Written by: Avichai Cohen
Ben Weiss, the New Zealand-born grandson of Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Israel following the horrors of the Second World War, is helping build Israel’s venture-capital and technology bridges to Asia.
The story of how Weiss reached this position – both geographically and professionally – reflects a combination of an intensely personal connection to the Holocaust, skills developed during his career representing financial institutions and an innate desire to give back to the Jewish people.
“I spent a decade in finance in hedge funds and private equity in the East,” Weiss explains. “I started off working in Australia, then transitioned to Hong Kong, where I started work for a French bank, Axa.” Weiss established an impressive track record, representing leading global financial institutions, but it was his grandparents’ story that called him to Israel.
“I had no intention of coming to Israel,” Weiss explains, “but after seeing out the subprime crisis, which was a pretty horrible year for everyone, I decided to take some time off in early 2010. It just happened to coincide with the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp, and I was invited to attend the ceremony.”
The trip was both personal – his two grandfathers were both interned at Buchenwald and were later set free – as well as deeply motivating. “Once the ceremonies were complete, it started pouring rain, and I found myself stuck in a bookshop, waiting for the weather to clear,” Weiss says. “I was looking at all the Holocaust books on the shelves, and it was at that moment that I set a challenge to make the inspiring stories of my grandmother and grandfather available in German, as the study of the Holocaust is mandatory for schoolchildren in Germany.”
Weiss needed to find a creative way to finance and promote his grandmother Lotte Weiss’s story, “Meine Zwei Leben” (“My Two Lives”), ultimately working through the LIT Verlag publishing house.
“Along the way, I contacted the President of Austria, Heinz Fischer, who kindly launched the book and prepared its main foreword,” Weiss recalls. “I also reached out to the late professor Elie Wiesel, actress Nicole Kidmann, director Steven Spielberg and the Prime Minister of New Zealand, John Key, for comments in the book jacket.” Additional forewords were contributed by Michael Häupl, mayor of Vienna, and the Austrian Education Minister, Dr. Claudia Schmidt.
“In some ways, the book publication was like its own mini-startup and it proved a good entrance to the Israeli market.” Weiss explains. It would also bring him to Israel, where he would make his home and play an integral part in forming connections between the Jewish State and the Far East.
“It was this idea, coupled with the strong emotions I felt after viewing the documentary ‘Eagles over Auschwitz,’ that made me realize that I should give back to Israel because it is defending the interests of all world Jewry,” he said. “So I came to Israel and fell in love with the idea of connecting Asia with Israel.”
In 2011, when Weiss reached Israel, bilateral Israel-China trade was still emerging and there was almost no direct investment in high-tech. “You would very rarely see a Chinese business tourist here,” Weiss says. Weiss established his own Tel Aviv venture-capital business and today plays a part in some of the most innovative, and lucrative, investments in Israeli high technology from the Far East. He manages funds with more than 400 participating Chinese investors, helping create business opportunities between Israeli and Chinese companies.
Israel is held in high esteem in much of Asia, and the potential for rapid trade development between Israel and the Far East in coming years is strong, driven particularly by the prospect of a free-trade agreement with China. This potential has already born fruit, as economic relations between the two nations have grown sharply.
“What Israel has to offer fits Eastern nations like a glove,” Weiss explains. “You have manufacturing facilities in eastern Asia crying out for automation, as you have a supply problem of new workers due to a systemically low birthrate. In some countries, the birth rate is lower than 1, and you need 2.2 to support a population.
“As a result, factories are finding it hard to get workers. They need innovation, robotics and sensors to make their factories more efficient to offset the future shortage of workers. Also, many factories are producing raw products. The hope is that through innovation, they can begin to produce value-enhanced products. Israel’s technologies solve exactly these and many other problems.”
Interestingly, Israel’s positive image of innovation in the Far East creates its own challenge. “The PR for Israel is so good that Asia has a high expectation of success from Israeli firms. That, of course, puts an immense amount of pressure on people like me to meet the investors’ high expectations,” Weiss notes.
AlmaLinks, the global non-profit that connects business leaders in Israel with their peers worldwide, gave Weiss access to key contacts and helped establish him as a key player in Israeli venture capital. “Back in 2011 when I came to Israel, high tech was important, but not like it is today,” he explains. “There were fewer events and meetups and it was difficult to find networking opportunities. I also didn’t know anyone in Israel.
Given how Israel’s abilities complement the needs of China and other Asian nations, and in light of the warm relations between those countries and the Jewish State, Weiss says, “the closing of an Israel-China free-trade agreement – which is currently in negotiation after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led a delegation to the country – would catalyze economic growth for both sides.”