Executive Profile: Michael Eisenberg, Partner at Aleph VC and Investor in WeWork
Michael Eisenberg, an alumnus of Yeshiva College Class of ‘93, is currently an Equal Partner at Aleph, an Israeli venture fund with over $300 million AUM. Prior to Aleph, Michael was a General Partner at Benchmark Capital. He currently presides on the Board of Directors as a member or observer at WeWork, Lemonade, Honeybook, Nexar, Freightos, Clarizen, Gigya, and Seeking Alpha. Michael was the Editor-in-Chief at The Commentator when he was a student at Yeshiva University. He is a major advocate for Aliyah and with Aleph has helped organize job listings for potential Olim at hundreds of startups across Israel.
Evan Axelrod: Can you tell us about the path you took to currently managing the Aleph fund?
Michael Eisenberg: It was a long road. I started in political consulting which grew out of editing The Commentator at YU during what was known as the "Revel Crisis." Since politics is fickle, I was let go (although nobody told me) and found myself unemployed and not able to get a job. At the time, my lack of a network from the Israeli army was a real liability (today it is not). Out of desperation, I founded a startup merchant bank focused on tech. I knew nothing about tech but I knew a tad about the internet. It was 1995, the beginning of the internet. I then partnered my fledgling merchant bank that had no clients but a good business model with a consulting firm in Jerusalem that had clients but a lousy business model. Getting paid for giving consulting advice in Israel is tough. Then, in a short 3 years, we ended up raising money for and backing 11 companies, 8 of which went public or got bought over time. These included PictureVision which was Israel's first internet exit and the world's first online photo-sharing site. This was before digital cameras or phones with cameras (there was a time like that). We scanned these things called Negatives (look it up in Wikipedia...which also did not exist then). Benchmark was one of the investors in Picturevision, which was bought by AOL and Kodak in 1997 or so. After that, I got recruited to Israel Seed Partners, a Jerusalem-based VC who had turned me down when I asked them for a job 3 years earlier. Neil Cohen and Jon Medved [now CEO of Ourcrowd], Israel Seed's founding partners were very kind to call me back and take me in. One of the companies I backed at Israel Seed was called Dealtime, later to be known as Shopping.com. While at Shopping.com, Bill Gurley of Benchmark (who was already a friend of mine) and I cooked up Shopping.com's purchase of ePinions, a product review site which was backed by Benchmark. We were then co-lead directors of Shopping.com which ultimately went public and then was bought by eBay. I then joined Benchmark for almost a decade. When Benchmark wanted to focus on Silicon Valley and not international VC, I started Aleph because my passion is creating jobs in Israel. I guess the only thing you can say about this path is that it was unpredictable and involved much siyata dishmaya [“help of heaven”].
EA: You were recently mentioned in a WSJ article detailing the hyper-growth of WeWork, which is currently valued at around $20 billion. How did you end up sourcing WeWork as in investment when you were working at Benchmark? What about the company helped it stand out?
ME: I sourced it through a few channels. Benzi Ronen, founder of Farmigo. Saul Singer, author of Start-Up Nation and a few others all told me that I needed to meet Adam [Neumann, founder of WeWork] and they told Adam he needed to meet me. I did a call with Adam Neumann from the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel in Tel Aviv. I did not leave to the garage to get in my car because I did not want to get cut off. He was soooo compelling. I ended up getting home late because I was on the call and plugged into an outlet from my cell phone in the lobby. Founders make companies because they see the world differently. Adam is that kind of amazing founder.
EA: What are some trends in the Israeli startup ecosystem that are impacting where VC’s are looking to invest?
ME: We are building bigger companies out of Israel. It is what I like to call becoming Scale Up Nation. I try not to invest in trends. I also don't know or care where anyone else is investing. It is not relevant.
EA: What is some advice that you could offer to current students looking to have successful careers in business or technology?
ME: Read a lot!! Focus on people. Stay around good and ethical people. Have a purpose. Make it meaningful. Always be optimistic and look to help others. Work hard. There is no substitute for hard work. Get married young. You need an anchor in your life and a conscience because the pace is dizzying. Life is always better and more meaningful when it is shared.
EA: What advice do you have for students looking to start careers in business or technology?
ME: Learn Torah every day. It is where we draw true values from. The basis of your career is values and people. Not money and companies.
EA: What is one area or industry that you’re looking at that you think will be the most interesting in the coming years?
ME: Israel. I like to follow trend lines. The Israel trend line is up and to the right.
EA: What did you enjoy most about being the Editor in Chief of The Commentator when you were a student?
ME: I enjoyed the writing and the platform. My first piece as Editor-in-Chief was entitled "Armchair Zionism." I was recently re-reading it. Some things don't change. I also enjoyed the ability to enable change through writing. I am reasonably convinced that without The Commentator and the the help of numerous board members, it is likely that the critically important Revel Graduate School would be closed today. I did not make that change. The board and the activist students did. However, writing about it clarified the issues, brought them to the fore and empowered change agents. Additionally, it was a creative outlet, a collection of great people and a decent excuse not to go to class. I have really good memories of my years on The Commentator, the camaraderie of the team, the very angry administration and the sometimes piqued small handful of rabbanim. Their rebukes and critiques, sometimes right and sometimes not, taught me not to take myself or others too seriously and to pursue truth. It caused me to question myself and my decision making in what I hope and pray is an honest manner. At the same time, it gave me a healthy way to question and challenge the status quo and deeply ingrained beliefs parading as truths. I think that is really important in life. We cannot stay stagnant.
Thank you Michael for your time!