Lucy in Israel, with Aussie diamonds

Beverley Head

Australia may never face the existential challenges of Israel, demand national service of its youth, or have a Chief Scientist with $500 million a year to blow on startups – but it can still borrow from the Israeli innovation playbook, and encourage greater workforce diversity.

So says the Australia Israel Chamber of Commerce which last week ran its inaugural all-woman trade mission to Israel led by prominent businesswomen Lucy Turnbull and Jillian Segal.

As the first all-women mission organised by the AICC the trip did raise some eyebrows for its single gender focus. But attendees doubted that the sort of free discussion and frank exchange that occurred during the tour would have taken place had it been mixed.

According to Ms Segal, chair of the AICC; “We all think it would be great if all these groups were 50:50, most trade missions are rarely 50:50, they tend to be dominated by men.” She said this Mission was particularly collegial and that “the all-women group enabled all the women to shine, to support each other and to ask their questions.”

Asked if there was a political bias given the Mission was co-led by the Prime Minister’s wife during an election campaign, all the women spoke to grew almost huffy with this reporter, pointing out that Ms Turnbull was a successful businesswoman in her own right and that the politics card was never on display.

Ms Segal said Ms Turnbull had in any case accepted the invitation to co-lead the Mission before Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister.

Last week’s Women Leaders’ Trade Mission line up was impressive and varied, featuring Tiziana Bianco, Commonwealth Bank’s head of innovation, Westpac’s customer and digital head Karen Ganschow, and academics including Professor Judy Raper from Wollongong University, UQ’s Dr Jane Wilson and University of Sydney chancellor Belinda Hutchinson.

It also featured women entrepreneurs, VCs, lawyers and corporate leaders from many sectors of the economy.

The only men in the 39-strong entourage were Charles Nightingale, CEO of the AICC, and Paul Israel, the organisation’s Israel based executive director.

Maria MacNamara, currently business development and marketing manager for Swaab Attorneys, said she had been keen to learn; “How a country with so little could achieve so much compared to a country with so much which has seemingly achieved so little in this area.”

Fiona Balfour, a former chief information officer of both Qantas and Telstra, and now a board member of corporations including Metcash and Salmat, said that Israel had a series of unique facets that had contributed to its innovation performance.

However she noted; “You cannot understand modern Israel without understanding the history and the Jewish people and their entirely different perception of risk.

“If the business fails they shake their shoulders, shake off the dust and start again. There is a different risk appetite born of a nation under constant existential threat.”

According to Ms Segal the Mission delivered greater understanding of the drivers of innovation. And while she acknowledged that; “Some we can’t bring back, they are unique to Israel,” there was the opportunity to start a dialogue and a programme of innovation focused activity among the delegates that would continue on their return to Australia.

As Ms Segal noted however – not all of what they learned could be easily imported to Australia.

Women on the Mission interviewed by uniformly noted the impact of the $500 million given each year to the nation’s Chief Scientist to invest in high risk start ups that had potential national benefit. As Swaab Attorney partner Michelle Harpur noted; “I don’t think Malcolm (Turnbull) would be elected if that was one of his policies.”

And while national service has delivered both education, training and a fully formed collaborative network to Israel – such a policy would be unpalatable even for our freshly minted innovation nation.

Instead of attempting to import Israel’s approach holus bolus Ms Harpur said Australia would do well to cherry pick – firstly building an environment that tolerated failure better and that effectively supported collaboration.

Mon Wulff, CEO of Startup Muster, said; “The one thing that everyone talks about is the army. How it seeds the market and you build ties.”

But she said Australia’s lack of an equivalent was no excuse for slower innovation and instead the challenge was to “find substitutes for the army in Australia that will deliver actionable outcomes.”

Ms Wulff said that the serendipitous connections forged during military service, along with tight deadlines and common goals, could be mimicked by focused hackathons. She said that although some of the Mission attendees were aware of hackathons and their role in innovation, others were not.

Acknowledging that she was something of an outlier in the group both in terms of her age and innovation experience, Ms Wulff said that the other women on the trip had been very open-minded and receptive to her different lens with regard to innovation.

One area she noted in particular was with regard to collaboration, and the need to look all around for collaboration partners rather than simply to look up through a corporate hierarchy. Millenials she said were particularly attuned to opportunities to influence and collaborate.

In Israel; “Everyone in the community adds value and is valuable. Until we understand that in Australia innovation will be stunted.”

Ms MacNamara also noted the impact of community on Israel – be that the broad diaspora which could be tapped or the willingness of older entrepreneurs to assume other roles in later life such as chief scientist or mayor of Jerusalem in order to “give back” to the nation.

Ms Balfour said that on reflection the trip had been “one of the best professional development experiences in my whole career.”

She said that without the trip it would have been almost impossible to bring together such a diverse range of women or have the opportunity for cross fertilization of ideas that would be valuable long after the trip ended.

Ms Harpur agreed, noting the generosity of women leaders on the trip willing to share their experience and insight with each other, which she doubted would have been replicated in a gender-diverse Mission.

Ms Wulff said that nevertheless Australia could learn more from Israel in terms of encouraging diversity. With a population of only eight million both genders are encouraged to participate equally in Israel’s innovation economy, with particular emphasis on encouraging participation by Orthodox women, who are often the breadwinners so their husbands can focus on religious studies, and by Arab women living in Israel.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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