"The golden age of Jews in America is cracking"

Joshua Burgin credit: Nick Hanyok imaging
Joshua Burgin credit: Nick Hanyok imaging

He was among Amazon's first 100 employees, and served in senior positions in US tech companies, but the October 7 attack prompted Joshua Burgin to switch to a young Israeli startup.

On October 7, life was upended for Joshua Burgin, a prominent figure in the technology industry in the US, who was one of Amazon's first 100 employees, and whose most recent position was vice president at VMware. Burgin, who is also a Zionist Jew with a strong connection to the State of Israel, saw the horrors that took place here and realized that he could not stand idly by. So, he decided to leave the stable corporate environment and move to a small Israeli startup. "The tragic events shook me," he tells "Globes". "When I met with employees in Israeli high-tech, I told myself that if I left my current job, I would want to find a job that would also give expression to the Jewish, Zionist, and Israeli parts of my identity."

Such an opportunity did indeed present itself, in the form of an offer from serial entrepreneur Amiram Shachar, co-founder of cloud security company Upwind (who also founded Spot.IO, which was sold to NetApp for $450 million in 2020). Burgin joined the company, which was founded at the end of 2022 and raised $80 million in just 11 months, as Chief Product Officer.

The decision was accompanied by quite a few concerns, including eyebrows raised by people close to him. But for him the time was right. "In certain parts of my career, I had to play it safe. Now I'm willing to take a calculated risk."

Antisemitism has reared its head.

Burgin's solidarity with Israel began long before last October. He and his wife have previously taken part in a Modern-Orthodox Jewish group called Momentum Unlimited, which holds tours in Israel for Jewish parents who want to get closer to their Jewish identity. His family has also been active for some 20 years in the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and other Jewish organizations.

"I definitely see more antisemitism," he says. "As early as seven years ago, I felt that cracks were beginning to appear in what many considered the golden age of Jews in America. I realized that in all the efforts to create a culture of diversity and inclusion in the United States, Jews were not part of the equation. Many find it difficult to understand, especially in America, that Jews are still a minority in danger. We are victims of our success in Israel and the West as a whole. We worked hard and overcame huge obstacles, so people forget that we are a minority and that antisemitism still exists."

Burgin moved to an Israeli startup, but continued living in the US. There too, he says, the same wind is blowing. "Antisemitism has always been like a virus that keeps changing its shape. My son, who attends a liberal, private, non-religious high school, faces it, while my daughter, who is in a Jewish school, does not, which corroborates the claim."

And this antisemitism, he says, has been revealed in all its ugliness after October 7. "Everything that had been hidden for years has surfaced. What we have seen in recent months in the universities has shaken me. If you had told me that there would be a Hamas terrorist attack, I could have expected it, because the situation is complicated and the conflict is ongoing. If you had told me that parts of the Arab world would support it, I would have understood. But if you told me that all the campuses in the United States would jump for joy and say, 'Yes, this is how it should be,' I would have said it was impossible."

Visit under fire

Burgin has a long history in the tech industry and Silicon Valley. He moved to Seattle after college to start at Amazon in 1997 as a software engineer, and went through several positions and companies over the course of the next 15 years, during which he was a senior executive responsible for product development and growth engines in a number of companies. He grew Zynga's in-game advertising revenue by 600%. In 2014, he returned to Amazon, this time to the AWS Cloud Computing Unit, where he served as a Director in the EC2 (Compute) division and later General Manager of AWS Outposts, a service that offers managed computing and storage cabinets that are connected to the cloud but bring AWS services inside customers' data centers. Burgin has grown several AWS services into businesses that bring in more than $1 billion a year for Amazon, along with leading three startup acquisitions.

It was there that he met Amiram Shachar, who presented him with a preliminary version of Spot.IO, and the connection between the two was established. Shachar courted Burgin for a long time, and when he founded Upwind, Burgin was a vice president at VMware, responsible for billions in revenue for the company. When Broadcom acquired VMware, he realized he had to look for a new path.

Amiram Shachar credit: Upwind
 Amiram Shachar credit: Upwind

"I could have taken some time off. But then October 7 happened, and it really shook everyone up," he says. Burgin and his wife traveled to Israel on separate solidarity missions, where they met bereaved families, visited Hostage Square, and saw the impacted kibbutzim.

And then came the offer from Upwind. "At that moment all the stars came into line, and it made perfect sense to me. I was impressed by what the company was doing and felt that it fit my way of seeing things - they are fully focused on creating solutions for problems that are first and foremost related to customers, it's an innovation designed to serve customers."

"I met with Amiram's team in more depth at the end of my trip, with rockets flying over our heads. We sat in a restaurant in Tel Aviv and it was like a fire test for the first meeting with the team. But at the same time I felt safer in Israel than in the United States, and from that moment on it was clear to me that I wanted to join the company."

"Work with Israel will continue"

On the basis of his deep and close acquaintance with the top technology companies, Burgin believes that the manifestations of antisemitism and criticism of Israel on their part may exist, but their impact on doing business in Israel is not particularly evident. "True, the discourse is noisy," he says, "but in reality, work with Israel will continue."

We see that at companies like Amazon and Google, some employees are not prepared to work with Israel.

"First of all, it must be said that this is still a small minority of people, a very noisy minority, but a small one. I worked on Nimbus (the Israeli government cloud tender, N.T.) at Amazon and later at VMware. The companies fully back Israel, for several reasons: first, they work with many governments and want everyone to move to the cloud; second, they have many employees in Israel and are happy about it, because the talent in Israel is wonderful. The Israeli technology industry - and especially the cyber industry - is known the best place to find brilliant employees, and to invest in innovative companies. Companies won't turn down this talent just because a small minority opposes the administration.

"There are 350 million people in the United States. If your worldview isn't very popular, and shared by only 10% of people, that's still 35 million people. That's a lot. So when you have 200 million people around the world backing these small minorities within a company like Google, they feel like the whole world is behind them."

Neverthelss, Burgin has harsh criticism for these companies. "Big companies must fight offensive and antisemitic statements publicly, and they must do it now. These are very extreme people. They're willing to harm the company and hold it hostage, which is ironic."

Nonetheless, we see the behavior of Amazon, which is unwilling to speak out and act for the return of the hostage Sasha Troufanov. The employees tried to take independent action, but they were silenced and not listened to. It is not necessarily a minority within the company.

"At Amazon, everyone knew Sasha, and was outraged by what happened to him and his family. It reminded many of the Holocaust, the idea of an entire family being wiped out, his father shot in front of his eyes. Many current and former employees, myself included, tried to raise awareness of the situation for his sake. What saddens me is that the American media covering the war makes almost no mention of the hostages. It got Israel to the point where it had to apologize for the fighting, and Amazon had to consider its global reputation in the media. However, I think it's important for the company to speak out on this issue publicly, for Sasha and his family."

Sources close to Amazon say it's a quiet company that doesn't like releasing public statements, which seems like an expression of founder and chairman Jeff Bezos' famous statement that "Amazon is willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time." This approach has been heavily criticized, especially in the light of the conduct of another tech giant, Nvidia. Since the beginning of the war, Nvidia has worked for Avinatan Or, an Nvidia employee who is held hostage in Gaza, and CEO Jensen Huang himself has spoken out quite a bit on the subject.

"Wars come and go"

When I ask Burgin how the war will affect Israeli companies, he explains: "What's good and bad about the business world is that things are above politics. You can see that all companies today have to be global. They have to deal with global instability and with a wide range of views. When Intel bought Mobileye for $15 billion, politics didn't play a role. Even if antisemites claim that Israel is an apartheid state, business leaders know it’s false. If you keep innovating and building things that customers need, you'll either be bought or go public, and customers will use your product, regardless of what's going on in your country."

"As long as the Israeli spirit of the Startup Nation is preserved, the Israeli industry will keep going. Israel doesn't succeed just because people poured money into it, after all, you could give my family a billion dollars and we wouldn't have created Israel in my home, because the conditions aren't there (Burgin lives in Seattle, as mentioned, N.T.). In Israel there is a magical encounter of Jewish culture with the need of the state to build itself for success; it’s an existential matter."

There is, however, one issue that Burgin is concerned about: stability. "The reason America has succeeded is stability. I know it's boring, but in the US the government doesn't fall apart every four minutes. Businesses can survive and thrive when there's stability, and when the rules don't change. The UK is a very stable country, it has a parliamentary system and it has elections. What happened with Brexit is that all the basic rules were simply changed. It could happen in Israel if there is a government decision that fundamentally changes the rules that impact companies, like taxation rules."

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, he does not necessarily include the war in the category of instability, unless "it goes on forever," he qualifies. "This is the only scenario where I can see businesses stopping investments. I know that Israel feels that war is very existential, but countries and business leaders tend to think that it will end, which will probably happen.

"America has also had wars. Wars aggravate divisions within society because people are divided over whether they are really necessary and who should fight. But corporations don't necessarily look at it that way. Part of this has to do with the fact that corporations live with their gaze one to three years ahead. Wars come and go. This war is not going to eradicate all the positive business conditions that still exist in Israel."

Amazon stated: "We remain constantly focused on all efforts to bring Sasha home safely and ensure support for his family during this difficult time. Our thoughts are with them and with all those who continue to be affected by the war."

Joshua Burgin (50)
Personal: Married with two children, lives in Seattle.
Professional: Chief Product Officer at Upwind; former VP at VMware and AWS Outposts General Manager at Amazon; B.A. in Philosophy.
Fun fact: Started programming at age 7.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on May 28, 2024.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2024.

Joshua Burgin credit: Nick Hanyok imaging
Joshua Burgin credit: Nick Hanyok imaging
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