Bay Area Latinos bond with Israelis over tech connections

For centuries — make that millennia — Jews have intersected with the Spanish-speaking world, forming cultural, linguistic and genealogical links despite religious conflicts. Now, an initiative by the Israeli Consulate of the Pacific Northwest is forging connections between Israel and the Hispanic community of the Bay Area by focusing on a common interest: technology.

When Consul General Andy David arrived at his post four years ago, he focused on what was particular to the local economy and culture, and how the consulate could make a contribution. Two factors rose to the top: the growing importance of the Latino demographic, and of the technology sector in and around Silicon Valley.

With Israel experiencing its own high-tech boom, the industry was an obvious meeting place — and one in which Latinos were a growing presence. David says about 10,000-15,000 Israelis work in Silicon Valley, but they rarely had any interaction with the Latino community.

Members of the 2016 Bay Area Latino delegation pose during their trip to Israel.

“I felt we had so much in common,” David told J., “but I needed to prove to the Latino community that Israel is relevant to their life, their success, their prosperity. And to do that, they needed to go there.”

Jeff Saperstein, a business lecturer at San Francisco State University, suggested that David meet a lynchpin of Silicon Valley Latino circles, marketing consultant Giovanni Rodriguez, who compiled a list of Bay Area Latino thought leaders and up-and-coming tech entrepreneurs.

“It was understood that this couldn’t be an exercise in propaganda,” Rodriguez said. “More like citizen diplomacy. But insofar as technological and business innovations, there are very few regions in the world from which you can learn so much as from Israel.”

Invitations were sent for a week-long trip to Israel, paid for by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the Koret Foundation and other Bay Area Jewish organizations. In 2015, the first delegation of 12 people made the journey.

Deputy Consul Ravit Baer escorted the group, along with David and Rodriguez. They hit the usual Israeli tourist spots — the Old City of Jerusalem, Yad Vashem, the Knesset, the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth — but also visited tech companies and accelerators, universities and government offices. They attended tech fairs in Tel Aviv on medical technology and cyber security. In June 2016, a second delegation of 11 Latinos made a similar trip.

Delegates have ranged from people such as Pilar Manchón, director of cognitive interfaces at Amazon, to startup founders like Laura I. Gomez, CEO and founder of Atipica, a diversity advocacy group.

“They now understand why Israel is relevant to them,” David said. “New business relationships were forged, for sure.”

Rodriguez found an Israeli partner for his venture, the Silicon Valley Story Lab, which is scheduled to launch in early 2017. And David started to get invitations to Bay Area Latino events. “It wasn’t just one-sided. Once the door was open, it was open both ways,” he said.

The newly formed bonds created such a buzz in Latino social media that some alumni of the trips visited Guadalajara, which is trying to position itself as a Mexican Silicon Valley, on the invitation of a Mexican business association.

“Now we’re talking about how to bring Mexican tech people to Israel — through the Silicon Valley connection,” Rodriguez said.

Sarahi Espinoza Salamanca, 27, who was born in Mexico and is the CEO and founder of DREAMers RoadMap, a Palo Alto-based nonprofit that helps undocumented immigrants finance their education, was a member of the 2016 delegation.

When her group visited Adi Rosenfeld, a businessman who works with Israel Defense Forces veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, Salamanca was so touched that “I couldn’t hold back the tears,” she recounted, “because it reminded me of myself and the struggles I have gone through in my life. We had similar childhoods and young adulthoods.”

Salamanca remains in touch with Rosenfeld “to ask him for advice or just share with him when I have a bad day.”

But the Israel experience was more than just business to the visitors.

“There were so many fun tweets,” David said. “One of them posted: ‘I’m here walking on the Tel Aviv beach. I’ve never seen so many Puerto Ricans.’ He was making a joke. But it showed that he felt right at home.”

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.