Intern Insights: 5 Lessons Learned Working in Israeli Venture Capital

- Jake Gordon, Excel Business 2017

*This blog was originally published on Viola Notes on July 31, 2017.*

With Israel having the highest density of startups in the world, and Tel Aviv ranking second to Silicon Valley in the International Startup Ecosystem Index, it’s no surprise that hundreds of American college students flock to Israel each summer to work. Through programs like Birthright Excel, Tamid, Onward, or even if they come independently, interns are now a regular occurrence at companies across the spectrum of industries in Israel. Here are the lessons I learned while interning this summer at Viola Group, Israel’s premier technology oriented private equity investment group.

First, a little background on how I landed my internship opportunity:
In the summer of 2016, shortly after wrapping up my sophomore year of college, I lived the quintessential entrepreneurial lifestyle by sleeping in the basement at my friend’s house while spending long days trying to build our startup from scratch. Mornings and afternoons usually started in the living room mapping out and executing our business goals, plan, and strategy, while also chipping away at developing the product. Nights were spent in NYC attending networking events, tech conferences, startup competitions, and really any occasion where we could pitch our little startup to anyone who’d listen.

By the end of the summer, through bootstrapping, creativity, and hustle,we managed to have a pretty good looking Minimal Viable Product (MVP). The beta launch year was defined by a cycle of painful setbacks followed by momentum and growth… then again, more setbacks.

I knew I still had so much to learn about being a founder and building a business and wanted to address this concern before we expanded further, so when I stumbled onto BRI Excel, an intensive 10-week summer business internship and fellowship in Israel to work full-time at a leading company and hear from the top speakers in the country, I knew this was my chance.

I applied, and to my excitement, was accepted. Nervous to put my startup on hold, but excited about the opportunity, I left in May, 2017 for Tel Aviv and traded in tank-tops for polos, working hard as an Analyst at the Viola Group, Israel’s premier VC and private equity investment group with over $2.5 Billion under management across several tech oriented funds.

Finding quality advice on being an intern not just in Venture Capital in Israel, but in Israeli business in general, is not easy to come by. While searching online, asking program coordinators, and even contacting friends with VC experience, I still could not manage to get my hands on a concrete guideline for best practices. Fast forward to 3 months later — my internship is about to end and I’m now a lot better informed than when I started, so to aid with this deficit of information, here are some insights I feel would be most useful to a future intern or an Israeli employer looking to optimize their intern’s summer experience:

1) Show initiative and be resourceful
Sometimes, there isn’t going to be something specific and measurable for you do to. During these times, you need to get creative to execute an interesting and valuable deliverable. Remember that the whole concept of ‘summer internships’, just as in the US, is still relatively new in Israel. For that reason, your mentor/boss may be constantly trying to understand how to maximize your value to the company and use you effectively.

During the times when you are sitting there, not completely sure what you are supposed to do, think outside the box. Constantly ask yourself: What can I do right now to benefit my boss and this firm?

The answer may be something simple, like a news briefing, or complex, like a competitive analysis, but either way, your boss will appreciate the initiative.

2) Don’t be afraid to ask questions
There is no shame in asking for clarification about a project or wanting to see a technical assignment repeated. In fact, it will probably please your boss that you want to know the right way to do something and that you’re confident enough to ask for help.

It’s possible that you may not always understand the expectations, but being proactive about clarifying them will only benefit your experience and quality of work.

3) Get used to a loud but dynamic work environment
The Israeli work environment is very different from the traditional and ‘proper’ business etiquette that is often seen in the financial scene in America.

Israelis care less about a perfectly tailored brand-name suit or long-winded introduction to emails, and more about delivering results and getting to the point.

This mentality often results in people yelling across the halls, phones ringing, music playing, etc. which at first can appear distracting — until you learn that everyone is just hustling for the next deal. The calculated chaos or ‘balagan’ (a popular Hebrew word for ‘mess’ or ‘craziness’) is what makes the country so unique and effective.

4) Communicate about the projects that are interesting to you
Building off the previous points, having an intern may be a new experience for your company or boss, so straight-forward communication about your interests and expectations are crucial for a good experience.

A detailed internship curriculum or schedule may not have been prepared for you in advance, so you should be vocal about the area of the business that you a want to focus on. You may be needed for a specific assignment or task but if not, play to your strengths or interests.

For example, in Venture Capital, ask if you can sit in a pitch or a meeting at some point. Or ask if you can attend interesting conferences in the area. Of course, understand that the answer may frequently be ‘no’ but at least your mentor will now be more familiar with your interests so the odds of you getting to participate in them in the future will be drastically improved.

5) Challenge yourself to do things that are hard or unfamiliar, even if you fail at first
This may slightly contradict the idea of asking for assignments that you are interested in, but I also recommend attempting things that you are inexperienced in, or even not good at.

There is no greater temptation than staying within your comfort zone, but by breaking out of it, the opportunity for learning increases exponentially.

In general, there isn’t a ton of risk as an intern, so failing is okay. If anything, it will make for a good interview story in the future.

Looking back on my overall experience (despite the initial culture shock :D) it could not have been more rewarding and engaging. My boss/mentor at work quickly understood my interests and capabilities and assigned projects accordingly that tested my strengths and developed my weaknesses. The skills I picked up along the way are undoubtedly transferable to entrepreneurship, but what I found most interesting and illuminating were the more informal conversations I had either in passing or at the espresso machine, where I was fortunate to pick the brains of many established partners, analysts, entrepreneurs, and proven change-makers, each of which left me with a gold nugget or two of advice to ponder and perhaps influence my perspective.

As I travel back home — now equipped with diverse knowledge straight from the source — I can’t wait to put the lessons I learned to the test as I continue the journey with my own startup.

I hope this advice has been helpful, and for those interested in an internship in Israeli business, I absolutely recommend that you try it.

Jake with Viola’s 2017 intern group hearing from Fintech expert Tomer Michaeli.

Jake Gordon is a member of the Birthright Israel Excel 2017 cohort, interning at Viola Growth. He studies at Muhlenberg College (c/o 2018), where he is pursuing a B.A. in Business and Political Science. Jake is from Los Angeles, CA.