INNOVATION IS THE PATH TO PEACE. Chemi Peres is a Managing Partner and was Co-Founder in 1993 of Pitango, Israel’s largest venture capital fund with over $2.8 billion under management. Chemi is also Chairman of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, an independent non-profit, non-governmental, and non-political organization founded in 1996 by his father, Nobel Peace Laureate and former President of Israel Shimon Peres. In 2021 Chemi was awarded the prestigious Reinhard Mohn Prize by the Bertelsmann Stiftung in recognition of his outstanding commitment to promoting innovation that serves both business and society.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Chemi Peres, you served for ten years in the Israeli Air Force as an attack helicopter pilot and then became a businessman?
For the last 30 years, I’ve been pioneering the Israeli venture capital ecosystem. I created several funds. The main one is Pitango, which I’m running. It’s a multibillion dollar fund and we invest in technology companies in Israel from early stage to growth and expansion, in various sectors, from I.T. to health technologies. We raise money on a global basis and we invest in Israeli entrepreneurs.
What does innovation mean to you?
The story of the State of Israel from the very beginning can be told in a language of innovation due to the fact that the land is very small and very poor. We were blessed with nothingness. Israel is a very, very small country by size. We have no natural resources – no oil, no gas, no minerals, no water, basically nothing. The challenge on settling down in Israel and building the state forced us always to turn to the mind as opposed to enjoy the wealth of the land. The first phase of innovation was in food and agriculture, in water and energy, so we can settle down people across the nation.
What was the next phase?
Then, due to the fact that we don’t have any shelter from the surrounding environment, that we have no oceans dividing between us and our enemies or mountains or valleys, and so Israel could be easily invaded, we built a defense shield that was made of brainpower – from nuclear technologies to cyber technologies, to space – in order to protect us.
And then our economy was collapsing because it could not bear the burden of security and defense and because there was nothing we could export. We are too small as a market. We don’t have a regional market. We had to turn to the global market and offer technology products and services. Our economy is completely built upon our ability to innovate.
“A vision is not necessarily the current reality. A vision is something that you need to look forward to. You need to work towards it.”
Chemi Peres seated at the desk of his late father, Shimon Peres, who won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize together with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat for the Oslo Accords peace talks with the Palestinian leadership and in 1996 founded the Peres Center for Peace.
Photo: Moses Pini Siluk, 2022
Chemi Peres, how will this help achieve peace?
We will achieve peace due to the fact that we are a centre of innovation and technology. We provide solutions for global markets and a lot of countries, including the surrounding countries, would like to share with us that ability to innovate, to develop, to build companies, to grow a thriving economy. We have today $55,000 per capita. Our GDP has grown dramatically, even though we don’t have natural resources.
Innovation and technology requires investment?
When I started to invest in technology some 30 years ago, nobody really wanted to invest in Israel. The first wave of venture investing was $300 million in the beginning of the ‘90s. In 2021, more than $25 billion were invested in technology companies in Israel, excluding money that was raised through IPOs and M&As. We grew dramatically. Our ecosystem is very robust now, and our ability to innovate and to grow our economy is a key to the future, is a key for peace building. We believe that peace and innovation goes hand-in-hand.
Peace can be achieved if you can imagine and build a future that can be shared by us and our neighbours. If you’re trying to achieve peace by fighting over historic facts, you are doomed to fail. My father said always that “the past cannot be changed, but the future needs to be designed,” and the world is moving slowly from a world of wars and conflicts into a world that faces global threats. In order to resolve and mitigate global threats what is required on one hand is solidarity, which translates to peace and foreign affairs, and on the other hand to find solutions with technology. For example, the Corona virus was a global threat that attacked all of us together, and the only way to deal with the pandemic was actually through solidarity – to share information, to share methods of fighting the virus, develop together methods of defense, and with innovation and technology to find a cure, to find vaccination, to find drugs, to find a way to contain the virus. As somebody said, “It will never be over anywhere before it is over everywhere.” That’s the world that we’re facing, a world of solidarity and a world of science and technology, to allow us to mitigate the risk of climate change, of cyber-attacks, pandemics, and everything that we’re going to face in the future.
Sadly the world is now seeing a very different Israel from the one that Yitzhak Rabin or your father or previous visionary prime ministers or presidents proposed?
The pessimistic view is that we are experiencing terror attacks almost on a daily basis. There is a lot of mistrust on both sides. The positive side shows that we still can continue and cultivate peace in the region. The Abraham Accords were signed between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain and Sudan and Morocco, and hopefully more countries will join. Our great hope is that we will achieve a comprehensive peace including the Palestinians. But in order to achieve that we have to shape a tomorrow that can be shared by all. If tomorrow cannot be shared by everyone, then it will be very hard to achieve comprehensive peace.
In what particular ways is your view forward looking?
We believe that we need to address peace with solidarity, with sharing the idea that the mind is more important than the land. Mitigating global risks is the question, and not fighting each other. Fighting each other will not bring any solution. It’s a very long process where trust needs to be cultivated and maintained, so that in the future we will be able to achieve a comprehensive peace. We’re not desperate, but it is true that right now the movement towards a comprehensive peace with our close neighbours is not in its best time.
A great deal of research is for the military. Can this also become useful to find a medicine or a vaccine?
The last big war, World War 2, the world sacrificed its economy to come up with new technologies that were targeted at killing each other. In the corona pandemic, the world sacrificed its economy to try, with innovation, to save lives. It’s a very big difference. The source of innovation is moving away from the economy of death to the economy of peace. We are looking now to create new technologies in a more sustainable world, in a more socially inclusive world. We are trying to achieve a new age where people will work together to mitigate risks that are putting all of us at once and as a one in danger, as opposed to having creative technologies to fight each other. The source of innovation is shifting from being driven only by necessity and by atrocities into innovation with a purpose, and the purpose is to make the world safer.
What does this mean?
To make the world much better for everyone, in terms of its transportation, health care, and mitigate all the global risks that are aiming to hurt all of us. We just saw the earthquake in Turkey and Syria. We’ve seen the pandemic. We do still see wars, like the Russian war with Ukraine, but wars are something that belongs to the past. When people look at what is happening in Europe, they can’t understand it. It does not make sense to anyone. I hope that, although slowly, we will depart from this old world and enter a new era of peace and collaboration.
“There is a transformation to empires of the mind. Today, entrepreneurs can achieve things with the power of technology that states cannot achieve.”
Chemi Peres, is this what your father meant when he said, “If you want to achieve something big, you have to cross the desert”?
The desert is exactly leaving the world of wars about natural resources and land. We can become great in a way that is not at the expense of others. In the old world countries became rich by fighting other countries, conquering land, enslaving people, confiscating assets. It was a world of bloodshed and atrocities. We have to cross that desert into the new age, and it will take time to understand that the greatness will come from our mind, not from the land. Greatness will come from collaboration. Countries and nations can become strong if they grow up with very deep roots and not at the expense of others, a vertical expansion and not a horizontal one.
Do the empires of China, Russia and the United States listen to you?
(Chuckles) I hope they do. There is a transformation to empires of the mind. Today, entrepreneurs can achieve things with the power of technology that states cannot achieve. There are pioneers that are taking care of the future of humanity. They are becoming leaders, and sometimes their ability to impact the world is bigger than the impact of a nation. America is great because of its ability to be free, to have a free mind, to imagine, to be creative and to be givers. That’s a model that many other countries should embrace, and once they do that we will be able, maybe, in the future, to achieve this new era where we grow our power and our greatness from our mind, and not by killing each other on the land.
Even if we have Chinese balloons going over American territory?
A vision is not necessarily the current reality. A vision is something that you need to look forward to. You need to work towards it.
Israel has progressed some of its relationships by the Abrahamic Accords but it’s always one step forward and one step back with its closest neighbours. Aren’t the populations on both sides exhausted by that?
They are. The majority of the young generation on both sides would like to live in peace, to have a better future. Everybody wants to be happy, their families to be safe, to realise their dreams, to thrive economically. Unfortunately right now the political situation is mistrust among the leadership and too little is being done on both sides. In the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation we try to bring people to the concept after the Oslo Accords, when there was understanding between the leaders but the people were not part of it. We try to bring more and more people to get together, to privatize the peace process, to embrace the concept of coexistence, of shared future. We do it in many ways and the most effective are sports, business and health care, but also innovation. The concept of being able to shape your future, to start companies, to build economies, is something that is shared by the young generation. We are trying to foster peace and innovation to work on a better future between Israelis and Palestinians and in our programs we try to bring as many Jews and Arabs as possible together to get to know each other. Once they come together and do projects together, they learn there is so much in common that they were not aware of. Unfortunately, there is only so much the Peres Center can do. We’re a not-for-profit organisation and we try to raise as much resources as possible to expand our programs, but we cannot do it all by ourselves.
Do the young listen to you?
We see a lot of things that are very moving, that are very positive, but we cannot replace the governments and the leadership. Unfortunately, the extremists on both sides are jeopardizing every attempt and every effort to move forward. It’s not something that we are happy about. I’d rather live in peace. I’d rather live in a country where there are no terrorist attacks, no rockets being fired, no threats from Iran, no Hezbollah, no Hamas. As long as we don’t teach the children to love each other, unfortunately it will take time before there will be peace. At the end of the day, we will come to a point where it will not make sense anymore and maybe at that time there will be another attempt at peace which will be more successful.
Can Israel have again a leadership that is strong enough to re-establish the values that you wish to foster?
There is a leadership crisis all over the world, not just in Israel, and populism and inequality is a great global risk that we all share. This is part of mitigating global challenges. It’s not in Israel specifically. You cannot put the blame on one side. It takes two to tango, and unfortunately, right now, the situation in many places around the world is that the extremists are gaining power and are dictating the governance of many countries. We see a lot of hatred in the world, and that’s a big problem, a challenge that is being shared by many countries.
Chemi Peres speaking at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation’s 2020 opening event. Photo: Chen Shenhav
Chemi Peres presents French president Emmanuel Macron with his late father’s book No Room for Small Dreams. Photo: Chemi Peres Private Archive, 2017
“I hope that, although slowly, we will depart from this old world and enter a new era of peace and collaboration.”
Chemi Peres, what did you learn from your mother Sonia and your father Shimon?
I took from my father the vertical lines: to dream, to serve something which is bigger than you, to be an optimist, to dare to pursue your dreams, to cross the desert. From my mother, I took the horizontal lines, meaning be modest, be humble. No one is a star, we’re all human beings. All of us have weaknesses. We need to help those who are less fortunate, less privileged. We have to remember that we are a link in history and we need to be good people. I took the lines that are vertical, I took the lines that are horizontal, and I created my own picture.
What is your picture?
On one hand, I am modest and I’m trying to do my best to help other people just like my mother. But at the same time, I do have a vision and I do work for the country. Whether it was in my military service or in my economic activities, I’m trying to make Israel better, safer, and more peaceful with our neighbours. Unfortunately, it’s not something that can be achieved by an individual person. There needs to be much more consensus, coordination and collaboration on both sides, to get to the point where we say it does not make sense anymore to kill each other and to fire rockets at each other or execute terrorist attacks. We have to sit down, recognize that we have a big issue that we need to solve and try to negotiate and find a solution. The way to do it is through a forward motion. That means that starting to cooperate, starting to collaborate, stopping educating for hatred, and that we come to the table honestly, with a real interest to put an end to loss of life.
New technology has become part of our lives in ways which we could not imagine even ten years ago. Where do you see us going?
We are going to a place where we can use technology and science to make a much better world. But we can also destroy the world. Technology by itself is not enough and innovation is not enough. It has to be married with values. There is a big movement now of ESG (Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance) which the United Nations calls to make the world continue to grow in a sustainable way. Those values need to be adopted by enterprises and by countries. Give women a seat at the table, not discriminate against people. My father had the beautiful phrase that “Everyone has the right to be equal, but the equal right to be different.” We need to embrace those ideas. We need more countries to build their economy on innovation so they don’t have to fight each other. We need to make people more capable in learning and adapting to the reality which is changing constantly. But most importantly, we need to have the kind of leadership that is serving their people and leading them into a better future and not trying to rule them or exercise authority at all costs. We need leaders that understand that we are facing global challenges that will force us to work together to be more peaceful. We need all that in order to make the world’s moving forwards.
What about the United Nations which you mentioned?
The United Nations has offered 17 Sustainable Development Goals, making housing more affordable, keeping the air clean, have clean water for drinking, reduce poverty, provide a more sustainable world to address climate change, to address inequalities, to address populism, and to safeguard us from tyrannies. And that’s what we need to do. Technology can solve a lot of problems if you use them properly. For example, you can extract energy from the sun and not pollute the world, grow food without killing animals, make the world much better with technology innovation, but you need to have the right governance and the right education, the right mindset and a better understanding. That is the desert that all humanity needs to cross from an old world to a new one.
But technology will never understand the human soul?
Technology advancements are something that is embedded in our DNA. We constantly look forward to do things differently in a better way, solve problems, research, and find new solutions to everything that we are facing. We cannot help it, we are moving forward whether we like it or not. Learning software development or machine learning or things like that are things that a shorter training, up to date because they are constantly changing, more tailored to the needs of the industry. Whereas the arts and humanities and civil rights, those you need to spend more time in learning and getting educated. It’s better to study engineering in a year rather than three, but humanity you can spend four years on. Put more time on the soft skills, the things that are more important to our soul and to our identity, whereas the other technical things you should do in a much condensed way that is moving with the industry. Universities should be split into two. The kind that supports industry needs to be handed over to industry and they need to run it. Whereas the humanities, the human issues, need to be studied in universities where you need to take the time to learn and sit in lectures and put your brain to work on this, and just focus on that so we can have a more sustainable world.
Does technology help compensate for the lack of political leadership and disinterest in politics among many people?
A lot of people are attracted to the world of technology, innovation and science, to entrepreneurship, to free enterprise. Their ability to impact and operate freely is much more robust in the free enterprise space than in governments. In governments there is a lot of friction, a lot of politics which people don’t really like. There is a long road map and you can be productive only if you reach the highest level of command. But look what an entrepreneur like Elon Musk is doing for SpaceX and transportation. I don’t see a lot of ministers or prime ministers around the world that could achieve the same level of impact as him. The freedom to operate and the ability to impact are so dramatic that a lot of talent is moving away from politics into the entrepreneurial side. In Israel a lot of young, talented people prefer to go that much more exciting route. It’s rewarding. It’s frictionless. And it’s very impactful. The empires of the mind are growing dramatically, while governments are losing their ability to be very effective and it’s very tough to accomplish what you want to accomplish.
Do you think that one day there will be no more politics?
(Laughs) I don’t know the future, but I can tell you that more and more entrepreneurs and CEOs will lead and impact humanity in a much more dramatic way than they impact it now. I see definitely the growth of empires of the mind. If a nation can become an empire of the mind that’s even better. I do think that individuals with the power of technology and entrepreneurship will be able to achieve things that sometimes political frames cannot.
What is the future of Israel in your mind?
I know the people of Israel. I am meeting very smart, bright, capable, creative people every day. Israel has a great future and I think Israel should become part of the solution of the Middle East and not be part of the problem. Our economy and our ability to protect ourselves grows stronger by the day. What Israel has achieved in 75 years is dramatic. My father said that the reality exceeded everything that he and Ben-Gurion and the Founding Fathers dreamed about. Now we need to fine tune our dreams to become bigger. The first phase of Israel was to envision the state by Theodor Herzl. The second phase was to settle down. The third was to defend it. The fourth to build its economy. Now that we have achieved all that, the fifth one is to become part of the global community, part of the Middle East, to achieve peace.
Do you believe you can do that?
We can do it as we continue to grow stronger and as we continue to excel in providing solutions for the problems of the world. We need also to make sure that we are aligned with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, that we adopt the ESG criteria. I believe that we can bring a lot to the region and to the world by helping to repair the world, to secure it, to make it safer, and to make it much more flourishing. The future for Israel, in my view, is bright, but no one underestimates the challenges that we have ahead of us. We still have to find a solution between us and the Palestinians, between us and other countries that are seeking to destroy Israel. I hope that together with the world we will continue this march in the desert until we reach a new era where nations can be much more peaceful because they can compensate for everything they lack with their ability to research, innovate and find a solution to a problem.
Thank you very much for this conversation.
Portrait of Chemi Peres. Photo by Yoram Reshef, 2020
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