Japan – A Reflection

It’s been several weeks since I got back from Japan, and I cannot believe how fast the time has flown.  Life is hectic as we start to wrap up the semester and head towards our summer internships and full time jobs.  But many, like me, will kick off Summer with some more traveling.  But before I do, it wouldn’t be right to not first reflect on Japan.

I had an amazing experience on my Chazen Japan trip.

I talked earlier about how Kyoto was breathtaking…The gardens and temples were serene.  Walking through the Geisha district felt like you were stepping back in time, or walking onto a movie set.  It was so picturesque I would gladly visit again.

You could tell by my gushing that I have a love affair with Toyota.  I can’t help it.  Not only was my first car I purchased a Toyota (her name was Betty, and she was sooo bad a#$!), but the operations blow my mind.  The floor of the machine shop was flawless.  Production ran smoothly and seemlessly.  A lesson in how Kaizen and a focus on continuous improvement can yield amazing results.  Now if only I’d adopt Kaizen in my own life and get my butt to the gym!!!

After Kyoto and Toyota city we visited Tokyo for a few days.  First stop was Uniqlo where we learned how they use volume to produce your closet basics cheaply, but with high quality.  It was such a different business model than what you think about when fashion first comes to mind, but clearly it is working for them.  It goes to show that there are many different ways to service a market, and it pays to think differently.

A visit to CITI left me with a life lesson I hope I never forget.  In managing your career, think of it like a sport.  In order for you to win, you need to solicit the top players for your team regardless of background, race, and gender.  Surround yourself with top players and career opportunities will come.  I have seen this in my own experience, but to hear about how CITI uses this philosophy in such a large bank and corporate setting was inspiring to me.

DeNA was another company visit, and they blew me away.  If you are a gamer, and like to play games on your phone, check them out now!  They offer freemium games that you can download and play for free, but you can pay to accessorize your game if you want to.  They have a gaming community to let you connect with other people gamers, and challenge each other to…say an epic ninja battle…?  It was really interesting to hear how DeNA adapts their games for style preferences in different markets (did you know that a Japanese ninja eats rice in seaweed, but an American ninja eats sushi?).

With each company visit I learned something new about operations or globalization.  Lessons from those who have learned/are learning first hand what it is like to work for an expanding company across multiple boarders.

Outside of company visits, I could not speak more highly of my “free time” in Japan.  Everywhere I went everyone was exceptionally nice, and went out of their way to accommodate me and my fellow classmates.  It was interesting to see how many people did not speak English, but where very willing to communicate by other means.

Walking around the city of Tokyo I was in awe of the beautiful gardens.  They are everywhere, and the Japanese do a great job of pulling in nature into even the most urban of areas.  I think NYC could learn a thing or two!  To top it off, Japan is exceptionally clean. I saw once piece of litter on the street the entire time I was there!  And it stood out because I thought it wasn’t normal.  This is true even on the subway.  In addition to a spotless train station, you walk on a train and it is silent.  It is silent most places.  Noise is an invasion of people’s space, and I have to say, there is something to be said for a little bit of quiet time every now and again.

In culmination, Japan is amazingly peaceful.  The people are exceptionally helpful and nice. Both the old parts of the city, and the new, are just breathtaking…It was the first trip I had in a long time where I just didn’t want to go home.  I would jump at the chance to go back if offered.  Japan was life changing…

Cuba in Pictures

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First introductory meeting upon arrival.

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Daiquiri-making

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The Vinales Valley (in the Pinar Del Rio region – the Western most part of Cuba) where tobacco is grown

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Live music was a standard for all meals

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Tobacco leaves

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First official meeting with government officials and academic leaders

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Plaza de la Revolucion – Che was everywhere

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Unused.

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Rum bottling.

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A picture that could be from the 70s.

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El Malecon

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The gym at the aforementioned privately-owned spa.

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Another reality from another time.

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Cubans LOVE dancing and music.

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Trip to the Buena Vista Social Club

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Leaving you with words from Fidel.

Cuba: Ongoing Thoughts

It’s been more than 3 weeks since we have been back but mentions of Cuba still appear in the media, and I am not merely alluding to Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s recent trip under scrutiny (what can we say, CBS is a trendsetter.) As a class we still exchange interesting articles about Cuba which may be a sign of the impression the country made. Speaking of impressions, below are some takeaways from our trip to Cuba.

  1. The government is everywhere – seen and unseen. I wrote about this in a previous entry but the pervasiveness of the government was palpable in a way that I have never felt in another country – from propaganda to the controlled nature of our trip. It shows that as of now, Cuba is still operating as the strict state-controlled regime it has been.
  2. Current reforms may not be enough. While we have been learning about the various reforms that Raul Castro has undertaken to revive the economy, there may be skepticism as to whether the current reforms are enough. An example is that while Castro has started to allow individuals to open privately-owned businesses, we have learned that the 200 types of businesses on this list omit many of the heavy-hitter businesses (e.g., cigar production.)
  3. Incentives are horribly misaligned. A very real example is that as part of our program we tipped our tour guide (an amount acceptable per US standards) an expected (by the Cubans) amount that far exceeded the income of a doctor or other specialized professions. This is only further worsened by the dual currency system. Another example is how poor the quality of food and service was in general. While we certainly experienced some select restaurants that were good, the majority of our culinary experience was underwhelming despite the fact that Cuban food is inherently very tasty.
  4. Despite Cuba’s commitment to egalitarianism, we saw clear social disparities. Whether it was through remittances from abroad or from internal government positions, those who were able to accumulate wealth and had higher government status were able to access medical facilities and start businesses that may be out of reach for the vast majority of the population. For example, one of the privately-owned businesses we visited was a spa, café, gym all in one. The business was started by a family that was clearly wealthy enough to obtain the equipment necessary by traveling abroad and spending time abroad.

Cuba has a lot of great things going for it – a great landscape for tourism, a highly educated workforce, natural resources (e.g., copper) and moderate climate. However, it needs access to hard currency and credit. The question is whether Cuba will gain access to these before even these strengths begin to deteriorate and weaken the country’s future prospects.

Brazil | Round up

Robert Habib ’13 | Brazil

A few weeks back in NY have provided a good time to reflect on the Global Immersion Program to Brazil. One of the benefits of the GIP is to see businesses operating in ways and in markets different to what students are used to. As such it was no surprise that all of the students on the trip were from outside Latin America.

However, from a personal perspective, it also provides an insight into how life could be in a country different from one’s own. To me this is where Brazil stood out. Of the BRIC countries, Brazil is way ahead on quality of life and happiness indices. For MBA, living in Brazil offers the coveted benefit of riding a growth wave coupled with envious quality of life. Democracy, enduring national security, stable banking and delicious fruit mark out Brazil from the BRICs.

I spoke at length with a carioca about how her perceptions of Rio had changed over the last decade. The change in GDP/capita was unequivocal to her, evidenced by tangible changes in her own daily life.

I’m sure I’m not the only European questioning whether successive generations will inherit the welfare state and quality of life that I enjoyed. In Brazil, there is no need to ask.

Summary: what we learned about China

Beyond the stories already shared, here is what some from the group commented on the major things they learned from the China trip:

– China for China

– Doing things the “Chinese” way

– Impressive road and infrastructure development

– No visible government presence

– Communism in label only (free enterprise vs. free country)

– The Chinese know the West, but not vice verse (to our detriment)

– Cheap capital (now) vs. cheap labor (before) is what is driving the country

– Increasing supply of quality domestic labor

– Guanxi or “relationships” and trust as pivotal to business in China

– China’s exports (trucks, business, domestic brands)

– A country to get old before it gets rich (aging population)

– Inflection point of the quality / price tradeoff

– China can force things through its internal approval systems quick (speed of putting up a building in a weekend for example)

– Foreign business / capital now needs to have a value add beyond just being from the West

– Government is serious about reducing corruption, pollution; increasing industrial and food saftey; economic reform (avoiding a real estate bubble); and being “a stronger nation for global prosperity and peace”…

Marianna Zaslavsky 13′

Startups, Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital in China

In a special post, we discuss the startup and entrepreneurial landscape in China. Columbia Business School has been making a great push towards becoming a premier school for future entrepreneurs and has over the last few years truly become an MBA program focused on and devoted to helping students become business owners and founders. Proof of this was the interest three students (all InSITE Fellows) had on discovering the startup and entrepreneurial ecosystem in China, separate from the scheduled meetings. They met with two startups and discovered the similarities as well as the uniqueness of the startup world in China.

The group met with the COO of FClub, a fashion flash sales site, and with  the CEO of 800TeleServices, a business process and call center outsourcing provider.

FClub.cn:

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FClub’s target customers are women in their late 20s-30s, predominantly urban, and typically public sector employees (nurses, school teachers, etc.). They sell fashion that is ” main stream fashionable” but a bit more “risky”. They mostly sell domestic brands (90% of their sales) but also sell international brands such as Puma. The company, at 500 employees, is on its way to becoming a $1bn company while still considering itself small . The unique thing about China is that “scale” is an entirely different concept from what we are used to. The retail industry is so fragmented (and the ecommerce landscape still so nascent) that there is room for several $1bn companies to emerge and successfully compete against one another (and grow beyond $1bn). FClub caters to a very specific market segment and income segment. Income gaps are very disparate in China meaning that several flash sales sites can emerge and be large and successful just catering towards a carefully selected market (such as “sightly more risky mainstream fashion”).

Ecommerce in generall presents an open playing field in China. The reach of the classic brick & mortar retail store is limited due to the sheer size of China. Only about 13% have penetrated the ecommerce market due to the high costs and barriers in shipping across a huge country like China. There is a large and steep tradeoff  between managing warehouses / inventory and transportation in terms of costs. Ecommerce is also at an inflection point as online payments develop further and domestic brands  are demanded across areas of China with low penetration of brick and mortar retail stores. Further, the development of the consumer economy and the growing middle class present tailwinds for Chinese ecommerce.

800TeleServices:

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Founded in 1997, 800 TeleServices provides a comprehensive range of outsourcing call-center and ecommerce solutions to some of the world’s top fortune 500 and famous enterprises in China (such as UPS, SONY). 800Tele’s customers are very big corporations, and they’re sticky (some have been with the company for over ten years).  The company’s customer portfolio is comprised of companies who aren’t price-sensitive and appreciate the quality and reliability 800Tele offers.

Broader lessons learned from both companies:

As we heard in many of our visits, the issue of high employee attrition rates, especially after the Chinese New Year, is a challenge for both companies.  In both startups, we heard about the different approaches towards labor, key employees, and core management: labor will have high turnover rates and that’s part of the business (at 800Tele the average employee (a call center specialist) age is 24, and the average time with the company is less than 1 year); key employees usually receive ESOP (employee stock option plan) to incentivize them to stay longer but most employees are only incentivized by benefits and intangibles such as a good working environment; the most important thing is to keep the core management team together through the ever-changing dynamics of the competitive market in China.

800Tele specifically is looking to recruit key employees with previous international, or multinational corporation experience.

“It’s a good time to be a startup!”

Apparently there’s over-supply of capital to invest in higher-risk ventures.  Initially we were surprised to learn that, given that VC funding in China was down 40% in 2012[i].  This decline can be explained by several factors, including the global financial crisis, accounting scandals making the IPO market less attractive, and more specifically – as we heard during the PwC visit – the anticipation for the Chinese government change.

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(Source: ZhenFund, http://www.slideshare.net/ZhenFund/chinas-startup-ecosystemand Source: 17Startups, http://technode.com/2013/01/13/chinese-startups-in-2012/)

Nevertheless, as we heard during multiple company visits, there are very few investment vehicles available to Chinese people who have accumulated wealth.  This has led to concerns about a real-estate bubble and similarly an oversupply of risk capital. It’s important to note that debt financing isn’t practical, so our discussion here is focused on equity financing.

Interestingly, we found out in both meetings that the executives didn’t believe that institutional investors have that much value-add; the best resource investors can provide is strategic partnerships – and this is relevant usually at a later stage.  These partnerships can help lower customer acquisition costs, overhead and IT infrastructure, position the startups as legitimate / IPO ready, etc.  This perspective is clearly different than what we’re used to seeing in western VC funds (which sell their ability to mentor and provide management advice), so the question of how successful investing in China will be becomes even more intriguing. Institutional investors can also, in certain cases where it makes sense, provide a different outlook on the world and management styles different from those inherent to China. However, this is again is limited to certain circumstances and certain companies, meaning that most institutional money flowing to China might  be no more than “dumb” capital.

Regarding their exit strategy – IPO vs. M&A – both startups referred either as means to an end; in other words, they don’t have a specific preference and both companies are trying to play  in a way that would prepare them for both alternatives in the dynamic market.  FClub, for example, might theoretically prefer an IPO since they “see no limits to growth” currently. However, their biggest competitor has recently issued stock for $90M so there might be an attractive M&A takeover opportunity.

“China is a free market, it’s just that the government is one of the competitors”

One of the main issues that were brought up in all of our company visits is the rule of law.  Both startups we’ve met with are listed outside China: FClub is a Cayman Islands holdings company, and 800Tele is listed in Hong Kong. US Dollars and RMB management, employee corruption, corporate governance controls, etc. are issues the executives must handle constantly.

800Tele navigates between being an off-shore company and receiving government support quite easily, as it’s not an asset- or manufacturing-intensive company that requires regulations, and at the same time it provides many jobs for local Chinese people.

Incubators

On the other hand, the government is becoming better at dealing with hi-tech companies and encouraging innovation (see graph of incubators above): the knowledge accumulated overtime and overseas, the foreign investments, and pure market need have led to more efficient processes, incubators and accelerators, mentorship programs, etc.  The CEO of 800Tele himself mentors MBA students in Shanghai who aspire to become entrepreneurs. These concepts, however, are quite new to the Chinese entrepreneurial landscape.

Marianna Zaslavsky 13′

Bullish on Greece

After hearing from over a dozen businesses, a few economists, several CU alum, and Greek political leadership, the student group is generally bullish on Greece. Interestingly, most people are willing to invest despite the fact that they are of the opinion that Greece has not yet hit rock bottom.

Post-Trip Survey
Post-Trip Survey

 

So what convinced the buyers?

First, Greece has improved its fiscal situation dramatically, having reduced its budget deficit from 10.5 percent to 1.5 percent of GDP between 2009 and 2012 and projecting a budget surplus of 0.4 percent in 2013. Second, we learned of a number of initiatives that should help boost economic output, including the privatization of Greek airports, the potential redirection of funds from pension programs to social safety net programs that can promote risk taking, and the direct infusion of euro funds into jobs training and education for the country’s desperately underserved youth population. Third, we heard from firms who were committed to a Greek recovery, despite their own diversified and global positions. Folli Follie, for example, has decided to use its global brand to promote the Greek brand. Similarly, Fage used its profitable and global position to reiterate its commitment to its Greek family of employees, stating that as long as they were able to, they would “never fire workers or reduce salaries”.

And the naysayers?

Greece is clearly in a precarious situation where the path to its recovery is entirely dependent on private investment, and at almost every meeting, Charlotte Ng ’14 grilled the leadership on how they could ever attract investors without clarity around the country’s future in the euro zone. In fact, I should clarify that of the 73 percent who said they would invest in Greece, over half of those respondents conditioned the investment on clarity of this issue. Also, despite its dramatic fiscal improvements, the country still has the enormous tasks of implementing structural reforms including further privatization, liberalization of closed industries, and tax enforcement. Cynics about whether or not Greece had the political will to accomplish these tasks included Kathimerini’s chief editor Alexis Papahelas, our very own Professor Charles Calomiris, and our Athens tour guide and historian, Niko (I’m sorry I don’t recall your last name!). Lastly, with unemployment at an appalling 27 percent and nearly 60 percent among the country’s youth, many simply wonder how much longer the people will tolerate these conditions.

A lot is riding on 2013. The country faces an end of May deadline to recapitalize its banks without an all-out nationalization of the industry, a critical factor in attracting private investment. The country is also eagerly awaiting the September German elections with the expectation that rhetoric around continued EU support will soften in Greece’s favor. While I personally share the same concerns of the naysayers, I am still generally bullish on Greece, mostly because I believe that the EU will not allow a euro failure.

Katerina Sokou ’13 and Martin Kleinbard ’14, thank you so much for this eye-opening experience. Travel companions, thank you so much for sharing this with me.

Greece Group
Greece Group, photo courtesy of Jasmine Ainetchian

Dyanna Salcedo ’14

Follow my travels on Twitter! @DyannaSauce

Spain Recap

by Shehzad Khan ’14

Our last day in Madrid was spent visiting Bankinter, a niche Spanish bank that managed to navigate the storms of the crisis through a disciplined, conservative strategy. It was an interesting visit and nice to get perspective on the financial crisis from them and compare it to that of the Bank of Spain. After a tour of the bank, we spent our final night in Madrid before the majority of us did one last day in Barcelona soaking in the sights and enjoying our final, authentic Spanish meal.

All in all, it was a great visit that was very enlightening with regards to the issues that plague Spain as well as Europe as a whole, while also providing great insight into the talent of a nation like Spain and the measures being taken to set it back on the right course. Companies like Inditex, Repsol, Telefonica, and Bankinter are successful, world class businesses with major international presence. They allowed us to see the more professional side of Spain beyond what the media might portray of the crisis here in the US. We also got to meet with very talented, young, government officials who were clearly up to the task of moving Spain past this tough time.

We learned a great deal about the culture and economy while we were there. Culturally, we saw the architecture of a brilliant mind in Gaudi. We visited art museums like the Reina Sophia, where we saw the works of Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro amongst others. We indulged in Spanish cuisine and learned of their fondness of jamon and croquettas. On the business front, we gained a much better understanding of how the financial crisis arose and what steps the government is taking to alleviate it. We learned of a high speed train being built entirely by Spanish companies between the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. We were also surprised to learn that much of the “Italian” olive oil we purchase in the United States is actually Spanish and is simply branded as Italian because of perceptions of the American consumer. We also learned that the future is definitely bright for the football clubs of Real Madrid and Barcelona.

I would highly recommend participating in a Chazen trip as part of your Columbia Business School experience because you will get an unprecedented look into the social, cultural, and business life of a nation by doing so. Additionally, you will get to witness firsthand the expansive reach and strength of the CBS network, as we met with CBS alums who were executives at many of the companies we visited.

As for Spain, I truly hope the future is bright and believe that they will find a way to right the course after having met the people I did during this trip.

A look at China through real assets: real estate and infrastructure

Our last few days in China were spent meeting Shui On and Rio Tinto (among other companies including Control Risks and Trayton). Both meetings provided us a look into China through the prism of hard assets and infrastructure export investments.  Both meetings provided us some interesting anecdotes about these two industries in China.

Shui On is a property development, construction and construction materials business operating in Hong Kong and mainland China. They are currently focusing on city  core development, on building communities, transit based construction (i.e. subways) as well as development as it relates to the buildout of high speed train service throughout China. They were responsible for the Xiantiandi development, which is a popular tourist attraction in China. Harkening back to Shanghai’s historical roots, Xiantiandi is an area of reconstituted traditional shikumen (“stone gate”) houses on narrow alleys, some adjoining houses which now serve as book stores, cafes and restaurants, and shopping malls.

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We as a group walked this area on one of our free nights in Shanghai and loved the many restaurants and cute stores we found along the alleys. Really impressive was that it was constructed in 6 months (this not only includes the streets, shops and restaurants but also residential and office properties, a 200 car underground garage and a lake!!).

To this point, the speed at which things can get developed in China has just been remarkable for us to see and understand. Cheap and abundant labor is surely a source of this capability, but so is the one-party system. As the head of procurement at Rio Tinto pointed to, things can get pushed through in China must faster than in other countries where democracy can slow down development (take India for example). Approvals go straight up one chain in China.  In particular if a project reinforces the goals stated within the Five Year Plan, or even local government plans, the speed at which the Chinese can turn around projects is lighting fast. In addition to Xiantiandi, another example we could reference from the trip  is the China Ting lobby and fashion show theater, which was build over a weekend! The efficiency of decision making in China is surely something the United States and other more developed countries can learn from China. Further, according to Shui On, China will be urbanizing the equivalent of the entire US population in the next 25 years. Again, the capability to accomplish such a feat is endemic to China and the way it does what it does! (Interestingly, the urbanization phenomenon will result in a more homogenous China population, with disparate dialects and cultural nuances blending together, most likely towards that of Shanghai).

The meeting with Shui On also taught us that attitudes about development are shifting towards thinking about sustainable and clean development. The conversation has gone from “more cars!” to “less cars!”, “more properties!” to limiting the number of property investments individuals can make. We noticed that most of the buildings in which we had meetings were LEED certified, a surprise given the stereotypes we hear about China’s development. Nevertheless, one major issue stemming from the huge build out of real estate (beyond issues of sustainability and the potential real estate bubble) is the immense pressure developing on the low income population. Most of the housing in development has been for high and middle income earners. To relieve some of this builtup pressure, developers are now being forced to build low income housing.

Shifting gears, our meeting with Rio Tinto focused on the procurement side of Rio Tinto’s business (not the commodity sales business). The China office is responsible for sourcing from China for the export markets. For example, they sourced XEMC to be a supplier of trucks to the export markets (an Chinese export for the first time in this industry).

China’s capability to export generally is expanding. The speaker at Rio Tinto likened China to 1960’s Japan, when the country was in a quality / price trade off. For China, investments will lead the way towards quality in the next few years. China is investing in technology (it will be the largest importer of industrial robots soon), building infrastructure, is capable of quickly forcing decisions through, and is serious about improving industrial safety (which is an explicit goal stated in the Five Year Plan). While they are building their export capabilities in Africa in particular, China (as discussed in a previous post) will still be doing things the “Chinese way”. In the case of export investment in Africa, this means two downside effects. One is that China is willing to invest in Africa with a “no strings attached” policy, foregoing an opportunity to incentivize poor and weak governments to invest in schools etc in exchange. Two, is that the Chinese dont make efforts to create local employment, again a missed opportunity for China to exert its power and stand for “bigger and better” things. However, given how fast China has shifted from being a low-cost player, to one that is attempting to be a good quality player, I see the future as one where China will also stand for something beyond itself in the international business arena.

Marianna Zaslavsky 13′

(Photo credits: www.chinavisitorcenter.com and shuion.com)

West Bank Tour and Concluding Thoughts on Israel

On our free day, most of the Chazen Israel group decided to visit the West Bank in order to gain a better understanding of Palestinian points of view on the conflict.  We booked a tour, left Tel Aviv, and drove into Zone A of the Palestinian Authority, an area that comprises about 18% of the West Bank, is administered by Palestine, and is forbidden by law to Israeli citizens.

Our first stop was the town of Beit Sahour, where we visited Byzantine ruins and a large cave typical of where a number of Palestinians stayed for safety during the wars.  Then, we walked through a refugee camp and the dividing wall in Bethlehem.  The graffiti and murals were bold and provocative, while the soldiers were friendly and appeared relaxed.  (As our tour guide Tamer quipped, conflicts tend to break out on Fridays, but not usually on Saturdays when we were there; needless to say, we were extremely grateful for no incidents other than some minor delays crossing back through the Israeli border in the evening.)  Tamer’s take on the situation was that there is significant mistrust between the people of Palestine and the very corrupt leadership and the wall is a big obstacle to peace as it is very difficult for Palestinians and Israelis to meet.  He also believes that “suicide bombing was a mistake” and expressed relief that it has decreased significantly today.

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We later visited some ancient sites throughout the West Bank, stopping at the basilica in Bethlehem located approximately on the site where Jesus was born, the site on the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized (the border to Jordan, which is naturally demarcated by the narrow river, was a tantalizing 30 or so feet away at current water levels, but we would have been seized by security had we tried to cross), and the oldest city in the world, Jericho, all of which feature prominently in the Bible.  Our last stop was Ramallah, the administrative capital of the Palestinian Authority where we drove through the city center and visited Yasser Arafat’s tomb.  I found myself at times enchanted by the striking landscape – a beautiful reminder that this region is much more than the war zone that we typically hear about in the news.

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The Jordan River

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Scenic views close to a Bedouin settlement

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 Archaelogical ruins overlooking the area where Jesus was tempted by the Devil according to Biblical accounts.  He wasn’t the first to inhabit the region though – the city of Jericho is 10,000 years old!

Upon returning home, I can safely say that Chazen Israel was really a trip of a lifetime, and based on the conversations I’ve had with fellow trip members on campus, we’re all still thinking about and processing the experience.  To try to quickly encapsulate some of what we learned, from an economic perspective, there are many positive signs for Israel: unemployment is stable, wages are increasing, household leverage is low, and a recent natural gas discovery is estimated to create $100-$130 billion in value over time.  The country still faces some major hurdles, however.  For instance, the relative poverty among Arabs and Ultraorthodox Jews is very high, and despite the fact that Israel has some very good universities (and the #1 ranking in number of university degrees per capita), the educational system as a whole is below the OECD average.  From a business perspective, Israeli entrepreneurship seems to be on fire, with 4,850 active startups, a competitive edge in a number of technology fields, and a culture that really encourages risk taking and asking difficult questions.  For an insightful view of Israel’s startup culture, I highly recommend Start-Up Nation, which we all read before the trip.

As a few classmates weighed in:

“Prior to visiting Israel, I was firmly critical of the country and held strong doubts on Israel’s right to exist.  My trip to Israel has taught me that Israel is a living, breathing reality that is not going away. However, in order for Israel to uphold its own vision of a Jewish homeland, a country for the Palestinian people must also be viable and secure.” – Kris McGee ‘14

“I’ve always observed from afar the fervent patriotism of Israelis, and this week has helped me understand exactly why—you have so much to be proud of. Thank you for sharing with us a part of your culture, your history and your lives. For the second years, this will be our last Chazen experience. We will soon enter the proverbial real world with Chazen Israel as one of our last Columbia memories, and we are grateful to you two for making it a profoundly memorable one.” – Chuan Go ‘13

“The main reason I wanted to help organize this trip was to show the numerous different faces Israel has, the challenges that we faced here and the obstacles we are going to face in the future.  Another reason (which is as important as the first in my eyes) is to be reminded how fortunate I am to grow up here and be surrounded by sights that are so important to a variety of religions all around the world.” – Guy Soreq ‘14

It’s an honor to have had the opportunity to participate in this trip experience and contribute these blogs.  Thank you for reading!

Krista Sande-Kerback ‘14

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Swimming in the Dead Sea!  Photo Credit: Megan Carley