Climbing to the top successful echelons of American society is one of the prominent ambitions of any Russian speaking Jew living in North America. And one of the rungs on this ladder is hi-tech. This is one of the reasons for the newfound interest in the LimmudFSU convention on innovation. This is the story of Google, Paypal, Whatsapp and Limmud, reporting from New-Jersey.
Jan Koum, is a Russian-speaking Jew, Ukrainian-born and raised in the States since 1992, and describes himself as having been a "rebellious" kid from early on. Mere years ago, Koum's family tried to survive the difficulties of immigration – today, he is worth millions.
At the age of 38, Koum has recently sold the company he co-founded, Whatsapp, for $19 billion, to Facebook. The small company of 25 employees in California's Silicon Valley suddenly became a global power with 450 million users who found the easy way to text messaging internationally using different cellular products. Daily, the company transfers 64 billion messages.
The monetization was sure to come. Koum's story is similar to that of another Ukrainian-born Jew, the founder of Paypal, Max Levchin, who is now worth millions, and one of Google's co-founders, Sergey Brin.
"Living in Ukraine, education had a huge impact on our lives", says Koum. It's that very value of education, and the will to succeed, that has guided Koum throughout his life, just like his peers.
Limmud FSU follows the development of Jewish immigrants from their arrival from the Former Soviet Union (FSU), and aims to portray the increasing social advancement of such Russian Speaking Jews.
"Our project deals with empowerment of Russian speaking Jewry and their abilities," explains Chaim Chesler, Limmud FSU's co-founder. "We are not oblivious to their development as a community and we succeed in creating a buzz and motivation in their continuous success. High-tech is no longer a secret, and top entrepreneurs and developers are Russian speaking Jews, and Israelis, and the world is their operating system. This is the reason that many volunteers and donors contribute to empowering the community."
The Highway to High-tech
Around a round table in the Sheraton hotel in New Jersey, three Russian-speaking hi-tech innovators spoke, interviewed by the managing editor of the Jerusalem Post, David Brinn. Brinn opened with the following question: "Is the Jewish code to success written in Russian?"
Eli Etin, an Amdocs man, Dr. Evgeny Korchnoy, a Technion (Israel Institute of Technology) man, and Levy Raiz, a young innovator, discussed the question for an entire hour in a fully-packed auditorium.
"Russian-speaking Jews anywhere in the world want very much to succeed, and we see this in all the events we organize, in seven countries," says Chesler, "They come to Limmud FSU for networking and friendships, but also to learn the system, and we are obligated to provide them this experience."
Eli Etin, who emigrated with his parents from St. Petersburg to Israel and from there to Australia, today lives in Israel and works at Amdocs. "When you walk through the companies' hallways, you can hear Russian as often as you do English," he says, "I see the influence of Russian speaking Jews in every field. It's hard to miss them because they are all motivated by Israeli growth since immigrating in the 1990's."
Dr. Evgeny Korchnoy, manager of the educational Leumi Robotics Center, says that this story is rooted in FSU tradition in which "studying is highly important", and so is the ambition to leave your mark in the world and influence others, are the waypoints of Russian speaking Jews.
Levy Raiz, the youngest of the three, points out that innovation is part of the Hebrew culture and this is combined with methodological science studies in the FSU: "This, and the spirit of Israel, is what constitutes the Start-Up Nation."
Eli Etin participated also at a round table panel, and in another two lectures on hi-tech at the convention. Etin points out that Amdocs, which employees 21000 people, and makes billions a year, is lacking the drive for innovation. "The company has many start-up teams, and employees are allowed to organize and lead new developments." He tells about an example of Bills Video, which enabled a video billing of a purchasing process. "Our company does this for thousands of clients in order to enhance user experience."
With much motivation, he tells about what he calls "Ideation", or idea generation, the ability of "creative clarification each person is born with, and which is probably depressed due to negative influence of formal schooling."
Dr. Evgeny Korchnoy says that in order to survive transformation, which each Russian Jewish immigrant must undergo, he must be creative. "I came to Israel with a B.Sc degree, but the Israeli company did not need knowledge in the same heavy industry I was accustomed to in Lvov, the city where I came from in 1999. Therefore I thought of changing my plans. And this change goes through my connection to very creative people and our ability to learn from everyone."
Riaz on the other hand thinks that hard work is the key to any true creativity: "It is especially important to show creativity in your leadership. In my company there are a few beautiful developments, but not all are economical, or worth investing in, and I have to make the call," he says.
Eli Etin says in response to some of the participants' points raised, regarding the need to connect with especially smart people: "In most cases, connecting to people, not necessarily brilliant, will pave the way to development. People who are not smart can recognize right away whether we have found something that is really necessary." He feels that anti-Semitism in the FSU was highly influenced by innovation and development of Russian-speaking Jews. "They were marginalized, and they were forced to be creative," says Etin. "The Israeli and American freedom in comparison to the "mental jail" in the FSU, makes all the difference, especially since it has to do with the will to succeed and the education they received in the FSU."
Gregory Magarshak, QBIX
Limmud hallways are the place to find the new generation of North America's hi-tech. Among them is Greg Magarshak, who arrived in America at the age of one. His father was a former "Refusnik", and he and his mother left to the States. This was 1984, and his mother settled in the Russian-Jewish area of Brighton Beach. When he saw his father for the first time upon his release in 1990, a year before the downfall of the Communist regime and the lifting of the Iron curtain, he was already seven years old. "My father told me I have to finish my PhD in Mathematics, and then I should do everything and anything else. I told him I want to start my own business. Computer science was one of my top choices."
"It's not just deep knowledge in science and nature that help Russian Jews, it's the mentality which drives their success," said Magarshak. Also, he says, it is extremely important to note that Jews who speak Russian, and not only Jews, succeed because of their ambition to advance in societies' hierarchical rungs.
"Our company has developed products, mainly applications, and the company continues to strive for success," says Magarshak.
When I ask Greg what drives him, he answers: "The thing that always gets Russian-speaking Jews to succeed: The challenge and the will to develop and know, but mostly to increase profit and match the efforts and success."