Dr. Maria Blekher has always had one leg in academia and the other in industry. As the director of the Master’s program in Digital Media and Marketing at Yeshiva University’s Katz School of Science and Health, the academic side is obvious.
The marketing professor, who grew up in Beersheba, is quick to note that much of her academic success also stems from a PhD at Beersheba’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the completion of a postdoc at New York University, prior to the move to Yeshiva University (YU).
Academic and industry intertwined when Blekher created a course for Yeshiva University called “Business in The Israeli Environment,” teaching students at YU about Israel’s vast high-tech ecosystem and tying in a US-Israeli market connection based on her own experience. Besides studying pro-social and consumer behavior in both Israel and America, she’s worked at Bank Hapoalim and Numonyx, a semiconductor company founded as a joint venture between Intel Corporation, STMicroelectronics NV, and Francisco Partners to develop flash memory products. The company, which had 1, 200 employees in its Kiryat Gat facility in February 2010 was also acquired that month by US chipmaker Micron. In New York, Blekher created an online platform selling Israeli products to the American market as part of a fellowship through an American-Jewish organization called Cojeco (Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations.)
The US-Israeli market connection is what prompted her to establish the Yeshiva University Innovation Lab, a “launchpad” for Israeli startups looking to enter the US market.
The Innovation Lab, which first launched in May 2019, just kicked off its second cohort this September. It features a group of 11 Israeli startups in a variety of sectors, including medical devices and AI-powered sensor technology. The three-month program, which connects those startups with YU students and ends in December with a final project, also partners with Gvahim, the Israeli NGO that helps new immigrants to Israel with business and career goals, Cactus Capital, the first student-run university venture capital firm in Israel, and Yazamut 360°, the Entrepreneurship Center of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU).
NoCamels sat down with Dr. Blekher recently in Tel Aviv to talk about why Yeshiva University’s Katz School of Science and Health as well as its new Innovation Lab, aims to be an important initiative in the US-Israeli business connection. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity.
NoCamels: How did you come to found the YU Innovation Lab?
Maria Blekher: I joined Yeshiva University before the Innovation Lab when I got the chance to develop a course called “Business In The Israeli Environment,” which is my expertise.
After landing at NYU — it was a postdoc, which means strictly research — I was looking for more things to do. I love being busy and I need several projects, and as much as I love academia, I love to see impact. Academia is very impactful, but sometimes it takes years to get something published. After a year, I got the chance to start teaching at Yeshiva University and although I started as an adjunct, it felt like home because it has an Israeli flag on campus and they play Hatikvah [Israel’s national anthem] at every single official event. The sense of community and belonging — it just felt like home. For me, it feels like Israel.
In 2014, I started to teach my first course as an adjunct, and then after one semester, they offered me the chance to teach more courses, because again, I was teaching back in Israel during my PhD, so I had teaching experience and also principles of marketing [skills]. One thing led to another and a couple of years later, we launched the Master’s in Marketing program and they offered me the opportunity to lead it. I stepped up into the leadership position. I am still doing this position now, though I’m hiring someone soon because my main focus now is the Innovation Lab.
NC: It sounds like you were thriving as a director of YU’s Marketing program. Why the shift towards the Innovation Lab?
MB: I love marketing. I think I bring my marketing expertise into the Innovation Lab. I didn’t ditch [the marketing program,] but I think that putting this expertise to work in the context of early-stage Israeli startups or startups in general, has more impact on an outcome. The combination of understanding the Israeli business environment and the Israeli tech scene and my marketing background is kind of a unique edge that brings value to startups who want to enter the US market.
There are plenty of marketing experts in New York. But there are fewer people who can use their marketing skills to bring startups to NY. I love being in places where I bring the highest value. I want to be there where I can help others. If my impact can be broader, working with students and startups because of my diverse background, that’s where I want to be.
NC: What are you looking to achieve as the director?
MB: It’s an interesting story. A couple of years ago, and it was before my time, the state of New York provided the university a grant to renovate a space on campus to attract Israeli startups. This was around 2017, before I was involved in the lab.
I think that [former NY] Governor Cuomo visited Israel, was impressed with the Startup Nation and at Yeshiva University, we have this institutional connection, so the background story was, “You’re Yeshiva University, bring some Israeli startups.” For the university, it was a great opportunity to bring some startups and let them work with students.
When I heard about [the grant] and I was told I should help to find Israeli startups because of my background, my first question was, “Hold on, does the school have an innovation lab?” I was told no, but somehow we got this grant and we needed to renovate this space. So I said, “Ok, this is the kind of project I want to be involved in because this is my expertise.”
I was on top of the project from day one. I literally chose the color of the paint on the walls. I [ told the school] we should build up a program that will connect our students with Israeli startups and provide added value. In order to do this, we need to see the challenges that Israeli startups are dealing with and figure out what kind of things we want our students to get from the program. I said, “If we’re building something, let’s build an institution that will connect our students with the startups and provide added value.” And that’s how we started.
Then I was appointed founding director but when we started working on the project, it was just an idea. When we had the official launch in May, it was very exciting because you see something on paper, you see an idea and then you see it come to life. Now we have 11 startups, over 90 students working with us, and that’s amazing.
NC: As someone who knows the Israeli business world, what are some of the challenges Israeli startups face?
MB: I think that’s the main question. The way I see it and based on my knowledge and based on multiple conversations — I spoke to Israeli startups and other colleagues and accelerators, really trying to nail the main challenges — the challenges that I identified and the ones that we really want to tackle are these three: knowledge, culture, and connections.
Culture – Culture is huge because as an Israeli, when you grow up in Israel, sometimes you feel like the 51st [US] state, you watch Netflix, and you even shop on Amazon and you grew up watching Sex and the City and you grew up in New York — if you speak to an Israeli startup, they’ll say, “Ok, I get American culture.” That’s not true! The first thing I thought of, “You think you know? You don’t!” There are so many differences and you need to know these cultural differences and you can talk to any Israeli and they’ll tell you 10,000 situations of misunderstandings. But when you are in the business of business and the business of startups, these are your investors and these are your customers, so you really need to be careful and you really need to be aware of these differences.
Connections – In Israel, everybody knows everybody. If you need to recruit a marketing person, you’ll find it in your network, if you need to recruit a developer, you’ll find it. In the US, with all due respect, you are just another person, especially in New York where the most talented people from around the world are gathering, and you don’t have the network.