Local leaders ‘sell’ Tennessee in Israel

Wendy Smith
Government/Politics columnist

Gov. Bill Haslam, Economic and Community Development Commissioner Randy Boyd and 18 business leaders from Tennessee, including three from Knoxville, recently returned from a trip to Israel to “sell” Tennessee as a site for new business.

The biggest challenge, Boyd says, is that the only thing most Israelis know about the state is that it’s the home of Jack Daniel’s and Elvis Presley.

New York, California and even New Jersey are on the international radar. But Tennessee requires a sales pitch, and Haslam and Boyd did a great job, says Stephen Rosen, managing director of the institutional bonds division at Raymond James.

Rosen, one of several Jewish community leaders who traveled with the group to give cultural guidance, says the sales pitch would’ve worked on him.

“I’m ready to move to Tennessee,” he laughs.

It was Rosen’s fourth trip to Israel. All members of the state delegation paid their own way.

Israel is known for its large number of start-up companies, which Boyd partially attributes to an atmosphere of uncertainty created by political turmoil.

“To start a business is not a big deal in that culture. Risk-taking is natural.”

Hard work and innovation also influence the business culture. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education) is part of elementary school curriculum, and the military is heavily involved in research.

But Israel would rather be a growth nation than a start-up nation, he says. The goal of the trip was to encourage business owners to grow their U.S. market from Tennessee.

The state is welcoming, supportive, situated well logistically and economical to live in. But the biggest advantage may be Tennessee Promise. Two years of tuition-free community college or technical school for the state’s high school graduates, which guarantees a future workforce, differentiates Tennessee, Boyd says.

The trip was a success on a number of levels. Boyd is confident that numerous meetings with potential business partners will eventually pay off with new jobs in Tennessee.

It was also inspiring, he says. Best practices were shared, and the group learned about Israel’s success in technology transfer. They were also impressed with Israel’s technical college system, ORT, and hope for future partnerships between ORT and the state’s Colleges of Applied Technology.

He also values the relationships that developed among the Tennessee delegation.

Rosen was thrilled to have the opportunity to participate in the trip. The group visited a kibbutz north of Tel Aviv where Clinton-based auto-parts manufacturer MAG was founded. It’s an example of how East Tennessee can successfully grow new business.

“We’re part of the story, too. We’re part of the Welcome Wagon.”

The delegation got the royal treatment, he says. Haslam met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former Israeli President Shimon Peres, and he rang the opening bell at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.

One sight Rosen especially enjoyed was quiet streets with few soldiers. During the weeks that have passed since the trip, that’s changed, he says.

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