When you look at the success of Silicon Valley, you see that most of it began at Stanford University. Starting with David Packard and William Hewlett’s little garage-founded electronic company in 1939, Stanford talent generated some of the Valley’s biggest successes, including Google and Cisco Systems. Every year, companies founded by Stanford alumni pump $2.7 trillion into the American economy. Since the 1930s, Stanford alumni have created over 5.4 million jobs.
Israel has a similar talent incubation system, but it’s not a university. It’s Unit 8200, the elite cybersecurity niche of the Israeli Defense Forces. Eighteen-year-old whiz kids go into the 8200 to complete mandatory service for the IDF. They leave ready to start their own tech companies.
Life in the IDF
Most young Israeli men and women complete mandatory service in the IDF. Some receive exemption through a national youth service program, and some ultra-Orthodox Israelis avoid service when completing religious studies in a yeshiva. In the early days when Israel was fighting for survival, mandatory service was worn as a badge of honor. Israeli-American real estate developer and philanthropist Adam Milstein says, “We grew up in Israel, most of us served in the army, and our character was galvanized by the time we served.”
These days, it’s getting tougher to conscript young Israelis into the IDF. About 12 percent of Israelis avoided the draft in 1980; by 2007, the number had jumped to 26 percent. In 2020, the IDF predicts 43 percent of Israeli youth will avoid the draft. “In my time everyone served in the Israeli army, and we understood the importance of a Jewish State,” says Milstein. “Today, an unprecedented portion of Israeli youth in large metropolitan areas such as Tel Aviv tries to avoid the draft.”
For parents in Israel, having a child accepted into an elite IDF unit is like having an American child accepted to Harvard. In fact, some wealthy Israelis provide their children with special training, like Arabic language lessons, to improve their chances of scoring an elite gig. Unit 8200 targets students with outstanding analytic abilities, good decision-makers, and team players. In fact, the 8200 handpicks its new recruits by the time they graduate from high school.
Thinking Outside the Box
Unit 8200 teaches students a lot about technology, but more than anything, it teaches them how to think like entrepreneurs.
“Success required out-of-the-box thinking, the courage to contradict conventional wisdom, and an ability to stave off hubris,” explains Idan Tendler, a former Unit 8200 lead agent who became CEO and co-founder of Fortscale, a global cybersecurity provider. “We learned to question authority and traditional ways of thinking in order to continuously improve outcomes.”
Tendler isn’t the only CEO who got his start in Unit 8200. The founders of companies like Outbrain, Waze, CheckPoint, Imperva, Gilat, Wix, and Palo Alto Networks all got their start in this elite cybersecurity unit. “We were a bunch of 18-year-old kids who, in a couple of months, would be leading complex intelligence technological operations in Israel’s equivalent of the NSA,” says Tendler.
Unit 8200’s recruits learn sophisticated data mining techniques and incorporate advanced machine learning, mostly to uncover cybersecurity threats and to conduct intelligence investigations. “This correlation between serving in the intelligence Unit 8200 and starting successful high-tech companies is not coincidental,” says one Unit 8200 alumnus, who only identifies himself as Brigadier General B. “Many of the technologies in use around the world and developed in Israel were originally military technologies and were developed and improved by unit veterans.”
Veterans Old and New
Adam Milstein came to the U.S. to earn his MBA after he finished compulsory IDF service. After enlisting in 1971, he’d fought in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, where he was part of then General Ariel Sharon’s unit chasing Egyptian forces across the Suez Canal.
These days, Milstein is in his 60s, with married daughters and grandchildren. He spent his career rehabilitating and repurposing commercial and industrial real estate, amassing a portfolio of over $1 billion in holdings for his company, Hager Pacific. He’s also one of the key members of America’s Israeli-American council, where he works hard to instill a love for the homeland in Israeli-American youth.
There’s something special about Israel’s entrepreneurial spirit, and it’s something from which young Israeli-American professionals can benefit. Despite requiring compulsory military service, Israel isn’t a highly regimented and authority-driven society. It’s a country filled with independent spirit in which everyday workers are unafraid to question authority.
IDF veteran Yaron Carni, who founded Maverick Ventures, thinks military service creates an excellent mindset for young entrepreneurs. “One of the most unique traits of the IDF is that smart people get heard and promoted based on their skill sets,” says Carni. “Some of the greatest achievements were accomplished by regular soldiers.”
In addition, Israel is a country of immigrants, filled with diverse and highly skilled workers. When companies come to Israel to launch international operations, it only takes days to assemble a skilled workforce. When you look for job ads, you’ll often see want ads that say specifically, “Meant for 8200 alumni.”
In 2014, the Milstein and the IAC’s Los Angeles-based BINA network for young professionals hosted “Israel’s High Tech Heroes.” It was a salon gathering featuring former members of Unit 8200, where young Jewish professionals could ask candid questions about Israeli entrepreneurship. In addition to attending the IAC’s BINA salon, Unit 8200 Alumnus Association members spoke at the Global Tech Summit at Microsoft. “We were happy to share our own experiences as entrepreneurs, as well as present our perspectives about the benefits and challenges this unique path has,” said Guy Katsovich, Chair of the Young Alumni of the 8200 Unit.
After leaving active service, Unit 8200 members benefit from an established and enthusiastic alumni network. The Unit 8200 Alumni Association helps its veterans make connections in banking, business, and high-tech companies all over the world. Within their new work environments, they mingle among other Unit 8200 veterans and work with the same advanced technologies.
For example, one Israeli tech company that helps match people with clothing based on their unique tastes operates using the same kinds of algorithms Unit 8200 devised to track and thwart suicide bombers. “It’s more the mindset than the actual technology,” says Noa Levy, chief executive for mobile app startup Rompr. “Then, you can go out and do it on a completely different series of tasks, using the same methodology.”
The Value of Service
Over four decades after the Yom Kippur war, military service is still as formative as ever. One 22-year-old veteran who recently served in the Golani infantry brigade told the Washington Post, “I was drafted as a child with a head of a kid, and now I feel different, if it’s the music I listen to, if it’s in my behavior, even if in the clothing that I wear.”
For Adam Milstein, 8200 alumni, and other IDF veterans, the obligation to serve Israel and make a difference in the world doesn’t end after military service. Milstein says continuing to honor Israel, whether through reserve service, in the high-tech sector, or in the philanthropic sector, is every IDF veteran’s desire. “Whatever you give, you get more,” Milstein says. “Not necessarily 10 times more, but you just get more.”
Serving in Unit 8200 means getting more than just military service under one’s belt. It means a lifetime of innovation, business partnership, and economic development. In some ways, it’s the Stanford of Israel, and it’s poised to create an Israeli version of Silicon Valley.