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Israel’s energy inspires young Canadian entrepreneurs

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Students from HEC Montréal and their hosts pose in the desert during a trip to Israel last year NICHOLAS BELLIVEAU PHOTO
Students from HEC Montréal and their hosts pose in the desert during a trip to Israel last year NICHOLAS BELLIVEAU PHOTO

MONTREAL – The professor wrote a single word on the blackboard – chutzpah. That’s the key concept they need to grasp, he told the roomful of business students curious about Israel and its people’s character.

Luis-Felipe Cisneros is director of the Institut d’entrepreneuriat Banque Natio-nale at HEC Montréal. In June, he will lead a two-week program in Israel for undergraduate and graduate students from the prestigious business school affiliated with the Université de Montréal (UdeM).

He also headed the trips last year and in 2014, when HEC added Israel to the list of countries students may visit to study how business is conducted elsewhere, under a program called Campus International.

In the first two years, a total of 38 students participated in the program, and another 20 or so are expected to sign up for the third edition, June 13 to 27, pre-ceded by five days’ preparation.

READ: ABORIGINAL TRIP TO FOCUS ON ISRAELI INNOVATION

Participants earn three credits, but they must pay to go – more than $4,000. Demand for the limited places is strong.

Marie-Claude Lacerte, who is in charge of projects for the Institut and also accompanies the Israel trips, explained that the program grew out of HEC’s long partnership with Dafna Kariv, a professor of entrepreneurship at Israel’s College of Management Academic Studies (COMAS) and a member of the World Entrepreneurship Forum.

For the past decade, Kariv has been a member of HEC’s Chair of Entrepreneurship, collaborating with professors on research and other projects.

Through her, HEC was able to identify Israeli companies and other partners to put a program together.

“We chose Israel because we were in-spired by the Israeli [business] ecosystem and by the great energy and drive of its entrepreneurs,” Lacerte said. “We also thought that the great Israeli leaders were more accessible than in other places, for example, Silicon Valley.”

That has proven to be the case. Israelis are eager to show the world the dynamism of their business model.

“Meeting the founders of startups and big companies is a great learning experience for our students,” Lacerte said. “Israelis are very entrepreneurial, and they are more comfortable with taking risks and trying things than we are.”

The itinerary has three main components: the students spend time at COMAS in Tel Aviv developing an entrepreneurial project, visit companies and otherwise discover how chutzpah is the engine of the country’s economy; and then they sightsee and get a taste of Israeli culture. Among the stops are Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, and south to Mitzpe Ramon and Kibbutz Sde Boker.

Each year, the schedule is tweaked a bit to discover new places. Last year, for instance, they added the Rosh Hanikra grotto.

The students often come home in-spired by what they experienced, she said, and are putting what they learned to use in HEC’s entrepreneurial projects, or even their own startups.

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Nicholas Belliveau is one of them. He took part in the first Israel program as a bachelor’s student majoring in entrepreneurship. While there, he and fellow HEC student Oliver Milkowski, an MBA student, hit upon the idea of starting an enterprise addressing an issue they discovered they had in common.

“We both have wide feet and find it difficult to get properly fitting shoes when buying online,” Belliveau explained.

After much brainstorming, the solution they hit on was to take a 3D scan of the foot. Soon after their return, they founded www.bootiq.ca, and began the search for the right scanner.

Belliveau, who graduated last year, thinks there was something about the atmosphere in Israel that fed their imagination and confidence.

Their early-stage business finished first in an HEC entrepreneurial project. Bootiq has since received recognition outside the university, including from Montreal Inc. of Tomorrow, a competition encouraging entrepreneurship run by the Fondation Montréal.

They earned thousands in prizes and bursaries.

Belliveau, who graduated last year, said the flourishing of startups in Israel, its free-wheeling venture capitalism, the close co-operation of universities, and Israelis’ readiness to take on risk seemed to have given them the impetus to act. “It was such a contrast to Montreal,” he said.

His hunch that Israel would teach him more about creating a business than the other trip abroad available to him that year – to France – proved correct, he says.

Belliveau has maintained some contact with Israelis he met, but no business ties as such. He hopes that will change. Bootiq, which may develop into a full retail operation, is committed to dealing only in footwear that is made of animal-free, sustainable materials.

“With Israel being one of the most vegan countries in the world, it would be nice to bring the concept back there,” he said.

That such a positive partnership has developed between Israel and the UdeM, Quebec’s largest university, is hailed by Israeli deputy consul general Avi Lev Louis.

The consulate briefs the students before they leave for Israel. In Israel, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sees that the delegation receives “VIP attention,” facilitating their passage through border control, he said.

“And thirdly, but not lastly, [our role] is to encourage the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to see this as a good opportunity to brand Israel as a high-tech and innovative nation, especially to non-Jewish students from Quebec,” Lev Louis said.

READ: ISRAELI STARTUP, TAPINGO, THE MOST POPULAR APP ON CAMPUS

In addition, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs offers its expertise to Cam-pus Israel.

Campus Israel is also expanding at the faculty level, Lacerte said.

“We are maintaining our partnership with COMAS and are currently trying to increase the projects we do with Israel,” she said.

“We are planning to send an HEC delegation of professors and directors to Israel… The purpose is to build new relationships in order to create activities and projects for students.”

Their participation is financially supported by Israel & Co., a program that brings groups of young or influential non-Jews to the country to experience “the real Israel,” founded by entrepreneur Rafi Musher in 2012.