Startup Nation

Jessica Nyquist ’19 (left) spent her summer at SigmaLabs, an accelerator that provides seed investment and mentorship to early-stage startups.

The Keller Center’s Princeton Start-Up Immersion Program in Tel Aviv exposes students to the fast-paced world of entrepreneurship.

By Pooja Makhijani

Kevin Zhang ’19 had a longstanding interest in entrepreneurship. As a Princeton University student, he had tinkered in app development, but had not worked in a startup environment. The philosophy major had also spent a semester in London earlier in his academic career and wanted to spend more time overseas, living and learning. 

So, last summer, Zhang — in order to engross himself not only in the world of early-stage startups but also in a culture with which he was unfamiliar — joined 18 of his Princeton University classmates in Tel Aviv, Israel, to work at 12 startup companies as part of the Keller Center’s Princeton Start-Up Immersion Program, Israel (PSIP), which is in its second year.

During this 10-week entrepreneurial and cultural learning experience, Zhang and his peers lived as a group in University-sponsored housing, and participated in programs — including speakers, workshops and visits to other companies — aimed at broadening their understanding of the fast-paced world of emerging ventures. 

Jessica Nyquist ’19, a computer science major, was particularly drawn to Israel, as she was aware of the country’s innovative and entrepreneurial climate. PSIP appealed to her because it was wholly Princeton-run. “This was an opportunity to be in Israel, where I wanted to be, in a job that was productive and in an area of interest,” she says. “And the program also provided me with additional resources I would not have had access to had I gone on my own.”

PSIP Israel is open to undergraduate and graduate students, and participants are selected through a competitive application process, says Lilian Tsang, associate director for outreach and administration at the Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education. “Each startup provides applicants with a ‘challenge puzzle’: open-ended questions which they then use to assess the students’ creativity and problem-solving skills,” she explains. “The students learn a lot about the companies’ personalities, too, in this process.”

Both Zhang and Nyquist had robust internship experiences: Zhang was a business-development intern at Bllush, a software company specializing in developing artificial intelligence for fashion and design online retailers, where he served as the lead on securing a new client in Sweden. Nyquist spent her summer at SigmaLabs, an accelerator that provides seed investment and mentorship to early-stage startups, where she performed a variety of tasks, such as market research and digital marketing, for both the accelerator and the four companies in residence. 

Yet, both students cited out-of-the-workplace experiences in Israel as their most memorable. 

Zhang says that his time in Israel was as much as, if not more, of a cultural experience than a co-curricular one. While on a weekend excursion in Jerusalem, he participated in a Friday Shabbat dinner at the hostel in which he was boarding. He found his experience so profound, having not grown up in a religious household, he explains, that he returned to the hostel twice to participate in the ritual meal again. 

While lounging on a beach with her roommates, Nyquist found herself in lively conversation about linguistics and artificial intelligence with two Israeli men who had initially just engaged in small talk. “The vibe [in Israel] is both laid back and motivated,” she says. “Everyone I met was ambitious and engaged in what they were doing, but also social and willing to share.”

Zhang was inspired by Bllush’s CEO, Tomer Dean, who, he says, motivated him to pursue his dream of launching a startup upon graduation. “Everyone I met [in the Israeli startup community] shared the same message: ‘You just go for it and try to get it,’” he says. “‘If it fails, you just try again,’ I was told.”

Nyquist, who is also earning certificates in values and public life and technology and society, says that her PSIP experience opened her eyes to working internationally after graduation, an option she had not considered seriously before. “This was a big shift for me that came from working in Tel Aviv,” she says.

Next year, the center plans to expand the PSIP program beyond its two current locations — New York City and Tel Aviv — to Shanghai, an area of the world in which many students are interested in working, says Tsang. “We have a strong alumni network [in China],” she explains. “And we look forward to internationalizing this program even further in order to introduce students to a global understanding of entrepreneurship.”