Ari Zoldan, a Yeshiva University graduate who lives in Rockland County’s Wesley Hills, sat down with the Dubai royal family a couple of weeks ago to talk about innovation.
As he does whenever he is invited to speak in Muslim countries, he told them exactly who they were dealing with.
“I don’t wear a yarmulke but the first thing that always comes out of my mouth is that I’m an Orthodox Jew,” he said. “When I said that to 10 members of the royal family in Dubai, there was total silence.
“Then the guy next to me kicks me in a cute way and says to everyone, ‘Hey, we’re like brothers,’ and I said, ‘Kind of like cousins, but it’s okay,’ and everyone laughed. That broke the ice. For three hours we were laughing and talking, and had a fascinating discussion comparing Islam to Judaism.”
Who is Ari Zoldan, and why do Muslim countries invite him to talk to them?
He is the CEO of Quantum Media Group, a Manhattan-based global marketing and media company. He appears regularly on FOX News, CNN, and CNBC to comment on technology, business, and innovation, and he writes about those topics as a contributor to the HuffingtonPost.com, TheStreet.com, IBM.com, and Inc.com. As a speaker for Israel Bonds across the United States, his specialty is sparking a passion for Israeli innovation.
When he’s invited to Arab countries as a keynote speaker, or when clients in the Arab world engage Quantum Media as their marketing firm, Mr. Zoldan injects some of that spark into his discussions about how Israel came to be an innovation powerhouse.
“My business has many Israeli clients, and they know this,” he said. “They’re looking to pick my brain. When an American Jew with Israeli clients is invited to keynote in Arab countries, it makes for an interesting conversation.”
On January 31 he will explore the other side of the coin in his talk at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. (See box.) Mr. Zoldan’s topic, “Can Israel Sustain Itself as The Start-Up Nation?” is part of the federation’s FEDTalk series focused on Israel.
“When I’m overseas talking to Arab countries it’s more from an educational standpoint about why Israel is the ‘start-up nation,’ and when I talk to Jewish or Israeli communities the angle of my talk is the innovation threat and the need for Israel to keep pushing itself,” he said.
Mr. Zoldan’s travels to emerging countries in Africa, India, Asia, Central America, and the Middle East have convinced him that Israel cannot afford to rest on its well-earned innovation laurels.
“I see that there are countries out there innovating at a very quick pace because they are looking at Israel and saying, “Hey, Israel is in the middle of the desert without natural resources to speak of, and they’re forced to innovate. Why can’t we do the same?’
“There is definitely an innovation threat that’s happening, and Israel will need to double down pretty aggressively to be able to stay ahead.”
Mr. Zoldan elaborates that bringing new technology to market is a race that Israelis dare not assume they will always win.
“If Dubai or Abu Dhabi comes out with a nifty piece of technology or medical innovation and can grab market share first, that’s a direct threat to the state of Israel,” he said.
And whereas a few years ago these countries didn’t have the infrastructure to bring inventions to market, “today they do, very much so. I’ve been inside their R&D labs and I see they are doing it.”
However, Mr. Zoldan stresses that Israel has a unique secret sauce that gave rise to its innovation culture and continues to keep it nourished. “Taking the religious view that we are the chosen people out of it, and looking concretely at why this small country in the middle of nowhere is innovating at such a fast pace, we see three main factors. The first is the army, where young Israelis are taught perseverance, leadership, tactical skills — all the things for leaders to become great at what they do.”
The second factor, according to Mr. Zoldan, is that the Israeli government understands the need to invest in the country’s innovation ecosystem through loans, grants, and financial incentives. And the third factor is the traditional Jewish emphasis on education, with an analytical approach to problem-solving.
“There is a sprinkle of other ingredients in the mix but those are three things that make Israel’s secret sauce special,” he said.
Another focus of his talk will be Israel’s symbiotic business relationship with America. Each country has a strength that can shore up the other’s weakness, as he sees it.
“No one can wrap a present better than Americans,” he said. “Our packaging, our branding, our marketing is the best. We spend $10 on a cup of coffee because we’re brand junkies. But inside that beautiful fluffy box, there’s not much there. Our stuff is outsourced to China.
“Israel is the opposite. They’ve got a PR problem and a communication problem that affects how the outside of the box looks. But inside is something no one in America can touch: a golden nugget of intelligence and technology. It’s just the outside that needs a lot of polishing.”
This is what he has strived to do in his work with Israeli technology and biotechnology companies over the last 18 years. “As a marketing firm, we build a bridge to the U.S. and get Israeli companies packaged beautifully to be able to sell them here.”
Mr. Zoldan said his talk will include some practical suggestions about “what Americans can do to support and promote Israeli innovation even if they can’t invest, even if they’re high school or college students. I’ll talk about different calls to action.
“With social media today, everyone has their own soapbox, so it’s really easy for someone who has no money to be able to play a part in it.”
Who: Ari Zoldan
What: A FEDTalk, “Can Israel Sustain Itself as The Start-Up Nation?”
When: Thursday, January 31, 7:30 to 9 p.m.
Where: Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, 50 Eisenhower Drive, Paramus
How much: Online registration: $10 at www.jfnnj.org/calendar/fedtalks2/ (Walk-ins will be accepted but pre-registration is strongly encouraged)
Also: Sushi tasting and light refreshments.
For more information: (201) 820-3900 or JFNNJ.org