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November 7, 2019 by

Chutzpah: A Former Israeli Defense Intelligence Commander’s Guide to Business and Parenting



In her new book, Chutzpah: Why Israel is a Hub of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (HarperCollins), entrepreneur extraordinaire Inbal Arieli offers a penetrating analysis of how Israeli culture, especially mandatory military service, informs the dynamics of business.  She talks to Lilith Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about where she’s been and what lessons she’s learned along the way. 


Yona Zeldis McDonough: How has your experience in the Israeli Defense Force Intelligence unit influenced your work in the Israeli tech sector? 

Inbal Arieli: I had the privilege to be selected, at the age of 17+, to serve in the Intelligence 8200 unit, the Israeli equivalent of the N.S.A. Through the unique screening process this unit applies, I learned that what I already know is less important than what I could potentially learn. This approach, of focusing on talent potential, versus existing knowhow or experience, still influences the way I assess team members and candidates in the ventures I lead in the tech sector. 

During my military service, I was part of a team of young people who came from different backgrounds, applied different approaches to problem solving and addressed challenges in various ways. This taught me that cross-pollination of ideas, and diversity, are extremely valuable for any team.

At the age of 19, I was appointed as team leader. I was the commander of a team of 15 soldiers, some older than I, definitely more experienced and knowledgeable. I then learned that leadership traits are much more critical than formal hierarchy. My team members, colleagues and commanders at 8200 are still a substantial portion of my professional network to date, more than two decades after finalizing my military service. 

As a team, we faced intel challenges which seemed at first impossible to achieve. But given their importance and consequences for the security of Israel, we just had to overcome them. In 8200 I learned that there is no such thing as impossible. 

 All of these lessons I experienced and learned at 8200, and many more, have influenced my professional career. For me, as someone who is interested in technology, the Israeli tech sector was a natural choice, as it was for many friends from the unit. However, these lessons are applicable to any sector.

YZM: Where and when did you first see the parallels between the lifecycle of a startup business and the distinctive phases of Israeli childhood? 

IA: For the past two decades, I held executive positions in Israeli tech companies; I founded three ventures myself, and serve as a board member of top Israeli innovation and entrepreneurship programs. I am also the proud mom of three Israeli boys. During this time, I have been gathering insights, data and stories. My conclusion is that innovation and entrepreneurship do not originate in one magical moment, nor are they the province of a select few born with an “innovative gene”, but rather that they are a product of a specific set of skills, ideally nurtured from a very young age. Living with chutzpah provides the opportunity to constantly practice the soft skills defined by the World Economic Forum as the skills for the future. These include: analytical thinking, active learning, creativity and originality, critical thinking, complex problem solving and more. 

YZM: Do you see your book as a parenting book as much as a business book? 

 IA: Although the primary objective of Chutzpah is to provide insights to businesses executives and start-up founders, many of the principles described in it can be applied to our everyday lives as human beings. Indeed, I recommend practicing these principles as early as possible, even with toddlers. The soft skills relevant to innovation and entrepreneurship will then be nurtured and fostered in an optimal way. 

YZM: You talk about the constant state of uncertainty in which Israeli children are raised. Can you explain the stark differences between childhood in Israel and childhood in the Western world? 

IA: Living in Israel means living in uncertainty, no matter how old you are. This past week the residents of the south of Israel, at all ages, while enjoying a music festival at night, and the following day while participating at an evening swim, were surprised by rocket sirens. These events were not predicted or anticipated, of course. For the younger children, it means their routine is constantly shaken, and uncertainty, of some elements, is a natural part of it. This is unique to Israel, and creates more resilient, responsible, and adaptive people.  

YZM: You talk about the Israeli concept of balagan, or messiness; why this is so important to the creative process? 

IA: Most of us feel more secure in an organized environment, applying well-defined rules and standards. However, pre-set constraints and rules are counter-productive to the creative process. 

Ironically, I strongly believe that from balagan, chaos, can come order. Probably a new order, different from the one we envisioned. An innovative order.  

YZM: What can aspiring entrepreneurs learn from Israeli childhood? And how can they use those lessons to create successful startups in other countries? 

IA: In Chutzpah I show how, surprisingly, the Israeli childhood and the lifecycle of a business resemble each other. In five stages–Discovery, Validation, Efficiency, Scale & Sustainability and Renewal–these two different worlds go hand in hand.  

For example, the early stages of discovery: for Israeli children, that looks like living in balagan, or a state of mess where things don’t have a preordained order. In business, that’s learned through our own experiences rather than explicit teaching. During the later stages of validation: Israeli children open up to criticism, test limits, resilience and experimentation. In business, you collect feedback and input from outside sources. 

Throughout Chutzpah I provide many more examples, and top Israeli tech entrepreneurs share their childhood stories and how these affected their successful business journey.

YZM: Why did you call the book Chutzpah

IA: Chutzpah, the term, encompasses all the elements I describe and unpack in the book: thinking big, daring, stepping out of your comfort zone, making decisions and engaging with others. 

You might even say it is my chutzpah to aspire influencing readers all over the world by sharing with them the Israeli childhood journey. I am glad to say feedback so far, from Asia to the U.S., from young readers to experienced executives, from parents to aspiring entrepreneurs, is that I was right to use my own chutzpah!