A few years back, as a high school student in NYC, I read a book called Start-Up Nation. It explains why Israel has become a major hub for start-ups in the most unlikely of situations
: the army, in particular the Intelligence Corps.
As someone who has always wanted to serve in the Israel Defense Forces and be involved in the local start-up ecosystem, the book convinced me I had to find my way into an IDF tech unit.
Time passed. I graduated high school. I went to Silicon Valley for a few months. I immigrated to Israel. I worked for Wibiya for a few months before enlisting in the army.
For the two years before the start of my service, I had one thing on my mind: how would I be accepted into an intelligence unit? I knew no one. I grew up in America. I had no idea how the system worked.
What I did know was that these intelligence units are similar to Harvard and Yale, with low acceptances rates and high demand. Thanks to some chutzpahand selfless people I met, I ended up where I wanted to be.
People ask me all the time how I got there. Here’s the story.
As a junior in high school, I spent a lot of time researching the army. I had no idea how to navigate the system. It’s a mess.
SATs, extra-curriculars and midterms aren’t relevant. On the other hand,protectsia, otherwise known as connections, are.
For Israeli high schoolers, joining the IDF is part of everyday life. They undergo rigorous testing, attend interviews and turn to friends and family for support at every step of the way.
For me, growing up in America, it was different. While my college guidance counselor could advise me about the Ivy Leagues, she knew nothing about the IDF. My parents never served, had no connections and didn’t know the language well enough to guide me.
The summer before my senior year I worked at an Israeli start-up called Kampyle in Tel Aviv. During my six week stint, I told the army about my intention to conscript after graduation in New York. They reassured me that there would be no problem and the testing process began.
When the soldier requested an address for future correspondence, I gave them my Israeli cousins’ address. For the following 18 months they sent me all army-related invitations, interviews and testing dates to that address. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t miss history finals, French regents, or track practice to skip off to Israel.
I worried I’d end up a cook or truck driver in the army, neither one my strong points.
The only option I had left: leveraging connections.
I asked my family if they knew anyone who could pull me in to a tech unit. No luck.
I asked friends, friends of family, family of friends. No luck.
I extended my reach to include Hebrew teachers, Synagogue friends and start-up acquaintances. Some luck.
I attended tech events in Manhattan, like TechAviv and NY Tech Meetup, to meet Israelis with connections. I sought out anyone with a Hebrew sounding name on their badge — Uri’s, Yaron’s, Ron’s.
Before graduation I applied for a press pass to TechCrunch Disrupt NYC where I met Raphael, CTO of Billguard, one of the Israeli start-ups presenting at the conference. He introduced me to someone with strong connections in his former unit, which was exactly where I wanted to serve.
More time passed. I graduated. I participated in an incubator in Silicon Valley, Teens In Tech. Finally, I moved to Israel.
Shortly after my arrival, I met Raphael’s contact. She took on my case and convinced high-ranking commanders to meet with me. After a year of endless bureaucracy, countless meetings, old-school faxes and back-and-forth phone calls, I was accepted into one of the top tech units where I worked on fascinating projects with talented soldiers.
Thanks TechCrunch Disrupt, Raphael and many others for making it happen.
If I can ever be of any help, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet me @benln
On a side note, Raphael helped create Israel Tech Challenge, the perfect program for techies who want to become a part of the Israeli tech scene. Highly recommended.