woman in white shirt with microphone in front of large screen
Sharon Vanek, executive director of the California Israel Chamber of Commerce

Q&A: Helping Israeli companies thrive in the U.S.

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As executive director of the California Israel Chamber of Commerce since 2018, Sharon Vanek runs a network of more than 10,000 entrepreneurs, investors, business executives and scientists involved in trade and technology ties between Israel, California and the world. Over the years, the nonprofit has helped accelerate over 500 Israeli startups, including cybersecurity and medical, financial and agricultural technologies (popularly known as medtech, fintech and agtech).

J: How has the pandemic affected CICC?

Sharon Vanek: Greatly. Canceled conferences wiped out most of our fundraising income. With no in-person activities, I worried we’d have to lay off staff and shut down CICC. To survive, we accelerated our digital transformation. Surprisingly, we’ve discovered upsides to becoming virtual.

Such as…?

Our expenses shrank. No conferences, air tickets, hotels, meals or travel time. At first, our Zoom webinars mimicked our huge conferences, offering broad topics to attract hundreds. But participants felt like a fly-on-the wall. People crave human interaction. Israelis especially thrive on schmoozing, joking and face-to-face business. So, we switched to more interactive, targeted Zoom meetings. Like an intimate café, people share ideas, ask questions, get feedback.

Does CICC work only with Israelis and Californians?

No. A broad group of members and speakers are joining our cross-border seminars and conversations. Silicon Valley is an international epicenter. Our collaboration with business communities around North America is expanding. As a connector and resource center, we work with Israeli and non-Israeli startups, offering information on market trends, building alliances, pitching to investors and clients. Our volunteer mentors also help mentees on their entrepreneurial journeys. We collaborate with Silicon Valley and global giants such as Salesforce, Intel, Google, Facebook, DuPont and Microsoft. And we’ve recruited new strategic alliances like Hyundai Mobis, Mizrahi-Tefahot bank [Israel’s No. 3 bank] and GRSee Consulting, so we’re running even more virtual programs.

Can you describe some recent CICC programs?

Recently, startup leaders pitched their fraud and cybersecurity solutions to fraud and cyber leaders — Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, Chase, Google, PayPal and other financial institutions. At our global livestream conference about the future of health care, we offered 35 “fireside chats,” where participants “meet” executives, from Blue Cross to the Mayo Clinic. At our monthly small Zoom sessions, people in startups brainstorm with leaders from Microsoft to Citi Ventures to HP.

Members of the Western Growers Innovation Center taught attendees about the U.S. ag-tech market and how to approach farmers. California farmers provide over half of America’s fruit, vegetables and tree nuts. We also ran a virtual Israeli 3D ag-tech exhibition showcasing Israel’s leading agriculture technologies and startups. At upcoming virtual industry road shows — Israeli clean-tech and health-tech — innovators will meet potential investors and clients.

What’s your typical week like?

Like other working moms, Covid means more responsibilities added to my full professional days. I’m my children’s entertainer/teacher/coach/personal helper/tech support/cook — they eat so much! My CICC work is more intense, a rollercoaster. Instead of living out of my car, driving to meet the governor in Sacramento or farmers in Salinas, my typical week now includes many Zoom calls with startups seeking our help, investors looking for leads, writing newsletters and fundraising to keep the CICC going.

How did a kibbutz kid become a global geek with degrees in Asian studies, business and computer science?

My four grandparents — all Holocaust survivors — inspired me to cherish Israel and think out of the box. I was born on a kibbutz outside Gaza, where my parents were teachers. My father encouraged me to explore. He bought one of the first computers to Israel — a Sinclair PC. He attached it to our black-and-white TV, and neighbors rushed to see this magic thing. He established the first after-school program to teach computers to Israeli kids and imported computers from Taiwan.

He advised me: “If you want to be a trailblazer, Asia is the future.” At the Hebrew University, I met my husband in Mandarin class. We spent 1997 to 2005 working in Asia. I saw “the tiger” awakening. I see the world as a playground of opportunities.

What role do the approximately 40,000 Israelis in the Bay Area play in tech?

The Bay Area’s diverse Israelis create “Little Israels.” Relative to their size, numerous Israelis hold senior positions in corporate, tech and venture firms. The Bay Area is vital to Israel. Amazingly, over $1 billion — about 17 percent of the total investment in Israel — comes from this special place.

Donna Rosenthal
Donna Rosenthal

Donna Rosenthal, author of “The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land,” was an Israel TV producer, Israel Radio reporter and Hebrew University lecturer. She’s written for the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic and taught university journalism. A J. board member, she lives in the East Bay.