The Middle East has long been a place of political, religious and ethnic turmoil. One of the men who worked hard for most of his life to bring peace to the region was Shimon Peres, Israel’s former Prime Minister and President. He finished writing his memoir, No Room for Small Dreams: Courage, Imagination, and the Making of Modern Israel, just weeks before his passing in September 2016. (The book is now available.) Peres’s son, Chemi, is managing general partner and co-founder of venture capital fund Pitango. He recently discussed the book and his father’s life on the Knowledge at Wharton show on SiriusXM channel 111 (Listen to the full podcast using the player at the top of this page). Chemi Peres previously spoke with Knowledge at Wharton in 2013 about opening Israeli ventures to new markets and building a vehicle to finance entrepreneurial dreams.
The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Knowledge at Wharton: What do you think is the lasting legacy of your father?
Chemi Peres: The lasting legacy of my father is the notion that we are transitioning from a world of territories to a world of science and technology. Greatness came in the old era by building militaries and going to war and confiscating land and natural resources and cheap labor. Today, we can create energy, food and water with science and technology. Automation and robotics is replacing the old-world slaving. For the first time in history, we can win without having others lose. In other words, my father believed that nations can become great not at the expense of others. He believed that we are leaving a world of wars and stepping into a world of global threats.
Therefore, more and more responsibility is handed over to the shoulders of entrepreneurs and CEOs of great companies. He believed that we need to think beyond borders in order to jointly overcome the challenges of tomorrow.
Knowledge at Wharton: When your father completed this book, he had already written a memoir in 1995 titled, Battling for Peace. What do you think inspired him to write this book? What did he hope to accomplish beyond that earlier memoir?
“My father believed that nations can become great not on the expense of others.”
Peres: My father wrote 15 books, and all of them were great ideas and great causes that he served in order to make the world better. Peace was the last thing that he had decided to give his life to and achieve, not only peace between us and the Palestinians and not only in the region, but also in the whole world. I believe that No Room For Small Dreams is the last voice he wanted to be echoed after he physically no longer would be able to pitch his vision to the young generation and to leaders worldwide.
I think this book is very different from previous books because he is trying to tell the story of his life with the intention that it will be reflecting on the future. Be optimistic, dare to dream, think in a positive way, and make sure that what seems to be impossible will become possible. This is why I think this book is very different from anything that he wrote in the past.
Knowledge at Wharton: It was your grandfather who brought the family to Israel, correct?
Peres: That’s correct. My grandfather had businesses in the shtetl in Vishnyeva, Poland. It did not bear fruit, so he decided to try his luck in Israel. For my father, it was a dream realized to come and live in Israel. In 1934, with his mother and brother, they traveled to Israel and landed in Jaffa two years after his father left. Ever since, he continued his service of Israel from foundation until being president and until his very last day.
Knowledge at Wharton: I found your father’s description of his arrival in Israel to be moving and incredibly poetic. He said Vishnyeva was his cocoon, but in Israel he grew wings. What are your favorite parts of his book?
Peres: My favorite parts are, of course, emotional. I love this first chapter, “A Call For Service,” which is my family’s story of how we depart from an old world in Europe and from his beloved grandfather with a promise to stay Jewish. It’s something that I inherited from him, and I will keep on for generations our Jewishness, forever.
The epilogue is very moving. When I read the epilogue, I could not stop crying because I understood that he knew that his time is coming and his days are numbered. But also, poetically, I think the epilogue talks about his life to his people, his nation. He says, “I was given some 2.5 billion seconds, and I did not waste any one of them,” with the ultimate conclusion that if he has any regret in his life it’s only that he should have dreamt more and should have dreamt bigger. We spoke just as he finished contemplating the book. When he said those words, he decided on the spot to title the book No Room for Small Dreams.
The book is not [about my father’s] life. The book is not about his achievements. The book is about dreams and greater causes to serve and hard choices to make. When you read the book, you should look for all the tools that he used in order to achieve those great achievements and fulfill those dreams. Read the book with your eyes on the future. Yes, we can dream. We should dream. Let’s never give up on hope. What seems to be possible is possible if we only dare and if we only cross a desert in order to reach that point.
Knowledge at Wharton: He tells a beautiful story at the end about an Israeli painter who is asked about his favorite paintings. Could you share that story? I have another question that relates to the introduction that you and your siblings have written. You quote your father as saying, “Count the number of dreams you have and compare them with the number of achievements you have had. If you have more dreams than achievements then you are still young.” Which of his dreams do you share and how will you fulfill them?
Peres: The painter was once asked, “What is the best painting you have ever drawn?” He responded, “The one I will paint tomorrow.” That was my father’s philosophy as well. He never looked back. He always believed and thought that what he will achieve tomorrow will be based on the dreams that we have today, and it will be greater and brighter and more optimistic and more significant. That was the answer that my father gave when he was asked, “What is your greatest achievement ever.”
“The book is about dreams and greater causes to serve and hard choices to make.”
With regards to age, my father was asked, “Mr. Peres, is it hard to work at your age? Why do you keep working?” He used to say, “I’m not old. I’m young.” And he found a new definition for age. He says age is a result of how many dreams you have in your head, and what you really need to do is compare it with what you’ve done in life. If you have more dreams, then you are still young. And my father was forever young.
Knowledge at Wharton: We see now what Israel is doing in the world of innovation. Companies like Mobileye and others are making their stand on the global perspective. But this is a philosophy that Shimon Peres had a long time ago. Part of the book talks about his understanding 50, 60 years ago of how important computers were going to be.
Peres: Absolutely. My father used the tools of innovation throughout his life. Israel was founded on the basis of science, technology and innovation. We needed to populate the nation in a land that is refusing, in a dry land. You had to innovate in agriculture and in water technologies in order to settle the land and populate it.
The second phase of Israel was really building the defense industry when we were outnumbered by the hostile armies around us. My father used innovation and science in order to make Israel a super power militarily, from Dimona, the nuclear facilities, to the Israeli aerospace industries and Rafael, which focused on missiles. The third stage in Israel’s innovation journey is building our economy based on science and technology. You just mentioned Mobileye and other great companies and technologies that came from Israel to make the world better.
My father believed that the fourth stage, after we became strong militarily and economically, is to achieve long lasting peace. He believed that the peace will be achieved with innovation as well.
Knowledge at Wharton: Your father played an active role in helping Israel become, as it is widely called, the “Startup Nation.” Could you explain his role in bringing that about? How did that shape your perspective about venture capital and investing in innovation through Pitango?
Peres: One of the areas he talks about in the book is becoming prime minister for the first time in 1984. Israel had an economy that was basically a socialist economy. At that time when he became prime minister, the inflation rate was about 400% a year. He understood that he had to stabilize the situation and zero down the inflation rate. And he understood that the foundations of our economy should be based on science, technology, global markets and export. So, he did two things. He started to invite global enterprises to come set up a shop in Israel, employ Israeli engineers and start innovating in Israel. At the same time, he started providing incentives through regulation and tax regimes to endorse entrepreneurship within Israel.
Today, Israel has 350 global enterprises and 6,000 startup companies building great technologies to make the world better. I think he could be described as the founder of the Startup Nation. In fact, the book Startup Nation starts with the story of my father. He was the protagonist in the book who is described as the founder of the Startup Nation. On one hand, Israel is a startup. On the other hand, Israel is a land of thousands of startups. I think his role is very well recognized within the Israeli technology ecosystem.
“My father was the greatest optimist in the world.”
As for myself, I connected with my father’s life and vision through my passion for technology and science and innovation, and through the notion that we need to build our country into a strong one by spearheading science and technology, whether it is for military purposes, whether it is for economic purposes, or whether it is for our ability to achieve peace. I decided to focus my life on entrepreneurship and innovation.
[At] the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, in the last three years of his life we combined the concept of peace and the concept of innovation as one. We believe that not only the future belongs to innovators, but peace will be achieved through innovation.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do you think there’s a time in the future when the Middle East as a whole can be a startup region, where a lot of what you see in Israel now could be branched out into some of the other countries where the relationship with Israel is still tenuous at times?
Peres: Absolutely. This is a wonderful question. I believe that the future of the Middle East will be basically a startup region, because I believe that what we have in the Middle East is 400 million Arabs in 22 countries that speak the same language. They can do exactly what China has done with the deep internet market, the Chinese speaking internet market, which is different from the U.S markets. I believe that we can develop an Arab internet market that will drive the GDP, drive information and bring the young generation in the Middle East the opportunity to shape their own future.
The Middle East is the slowest-growing region in the world and one of the youngest ones. The average age is 25, and 60% of the people are below the age of 30. The Arabic language is the fastest-growing language today on the internet. My father believed that if global enterprises will start investing in the region and come and set up a shop in the region just like they have done in Israel, and if there will be an incentive for the young generation to build companies, then it is not a dream. The Middle East can become one of the most flourishing areas in terms of technology and innovation.
Knowledge at Wharton: When we met in your office in Israel five years ago, one of the things I found very interesting about your approach is how you were proactively investing in companies that bridged both Israeli and Arab entrepreneurs. In the past five years, how far have you reached with that strategy? As innovation moves more in the direction of financial inclusion through fintech, where do you see the future of your strategy going?
Peres: Indeed, part of our activities is to invest and foster Arab entrepreneurship and also invest in companies that are focusing on the region in terms of markets. Of course, everything that can be done by software and digital can cross borders easier than goods and other services, so we focus on that. We focus on the digital age, the digital wave and the disruption that we see in different areas.
“My father believed that leaders should not exercise power, they should become servants.”
One of the areas is financial technologies. Still, the Middle East is lagging behind in terms of infrastructure for financing. I think that so far we have done much more than is known and is visible in the world. But we’re still far away from where we want to be. But as my father told us, you need to be resilient and you need to cross a desert, as long as you know the direction you are going in and as long as you don’t stop. Because standing still, as my father wrote in the book, is not an option.
Knowledge at Wharton: Your father had to deal with violence in his lifetime, including the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Entebbe raid. How was he able to handle all of that while being such a forward thinker in trying to build entrepreneurship and innovation?
Peres: My father was the greatest optimist in the world. He had to be. Once he was asked, “Mr. Peres, how come you are so optimistic in this world?” He said, “You know, I tried being pessimistic, it didn’t work.” By nature he was an optimist. Those wonderful tools that he built in order to travel in the future are something that he’s offered the readers in the book. The way for him to overcome all the setbacks and the challenges was to serve a great cause. Find a great cause to serve and give your life to it. Everything that he did was because he served something that was greater than him and all of us. When you do that, then you can devote your life [to it].
As my father used to say, “There are no desperate situations. There are only desperate people.” He would never be desperate, would never be a cynic, would never be a skeptic because he thinks that pessimists never found a star in the sky. He was constantly looking for stars in the sky.
Knowledge at Wharton: A part of the book that I found very moving was when he wrote about your mother. He said that she let him dream, but she also kept him grounded. Can you recall examples of how she did that?
Peres: As long as my father would serve great causes, he had a free agreement to do anything, to travel, to meet, spend time. She never stopped him from serving his country. But when it came to people, she had a better eye and a better judgment. She would always voice her opinion in saying, “You should be aware of this person. Or don’t trust that one.” By doing that, she connected him to the ground.
My father was a man of the people who believed in goodness, and usually you had credit. You have to remember that my father was chosen by (first prime minister of Israel) David Ben-Gurion when he was really young. Ben-Gurion gave him all the credit to do great things at a very young age in his life. My father was that kind of a person, too. When he saw someone who is talented and capable, he would give him all the abilities to operate. My mother was the one to bring him to more reality by saying, “You should be aware of this or you should be aware of that” sometimes [about] the things that my father did not see well. She was a voice of reason for him.
Knowledge at Wharton: There’s an interesting part of the book where your father wrote about a debate about the future of Israel that Ben-Gurion won. He wrote that it’s very important for leaders to listen. He said, “Listening is not just a key element of good leadership, it is the key, the means to unlock doors that have been slammed shut.” What are some of the other attributes that allowed him to sustain his leadership for more than 70 years? And what can other leaders learn from that experience?
Peres: I will answer this question by sharing with you why the door of Ben-Gurion was always open to him and closed to others. Ben-Gurion was asked why is it that the young Shimon can step into your room anytime he wants and others can’t. He said, it’s because of three things. First, I know that when he comes to me, he will never ask anything for himself. Second, I know that he will never tell a lie and never badmouth anybody else. And the third one is, whenever he comes to me he has a great idea, a great vision that will make our country better.
My father believed that leaders should not exercise power, they should become servants. They should serve their people and not try to impose themselves on the people. I believe that his leadership was very unique and very valued by world leaders. Thus, their doors were always open to him because they knew that when he came to them he would offer them a great idea to serve their country in a better way.
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