Within each entrepreneur is the secret ingredients to success — insatiable curiosity and passion.
Michael Matias, an Israeli-born entrepreneur and student leader at Hillel at Stanford University, says these characteristics largely fuel the entrepreneurial spirit, including his own.
The rising sophomore launched 20-Minute Leaders, a video series with Jewish entrepreneurs and visionaries, as campuses shuttered because of the coronavirus outbreak. Over a four-month period, Matias has recorded 170 videos featuring worldwide leaders, including Michal Segalov, director of engineering at Google.
This is the most recent endeavor undertaken by Matias, who already has a lengthy list of achievements for a 24-year-old student. Among his successes are serving as a first lieutenant in the Israeli army, founding two start-ups as a teenager and being recognized in Forbes Israel’s ‘18 Under 18’ as well as ‘30 Under 30.’
Matias chatted with Hillel about his experience and goals as a budding entrepreneur. Below are highlights from the conversation:
You founded two start-ups, AnyMeal and HackGenY Silicon Valley, as a teenager. Why did you create these companies?
“While part of an MIT entrepreneurship program, my friend and I founded AnyMeal, a platform to help people find restaurant dishes suitable for their dietary restrictions and preferences. We wanted people to feel comfortable when eating out, whether they were gluten free, vegan or had another type of restriction. Fast forward a few months, I created Hacking Generation Y, a coding competition to promote entrepreneurship among hundreds of high school students. I wanted to bring together top minds from around the world while bridging the gap between those who do and don’t have access to entrepreneurial opportunities. We’ve hosted 11 hackathons in five countries, including Jamaica, India and Israel. The lessons I learned from these experiences went far beyond tech. I became more confident pitching ideas and motivating a team.”
As a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, you served in Unit 8200, a prestigious intelligence and cybersecurity division. Now, you’re studying artificial intelligence at Stanford University. Tell us about your journey from army life to campus life.
“At 18, I was being exposed to these incredible minds, and it was such a privilege. I spent over four years protecting the nation I love by working on some of our most sensitive security issues. I was commanding teams that had roughly eight soldiers at a time. You have so much responsibility at a very young age. That’s something very special about the Israeli army. Whenever one of my soldiers used to say, ‘Michael, we have a problem.’ I’d respond with, ‘No, we have an opportunity for a solution.’ Near the end of my service, I was introduced to artificial intelligence. The more I learned, the more curious I became. How could I implement and scale these technologies around the world? How could I potentially impact billions of people in a responsible way? When I approached the end of my military service, I thought, ‘Where can I l learn more about what’s happening in the entrepreneurial world and building companies?’ I applied to Stanford to study artificial intelligence. When I arrived on campus, I started thinking, ‘Woah, I’m 23. Everyone here is 18 or 19. These are like the kids I was commanding yesterday.’ Now, I live with them, eat with them, go to classes with them. My time at Stanford has been such an interesting and humbling experience because the students are so incredibly smart, curious and passionate. So, I’m learning from all of them.”
As the coronavirus was beginning to spread in America, you launched 20-Minute Leaders. Tell us about this online video series.
“Stanford University is in Palo Alto, California, where many of the most successful entrepreneurs live. So, I’ve had the opportunity to meet incredible entrepreneurs and investors, having coffee and lunch with them on a daily basis. Those opportunities disappeared with the outbreak of the coronavirus. What was the next best option? Zoom. Every day, I speak with an influential leader for 20 minutes and upload a recording of our conversation to my 20-Minute Leaders Facebook page. I’ve recorded 170 episodes, and I’ve released 80 so far. These people are investors, entrepreneurs, economists and even actors. We discuss entrepreneurship and scaling companies. Why does an investor spend every day looking at 50 companies? Why does an entrepreneur spend 23 hours each day developing their software and sleep one hour each night? This has been really exciting for me, and I look forward to continuing these episodes for a long time”
Have you noticed any commonalities among these leaders?
“Passion and curiosity. Out of more than 200 different episodes, we must have leaders from 30 or 40 different industries. Although each of their stories are unique, the common thread among all of them is their character traits. The last question I ask each leader is, ‘What three words would you use to describe yourself?’ Many of them start off with the word ‘passionate’ and continue with ‘curious.’ What I’m learning through the series is passion and curiosity are necessary for entrepreneurship.”
As an entrepreneur, what drives your passion and curiosity?
“That changes every day. Right now, I’m a software engineer at Hippo Insurance, where I’m learning about scaling a start-up. Because of the pandemic, most of the team is working remotely. So, in the office, it’s just me and the CEO Assaf Wand. Being present and talking to him about the great milestones of the company, like raising $150 million, is simply inspiring. Watching those kinds of conversations from the sidelines as a young entrepreneur, I can’t even begin to describe how inspiring that is to me. Assaf is the CEO of a billion-dollar company, and I get to talk to him over lunch every day about the adversities he’s facing and the new ideas he has. I’m also a senior associate at J-Ventures. There, I’m getting inspired by working with over 150 Jewish Americans and Israelis on investing in early-stage startups. The team is made up of incredible people. We have the former CFO of Ford Mobility, someone who was on the board of Starbucks, an executive from Levi’s. I can’t believe my luck that I get to sit here and talk to them and ask their advice. With all of these occurrences happening on a daily basis, I just can’t go to sleep at night because I know that every minute I don’t spend with them, I’m missing out on something incredible.”
How are you involved with Hillel at Stanford?
“When I came to Stanford, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to continue my traditions and the more communal aspect of Judaism. I quickly realized that I was surrounded by people who shared my values at Hillel. On Fridays, I was able to partake in Shabbat dinners like I did with my family in Israel. And there were more opportunities for our Jewish community to come together outside of Shabbat. Hillel became my go-to place to eat meals with friends, study, celebrate High Holidays and build community. I plan to continue spending time at Hillel during my next few years at Stanford.”
Tell us more about your upcoming book.
“My first book is coming out in a little over a month. It’s called, ‘Age is Only an Int: Lessons I Learned as a Young Entrepreneur.’ The book is comprised of 14 short stories, where I reflect on successes and difficulties. I also quote people who have played a significant role in my life and have given me insight, like Nathalie Landesman, who works as a program director at Hillel at Stanford. Others have contributed their wisdom to the book, including Dov Moran, who invented the flash drive. I was fortunate to go through a variety of experiences, and I’ve learned so many lessons on my entrepreneurial path. And they’re not just lessons about business. They’re lessons about empathy, ethics, leadership and camaraderie. As I look forward to continuing my own journey, I think of this book as a sort of letter to my future self. When I reflect later, I’ll have to ask myself, ‘Did I hold onto my values?’ One of the vows I’ve made to myself is to figure out how I can be most responsible with the technology I’m creating and the data I’m harnessing. I don’t care if I make $1 billion or $10,000. I don’t care what successes I’ll have. More importantly, was I a mensch? Was I the person and leader I sought out to be?”
What are your hopes for the future?
“We have the responsibility as global citizens to help those in need. I’m trying to educate myself as much as I can and be a respectful, responsible global citizen. Our world has changed dramatically over the past few months. I hope I’ll continue to remain curious because the world is going to keep changing.”