Silicon Valley Israelis talk tech with Tel Aviv mayor

Ron Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv, visited Google headquarters in Mountain View June 20 to talk Tel Aviv technology with Silicon Valley compatriots.

Speaking before a group of around 25 Israelis working in the tech industry — at Google, at Palo Alto’s Hewlett Packard and at a number of the other nearby tech giants — Huldai said his visit was part of a short tour for the nonprofit of which he is the international chairman, the Tel Aviv Foundation, the official fundraising arm of his city. Previously he’d been in Toronto; his next scheduled stops were in Irvine, Los Angeles and San Diego before returning to Israel.

At Google,  Huldai departed from his usual fundraising presentation, opting instead for a lively, informal dialogue with Israeli-born tech professionals about Tel Aviv Global City, a 10-year initiative launched in 2011. Its aim, said Huldai, is to position the city as a global center of business and culture.

Ron Huldai

“Tel Aviv is a unique city,” said Huldai in Hebrew, counting off the city’s accomplishments: It’s come to be known as one of the most gay-friendly regions in the world, and is widely considered the tech hub of Europe — in part thanks to initiatives like free Wi-Fi throughout the metropolitan area. (On a recent visit to Tel Aviv, Google chairman Eric Schmidt reportedly called Israel a “tech miracle.”)

However, said the mayor, the question of how to make the city more internationally diverse remains — and it’s a crucial one for helping to fix Israel’s image problem in the world community.

“As an Israeli, it’s a painful reality for me that Israel has something of a negative reputation or brand value,” he said. “But Tel Aviv, in many ways, has a positive one, and that’s something we can nurture.” One goal, he said, was to double the number of foreign students coming into the city over the next few years — both to feed the tech boom, and “so more people can actually see it for themselves, and see that much of [Israel’s negative] image is not true.”

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai listens to a comment during his June 20 visit to Google. photo/emma silvers

After he opened up the floor, the discussion ranged from incentives for encouraging young people to stay in the city to encouraging skilled Israeli tech workers to teach, to a proposal to keep stores open on Saturday “if you truly want to be an international city.” (The mayor shot down the last suggestion squarely.)

One Google employee said his job required communications with many overseas tech offices — London, Tokyo, Dubai — and that “everywhere else, the employees are diverse, a mix of people from all over. When I work with the Tel Aviv office, they’re all Israeli.

“The question is, how do you change that?” he asked.

Huldai said that issue and others remain to be solved, but after taking notes throughout the discussion, he said he had a lot to take back home with him.

“Listening to people here, I was discouraged by some issues and encouraged by others,” he said. “But it’s good to have a place like this where people can speak freely, where I can speak freely. I definitely got some new ideas.”