant and growing. Immersing our students in this type of experiential learning environment feeds their ideas, broadens their perspective and expands their opportunities. This learning experience is something no classroom can capture.”

Indeed, Michelotti said he learned so much from the trip to Israel. “No matter where you are working, there is the opportunity to think outside the box and question if there is a way we could work more effectively. As I finish up my degree and begin my full-time job, this is the mentality I will carry forward based upon my time in Israel.”

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