“Walking through the halls of a high-tech company,
one hears as much Russian as English.
I see the influence of Russian-speaking Jews in every field.”
Eli Etin, an innovator at Amdocs
by Nathan Roi
Many Russian speaking Jews are living the dream. After immigrating to North America or Israel, they have climbed the ladder of success, particularly in the high-tech industry. Their stories are also the stories of Google, Paypal and Whatsapp. Because of this remarkable success, Limmud FSU devoted its most recent conference to the subject of innovation and the Russian speaking Jew.
Jan Koum is a Russian-speaking Jew. Ukrainian-born and raised in the States since 1992, he describes himself as having been a “rebellious” kid from early on. Not so long ago, Koum’s family had to reinvent themselves as immigrants in a new land. Today, he is worth millions.
At the age of 38, Koum 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 liked its easy way to text message internationally via various cellular products. The company now boasts 64 billion messages sent daily.
Koum’s story is similar to that of another Ukrainian-born Jew, the founder of Paypal, Max Levchin, who is now worth millions, as well as one of Google’s Co-founders, Sergey Brin.
“Growing up in the Ukraine, education played a huge role in our lives,” said Koum. It was that deep value for education, coupled with a will to succeed, that has guided Koum throughout his life – just like his peers.
Limmud FSU followed the immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union (FSU) to North America and beyond, and tracked their successes.
“Our project deals with the empowerment of Russian speaking Jewry and their contribution to society at large,” said Chaim Chesler, Limmud FSU’s Co-founder. “It’s not a secret that so many of the top entrepreneurs and developers in the high-tech world are Russian speaking Jews and Israelis. So many of them have also given back to the community.”
The Highway to High-Tech
Seated around a table at the Sheraton hotel in New Jersey, three Russian-speaking hi-tech innovators spoke at-length to the Managing Editor of The Jerusalem Post, David Brinn, who opened with the following question: “Is the Jewish code to success written in Russian?”
Eli Etin, an Amdocs man, Dr. Evgeny Korchnoy, a technology man (from the Israel Institute of Technology) and Levy Raiz, a young innovator, discussed the question for an entire hour in front of a packed auditorium.
“Russian-speaking Jews anywhere in the world want very much to succeed, and we see this at all the events we organize in seven countries,” said Chesler. “They come to Limmud FSU for networking and friendships, but also to learn the system, and it is our job to help them succeed in this endeavor.”
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 company’s hallway, you hear Russian as often as you do English,” he said. “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 [in high-tech] since immigrating to the country in the 1990’s.”
Dr. Evgeny Korchnoy, Manager of the educational Leumi Robotics Center, said that the success of Russian speaking Jews is rooted in FSU’s tradition of education and ambition, which has translated into a drive to leave one’s mark in the world and influence others.
Levy Raiz, the youngest of the three, pointed out that innovation is part of Israeli culture and that this is combined with a background in advanced science from the FSU. “It is this and the spirit of Israel that constitute the ‘Start-Up Nation,’” he said.
Eli Etin, who also delivered two lectures on the topic of hi-tech at the conference, pointed out that Amdocs, which employees 21,000 people and makes billions every year, encourages innovation. “The company has many start-up teams and employees are allowed to organize and lead new developments,” he said. He gave as an example the Bills Video, which provides video billing of a purchasing process. “Our company does this for thousands of clients in order to enhance the user experience,” he said.
Inspired, Etin talked further about what he calls, “ideation” or idea generation, the “creative clarification each person is born with, and which is often repressed due to the negative influence of formal schooling.”
Korchnoy said that in order to survive the transformation of becoming a new citizen in a new country, which each Russian Jewish immigrant must undergo, he must be creative. “I came to Israel with a B.Sc. degree, but the Israeli company I worked for did not need the same knowledge in the same heavy industry I was accustomed to in Lvov, the city where I came from in 1999. Therefore, I had to adjust and change. And this is similar to other people’s stories. We had to be very creative and to learn from those around us,” he said.
Raiz added to this notion. “It is especially important to show creativity in your leadership,” he said. “In my company, there have been some amazing developments, but not all are worth investing in, and I have to make the call.”
Responding to some of the participants’ points regarding the need to connect with especially smart people, Etin said, “In most cases, connecting to people in general, not necessarily the most brilliant people, will pave the way to development. Even people who are not smart can recognize right away whether we have found something that is really necessary.” He felt that much of the anti-Semitism in the FSU came from the innovation and development of Russian-speaking Jews. “They were marginalized and they were forced to be creative,” he said. “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
The Limmud hallways are the place to find the next generation of North America’s hi-tech success stories. 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 for the States in 1984. They 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 7 years old. “My father told me I have to finish my Ph.D. in mathematics, and then I could do everything and anything. I told him I wanted to start my own business. Computer science was one of my top choices.”
“It’s not just a deep knowledge of science that has helped Russian Jews, it’s the mentality that drives our success,” said Magarshak. Also, he added, it is extremely important to note that those who speak Russian, not only the Jews, succeed because of their ambition to advance in their new country.
“The thing that always gets Russian-speaking Jews to succeed is the challenge and the will to develop new things and the quest to know, but mostly it’s to increase profit, match the company’s efforts and succeed,” he said.