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Sharon Landes-Fischer

Sharon is the CEO of Tel Aviv Global. We spoke to Sharon about The DNA of Tel Aviv.

Photo credit: Shai Pal via Unsplash.

Caitlin Morrissey

What is the DNA of Tel Aviv?

Sharon Landes-Fischer

The DNA of Tel Aviv is one of innovation. Tel Aviv is a melting pot, a city of migrants coming on different phases and stages from different backgrounds, all gathering into one society, one city where people are mostly of the Jewish persuasion, being educated, usually, by the Yiddish mother, the Jewish mother who didn't give a damn what her child would be when he grows up unless he's a doctor or a lawyer, meaning must be highly educated and highly qualified to deal with the world and not big on sports and on physical issues at all; all in the mind, all in the soul, in the spirit, in the mentality. And this is a major ingredient of the DNA of the city, of the people of the city, people who sometimes had no other choice but to innovate, had no other resources but themselves.

Here in Tel Aviv, we hardly have any objective resources. I mean, we just recently discovered gas, natural gas in the Mediterranean, and we used to have the Jaffa oranges that we exported. Other than that, the country is very small; the city is even smaller. There is no oil. There is no actual resources, so you have to turn to yourself; you find it from within. And this is also the Jewish refugee. This is what the Jewish refugee always did when moving from one country to another in the diaspora, and so this muscle of innovation had to evolve and had to become stronger and stronger.

And then the city itself, the city of Tel Aviv, is an innovation made by the people, the Jewish immigrants sitting in Jaffa, in old Jaffa. And when they thought they would build the first neighbourhood outside of Jaffa walls, that was an innovative thought in 1909, when they stood in the sand in the temperature of 30 degrees Celsius, wearing suits and ties because they're European, you know?

So when they drew the shells, the seashells deciding which resident will get what plot of land, the very idea was to innovate and to create your own neighbourhood, your own city in your own soon-to-become, hopefully, a country. And therefore, we here are inviting and writing our present and our future in our own hands. We take things into our own hands, and we don't just sit and wait for things to happen to us. We initiate them and because of this society of, as I said, migrants and, as I said, educated in a specific manner that puts a higher education on a pedestal. And people who came from former USSR, former Soviet Union are migrating in the 1990s, coming to Tel Aviv with degrees in medicine and other sciences are contributing to our society and its innovative nature.

And also, the Israeli army is also a part of the Israeli and the Tel Avivian DNA. As you know, every Israeli has to go to the army, boy or girl, and there, some of our boys and girls, they serve in elite units, the cutting-edge technological units where they study and innovate again, again, because we have no choice, because we're fighting for our lives here. But not everybody serves in elite units, okay? Some just learn in the Army how to become very responsible; otherwise, they may die. They learn how to be a team player, and they learn how to lead and command and take responsibility. So even though not everybody is doing elite technology, everybody's doing very responsible, very serious things that-- you know, where life matters. So, again, the Israeli army is a very big shaper of the Israeli DNA developing here in the past 72 years since we had our state.

Caitlin Morrissey

Sharon, what makes Tel Aviv, Tel Aviv, and how many Tel Aviv's are there?

Sharon Landes-Fischer

So there's only one Tel Aviv here in Israel and in the entire world, but there is a slice of Tel Aviv in a few other places. For example, New York City has a slice of Tel Aviv, being a cultural, commercial centre of a country where you're not the capital city. Jerusalem is the capital city of Tel Aviv. Washington, D.C. is the capital city of the United States. But both New York and Tel Aviv enjoy the status of being a financial, social, cultural, touristic centre and of course, an immigrant society, so there's a slice of Tel Aviv in New York.

There's a slice of Tel Aviv in the Silicon Valley in San Francisco, where start-ups are born every day, where innovation is leading the company and taking it forward, where business is blooming, and financial bridges are being built. So there's a slice of Tel Aviv in San Francisco.

There's a slice of Tel Aviv in Berlin. Tel Aviv is very LGBT-friendly, and Berlin is, as well, friendly to this community. And I think being liberal and being, again, not the capital city but the coolest place to hang and the liberal place to go to in a country. There's a slice of Tel Aviv in Berlin.

And there's a slice of Tel Aviv in London, since Tel Aviv-- well, London was first to be a pluralistic, liberal, democratic city, usually. So Tel Aviv is also a very pluralistic, liberal city where you can come from wherever and be yourself, be who you are. We have religious people here, minorities, asylum seekers and refugees. Okay, so, again, in London, you can come from wherever and be yourself and be who you want and what you want, so there's a part of Tel Aviv in London or part of London in Tel Aviv.

So as I said before, there is only one Tel Aviv, but there is a piece of Tel Aviv in those places that I mentioned. And I'm proud to see the duplication or the similarity and the inspiration, vice versa, between Tel Aviv and those cities that I had mentioned for the reasons that I mentioned.

Greg Clark

Thank you, Sharon. I'm going to follow up with two short questions if I may. So the first one is to say, you seem to be saying there's a connection between being pluralistic, liberal and progressive, attracting people from many different parts of the world but with some common backgrounds and how this produces an enterprising, creative, advanced, innovative economy. What is that connection between being open and a plural, and being enterprising and innovative? How does that work?

Sharon Landes-Fischer

I think that inclusive cities that are inclusive to different part of a population in society and immigrants from different countries and where the atmosphere is one that you let people say what they think and-- allow them to think, first of all, and then you allow them to say what they think, and you allow them to try to act on it and to create something of it so the tolerance in this city. In those cities are the connection between the number of origins of people and origins of opinions in the city and the quantity and quality of enterprises because it's like a melting pot, again, like a burst of ideas and opinions and backgrounds and philosophies.

I once heard somebody said, “What is innovation? Innovation happens when two ideas are having sex," okay? There you go. So when special ideas come from all over the place, and they connect and something bursts out of it and becomes like a new enterprise or a new start-up or a new product or service, this happens because you can hear opposite opinions, and you have conversations and you have brainstorms, okay, so this allows-- and the outcome is better products, better enterprises. Okay?

Greg Clark

Of course, there are people in Tel Aviv doing all different kinds of jobs. Many of them are involved in the innovation and the technology scene, but some people are operating restaurants and hotels or working in banks and law firms, and other people are educators and social workers and police officers and every kind of job. So what is it that unites them as Tel Avivians? Because not all of them are in this innovation economy. So what is the part of Tel Aviv that creates their common sense of belonging? What is that?

Sharon Landes-Fischer

Well, let's talk about waiters and cinema ushers and professions like that. I'm sure if you walk around, some of them are doing these jobs until their dream would be pursued, until they will fulfil their dream. So it's like a job that they're doing until they really make it, okay, some of them. Others are suffering artists that come to Tel Aviv and live in Tel Aviv, and they do that because this is the place to create. So they don't care that they're not in the high-tech industry because they are creating, and they are in the humanities, and they're all about-- again, they're enjoying the values of liberalism and pluralism and no borders on your thought and no borders on your actions. So this is why they're there, and they know that they make less money, and they don't care.

Another part of the population would be Israelis from all over Israel who dare to leave their homes in the peripheral areas of the country. So they're so happy to come to Tel Aviv. Whoever makes it and lives their-- the city from the periphery. They come to Tel Aviv. So they're so grateful for living in Tel Aviv that, at least at the beginning, in the first couple of years, this is good enough for them. And they'll do anything. They'll work at anything just to be able to live in Tel Aviv. And then gradually, everyone finds themselves in a particular profession and doing what they can.

Listen, I can tell you that since cost of living is not so low in Tel Aviv, quite the opposite, some of them will eventually go back to the rural areas, probably after they're married and maybe their first or their second child is born. They will go out and live in the countryside, and that's okay. But when they came to Tel Aviv and when they lived in Tel Aviv, they felt alive, and this is why they go there. They don't mind that they're not part of the industry; they're part of the city, and they're part of the message that the city is sending.

And they feel that they're a part of it because the society here is very informal, and everybody talks to everybody, and we don't have hierarchy or classes. So after 10 o'clock at night, everybody meets in the bar, and everybody dances at the nightclub. And people are not snobbish. I mean, we're Tel Avivians. So that's the beauty of it: we don't have classes, so that's why everybody feels that they belong in Tel Aviv. It's their dream to belong to Tel Aviv. And if they have to leave, they're very sorry to do so. Even though they pack their things with the wife and the two new-borns, they will always come back to visit, and they will always have a very warm place in their hearts for Tel Aviv, no matter what they do for a living.

Greg Clark

Can you tell us more about Tel Aviv being a kind of classless society or without these rigid classes, without hierarchy? How does that relate to street life, public spaces, outdoors, the beach, festivals?

Sharon Landes-Fischer

So the classless society, the flat society is shown in the flat city, okay? The city is flat, and the society is flat. We don't have a king; we don't have the tradition of royalty in any way. If anything, our royals are people of humanities and thinkers and poets, etc. So you don't have to flaunt anything. There is a lot of new money going on in the streets of Tel Aviv, and there's also very old money in the streets of Tel Aviv, and everybody lives harmonically with each other. We're not such a capitalistic society.

You can walk in the streets of the flat city and meet your friend who, in the past ten years that you haven't seen him, he has made it big time, and now, he's counting his millions and millions of dollars from selling his company, his start-up company to an American or European company. And yet, when he will meet you, the informality of the Tel Avivian and the Israeli society, he would stop, and he would hug you as if ten years and one hundred million dollars haven't been passed between you, okay?

So the Israeli nature is always: how are you, how's your friend, do you remember this one from the army, how is his cousin, I met his brother. It's always like that because we're so small and the country is small. The city is small; society is small. We're all like one big family, if you will, because we're refugees, after all, collected, gathered in one small place. And so people are very warm, and they care for each other.

So I think that the public sphere, it has also a mutual influence on the society because you can go to the beach-- I mean, Tel Aviv enjoys a 14-kilometre-stretch beachfront with white sands. You can go to the beach and lie down next to whoever, you wear your flip flops, and you end your day at the beach. You go back to the city with your flip flops and with your shorts, and you mix with people in the beach, in the streets. And no one is condescending the other. And it's all very flat both geographically and socially. 

In Tel Aviv, there are many things to do for free. So there, in the same place, you'll find people from different backgrounds and different occupations and different bank accounts hanging out in the same place like the beach, like the park, like the streets, like the cafes. So we have, now, in the boulevards the mayor has created, if you like, points where you can just lay on the grass, drink your coffee. So it's very unexclusive, okay? Very unexclusive. And that's the city of Tel Aviv.

Caitlin Morrissey

I want to pick up on the natural features in Tel Aviv, the things it's inherited like its flat surface and its beaches, the Mediterranean coast. And I wonder if we could reflect on what those geographical features mean for the city and its DNA.

Sharon Landes-Fischer

The geographical features of Tel Aviv has definitely influenced the character of the city. First of all, Tel Aviv, Jaffa, is actually located near the oldest port, the oldest Jaffa port that had made Tel Aviv, Jaffa like a trading city and a trading port and a centre, a hub where you go to-- like a crossroad, okay? You go from Jaffa both to Damascus-- those were the days when you could take the train to Damascus or maybe to Turkey and to Jerusalem, of course. So in the Middle East, it was like a serious hub of connectivity. That's number one.

Number two, because of the great weather that we enjoy here, many people-- I mean, great/warmish weather, okay? So many people like to be outside. We have in average some 300 days of sunshine in a year, so you would spend most of them outside. And this also encourages people, again, to be outside and to talk to each other and to socialise and to talk to one another and to mingle with each other, etc. So it's the weather, and it's the flat city, walkability, serendipity of the city that makes everything accessible. So, again, as per the classes question, everything is accessible. Same goes for walking, and same goes for occupancy and profession and trade and innovation. Everything is reachable in more than one meaning, okay?

Now, I can also say that the small size of the city has influence, is another characteristic that influence the proficiency of the city. Because the city is so small, there is not much room left for heavy industry. So this is another reason why the software industry has developed in Tel Aviv in Israel because real estate is becoming ever so expensive. So since space is so expensive, most companies need very little space, okay? If you need a lot of space, if you're in the heavy industry, you go outside of Tel Aviv. For the hardware, for example, you go outside of Tel Aviv. But in Tel Aviv and also in Israel, you specialise in software, also, because the city is very small, and every inch is so expensive. So you want to make the most of it, and you want to be the most creative and the most money-generating product or service to develop.

And I can also say that, again, since Tel Aviv is so small and Israel is so small, the financial market is small, and the amount of potential customers that you have is small. Now, our neighbours around us is-- as I once said, we are a democracy between non-democracies, and we hardly trade with our neighbours. So listen to the reasons to why: as I said, the small scale of the market, the small scale of the city, the push towards software and not hardware and not trading with your immediate neighbours, all these reasons showed the way to the Israeli, to the Tel Avivian entrepreneur to build. When they build from scratch a product, they build it to scale up, to send abroad. 

Like maybe a French start-up, would, first, write down the product or the service maybe in French because they're in France, and it's a big enough market. And then there's Belgium and then there's Luxembourg, etc. But here, from the get-go, the Israeli market is not even considered immediately from the scratch. You create to import-- sorry, to export, okay? So from scratch, you build everything. And then when you sell to another country, you don't have to sit down and try to localise your product to another country. It was born to be international, okay? This is, again, going back to the international DNA of ours. And we all speak a few languages because we're all children of immigrants. So from the get-go, we build things to export into the international market, and this saves us time and energy and thoughts.

Greg Clark

The way you are connecting the physical space of the city, the social intimacy of the city, the entrepreneurial ecosystem of the city with the legacy of migration and refugees and the military and technology and the geopolitical situation is brilliant.

Caitlin Morrissey

So given all of this innovation going on in the city, I wonder if you'd had a chance to think about what would be some of the key inventions or discoveries that Tel Aviv has made? Whether that's things that people in the city are really proud of or whether that's things that have been world-changing.

Sharon Landes-Fischer

So the number one invention happening here in Tel Aviv is the city itself. Again, I'm sorry to go back to that, but the city itself is the number one invention, the daring to create, to go out of Jaffa walls and to build your own city. As Akiva Aryeh Weiss said, this is going to be the New York of the Middle East. And where he stood and spoke is now the most condensed area of start-ups per capita per square mile in the world. So that was like 111 years ago, okay? He knew that, and he knew that because he knew his people, okay? And since then, us people have created a few more inventions.

So first of all, you know the logo of Intel company. It says 'Intel Inside' in many computers, you know that? It says Intel Inside. I want to tell you, there is Tel Aviv inside in many, many products that all of us use and maybe not aware of that. I mean, the general manager of the production company, he knows, but not everybody knows that there is Tel Aviv inside in so many products that everybody in the world is using. So the software that is being developed here, after the city itself, it's the number two invention, and it goes to various businesses and services that are offered around the world these days.

To be concrete and to be specific, I can mention the DiskOnKey that everybody uses. I think that was created here in Tel Aviv. And you know Waze, the mobility application Waze, that shows you the best way, the shortest way to get to places. And Via is another mass transportation management software. Mobileye, if you've heard, is coming actually from Jerusalem but is here for exactly the same reason, that they like Tel Aviv. 

I want to say that the innovation and inventions coming out of Tel Aviv are also allowing inspiration to other developers all over the world. So we're offering not only the product and the service but also the inspiration and example to show people that they can invent new things. The proof is in the pudding, you people say. So the proof is that 112 global research and development companies, again, global, from all over the world have chosen to open innovation centres in Tel Aviv, hiring Tel Avivians, hiring the Tel Avivian talent, okay? This is what we have here, the talent.

I think, again, not to reduce the talent to a specific, DiskOnKey or Mobileye. By the way, the 3D-printed heart that Tel Aviv University has developed, okay, the first printed heart developed at Tel Aviv University. But let's not focus only on these end products but talk about processes and talk about higher level of, as I said, inspiration that we're giving and talent that we have here that is serving all the companies that everybody knows: Coca-Cola and Renault and Mercedes and Microsoft and Apple and Amazon. And add any name from the Nasdaq that you want to add, Tel Aviv is inside. And this is my point.

Greg Clark

Now Sharon, who are Tel Aviv’s key leaders as you see them?

Sharon Landes-Fischer

I would say the first one of Tel Aviv would be Meir Dizengoff who was the first mayor. He was one of the founders and the first mayor of Tel Aviv, elected for the first time in 1921. Mr Dizengoff has laid the foundation for the city, including founding Tel Aviv board] and leading its financial development, okay?

And his emphasis was on a modern city, okay, on modernity whilst determined on preserving the past. But he was looking to be modern, to become a modern city, and he encouraged Tel Aviv to become a hub of cultural life. And this is still with us, I'm happy to say.

And there was also the poet Bialik, Hayim Nahman Bialik. He was a very, very, very famous poet, and he also had a huge part in the founding of the city of Tel Aviv.

I would say that in modern times, in recent years, Mayor Ron Huldai, the current mayor. He is a man of vision, and he brought the emphasis on liberalism and pluralism and democratic life, etc. Now, let me tell you, he had to deal suddenly-- all of a sudden, he had to deal with refugees coming to Israel without a licence. You know, they came undocumented. I mean, they came to Tel Aviv because you always go to the biggest city to try to make a living. So suddenly he found like-- it began with 10,000, 20,000, and now, it's around 40,000. The whole population of Tel Aviv is 450,000 residents, okay, and some 40,000 undocumented refugees coming to live in Tel Aviv.

Now, the government didn't take care of them, didn't take care of this population. The central government didn't take care of this population. Mayor Huldai, because he's a humanist and because he's a liberal and progressive manager, progressive person, he takes care of them. And he found himself building kindergartens and classrooms to their children. Nobody paid him to; nobody asked him to. He thought he needed to because otherwise, how do you treat people? So even though the central government didn't take care of this population, he took the initiative, and this is because he is a liberal person and a humanist, a very big humanist.

I can tell you that since Huldai is mayor for the past 20 years, the city has become even younger and even happier and even more successful. And he is in charge of the city enjoying this flourishment that it is enjoying for the past years. It's a lot because of his doing, of Mayor Huldai. He thought about the bicycles sharing system, and he thought about becoming a global city, for example. He initiated us here at Tel Aviv Global. He thought of becoming a global city. He joined the C40 and the Resilient Cities Network, and he joined a few networks that we're developing our relationships with. 

And he likes to encourage the entire city. For us, the northern part of the city is like the wealthier, and the southern part is the not so wealthy. And he gives a lot of attention and a lot of budget to the south, okay? He's like a socialist in that way.

And also, he encourages culture. 6% of the city's budget goes to culture, which is a lot. And I may say that many Israelis come to Tel Aviv to enjoy the culture, so it's like we're paying for all Israelis to enjoy, and we're happy to, and Mayor Huldai's happy to do so, okay? Nobody forced him. He's happy to do so. So I think these are points in his contribution to the city becoming what it is now.

And I want to say one more thing. He finds himself now, as many other mayors in the Western world, in the opposite side from the national government. Our prime minister Netanyahu and our mayor Huldai find themselves, many times, on opposite side of discussions, and the mayor has his own crowd of supporters which are sometimes not the same supporters as the prime minister. So, yes, he's a leader sometimes against the national government and is not ashamed to say so. 

So these are a few examples. I gave you examples of two mayors and one poet. And if I can also say that all the entrepreneurs living in Tel Aviv are like a personality, like a persona all in one reflecting Tel Aviv's personality. And also, I can say that Tel Aviv is home to the Philharmonic Orchestra. The Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, but it works from Tel Aviv. And also Mr. Ohad Naharin, who is a dance choreographer of the dance company called Batsheva, he also, I think, is quite a leader here. Again, for us, it's the people of thought, of philosophy, of ideas, of poetry, humanities, okay? These are our leaders, I'm proud to say.

Greg Clark

Can you tell us about the myths of Tel Aviv?

Sharon Landes-Fischer

The myth about Tel Aviv, I would say, is that people who have never been to Tel Aviv to Tel Aviv or Israel, they think it's a big country. And they're always very surprised at how small it is in comparison to the impact Tel Aviv has on the world, especially on the Western world. So I think this is a myth.

And there was also a question about a song that may be describing us as Tel Avivians. Maybe you wouldn't believe it, but many times when we-- I mean, nobody's flown in the past six years anyway. Nobody moved. But usually, flying back home to Israel, upon landing, Israelis would clap their hands, and some of them sing 'Hevenu Shalom Aleichem'. Yes, so we sing when we land, again, for the intimacy and the familiarity and us all being refugees and part of the same big family. So we sing when we land. We sing 'Hevenu Shalom Aleichem', 'we bring peace to you'. 'Hevenu Shalom Aleichem'.

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