It’s been a few weeks since we finished our week-long Discover Israel Startup Nation trek. The trip was at the same time exhilarating, exhausting, and inspiring.

The trek was led by Professor Ziv Carmon (faculty).  However, Keren Bagon (13D), Itay Tokatly (13D partner), and Carla Hailpern (13D) were also instrumental in helping the other 30 of us navigate our way through all of the cultural, political, economic, geographical, and accommodation-al challenges Israel threw at us.

Before I dive into my story, perhaps I should take a step back and explain what a “trek” at INSEAD is.  For each promotion, there are a number of professors that volunteer to lead official career treks to other countries and regions. These treks typically count for half a credit towards graduation.

The primary objective of these treks is to expose INSEAD students interested in certain regions or industries to companies and professionals in those areas.  The secondary objective is for groups of INSEAD-ers to travel and explore another part of the world together during a break.

Without this trek, I can’t say I ever would have visited Israel on my own.  Since returning, I’ve been trying to come up with a word to summarize the country, and the best I can come up with is contradictory.  It is at the same time beautiful but dangerous, accepting but discriminating, dirt cheap but crazy expensive, religious but secular, forward looking but linked to the past….you get the idea.

The companies we saw were fascinating, and its founders were all creating cutting edge technology – even more so than the startups I know from my time in San Francisco.  The common themes we heard at all were military service (especially in 8200), top notch engineering education, and “chutzpah” – aka guts, sheer nerve, “cajones”, if you will.

I met people that were creating lasers to evaporate cancer without making a single cut in the body, others that were developing sensors small enough to fit into a cellphone used to control a TV through body movements, a company that made technology to give cars “eyesight” which were also being used to help visually impaired people, and yet another company that created a low cost system for drip irrigation to help families in arid regions pull themselves out of poverty.

On the same trip, I floated in the Dead Sea and had a mud fight on its banks, visited the place where Jesus is purportedly buried and left a prayer at the Wailing Wall, fell out of a bunk bed in a hostel and met the Consul of Honor for the Republic of Slovenia, visited Yad Vashem (Holocaust museum) and had coffee at the house of an ethnically Lebanese, Christian, and Israeli woman who possibly made the biggest impact on me of anyone else I met on the trek.

After spending a week seeing Israel, I’ve come to realise that on a macro level, the situation in that region is more complicated and multifaceted than I could have ever imagined.  It’s unfortunate to think that my INSEAD friends from other countries in the region will likely never have the opportunity to visit.  Likewise, my Israeli friends will probably never set foot in those countries either.  I hope that one day, the situation stabilises such that, that’s no longer the case.