The Mensch List: The matchmaker

For a moment, it seemed like Jacob Segal was the interviewer.

Walking into Delice Bakery on a recent Monday morning, the 67-year-old businessman was already there, sitting by the window facing Pico Boulevard, huddled over the Los Angeles Times.

He stood up energetically, gave a broad smile worthy of a good Jewish zayde, and asked in a hybrid Israeli and Eastern European accent, “What do you want for breakfast?” 

And over the course of the next 45 minutes, Segal’s questions illustrated why he’s so good at what he does.

“Where do you live?” he asked curiously. “Are you seeing anyone?”

That’s just who Jacob Segal is — a networker, shmoozer, people person and volunteer shadchen, or matchmaker. No, not for prospective couples, but for Israeli entrepreneurs looking for capital and expertise in Southern California.

Since 1994, Segal has been a real-life LinkedIn, connecting Israeli entrepreneurs with investors in Southern California. As the head of the Southern California Israel Chamber of Commerce (SCICC), Segal works tirelessly with a handful of dedicated volunteers to help Israeli entrepreneurs find what and who they are looking for in the local economy.

Never taking a dime of compensation for the valuable relationships he helps create, Segal arranges monthly meet-and-greets, usually midweek breakfast events at different venues in the city. 

In April, he brought Haifa-based Chagit Rubinstein to an early-morning bagel breakfast in Century City to talk about her microfinance initiative. It was a unique opportunity to make her pitch, shmooze, and network with potential investors. 

Some of the shidduchim — matches — turn into long, happy business relationships. Some last for a few years and then sputter out. And some, well, let’s just say they weren’t meant to be.

From coupling an Israeli electrical grid monitoring company with local energy firms to helping the non-profit Israel for Africa set up a 501(c)(3) in America, Segal is, in a way, repaying the country that helped get him out of the former Soviet Union and into the free world.

Born in August 1946, Segal grew up in Iasi — a city known as the cultural center of Romania — under communist rule. Secretly tuning in to radio broadcasts of Kol Israel and the Voice of America, Segal was eager to leave Romania. 

In 1965, he got his wish, moving to Israel, where the government paid the costs of resettlement for Segal, then 19; his mother; and his brother and sister.

Segal believes that growing Israel’s economy, relationship by relationship, helps the world see Israel in a different light. “Economics is the best way to do good diplomacy,” Segal likes to say, explaining how products and technology made in Israel help frame the Jewish state in a light that doesn’t involve green lines, negotiations and settlements.

Shai Aizin, who was Israel’s consul for economic affairs to the West Coast and based in Los Angeles between 2005 and 2009, said that Segal and SCICC have helped him in his role as a private businessman since he moved to Israel.

“They’ve helped tremendously,” Aizin said in a phone interview from Israel in April. “They are always willing to see what they can do and how they can help.”

As Segal put it as he polished off the last of his cheese-and-spinach boureka, “If there’s a need, we’ll find a way.” 

Then he sat down and waited for his next interviewee — a girl he wanted to speak with before recommending her to a local businessman and friend looking to fill an opening.

Bringing Israel to L.A.

At a recent early-morning bagel breakfast in Century City, Israeli entrepreneur Chagit Rubinstein had the chance to do what any foreign businesswoman searching for a market in Southern California dreams of: She networked.

Rubinstein, who lives in Haifa, directs microfinance programs for Koret Israel Economic Development Funds (KIEDF), an Israeli nongovernmental organization established nearly 20 years ago by the Koret Foundation of San Francisco. KIEDF extends loans to small and micro businesses in Israel, many of which are owned by low-income individuals who would likely face prohibitive interest rates if they went through normal lending channels.

The intimate breakfast last month, attended by a handful of men and women from various local companies, was just one of many networking events organized by the Southern California Israel Chamber of Commerce (SCICC), a group that assists Israeli entrepreneurs looking to break into the business market in California — usually to buy and sell goods, attract investors or simply to make personal connections that could pay off years in the future.

The organization’s predecessor, the California Israel Chamber of Commerce (CICC), was founded in 1994 by engineer and philanthropist Arthur Stern and attorneys David Gardner and David Herskovits. It was an initiative of Gerry Stoch, Israel’s economic consul to the Pacific Region at the time. Initially based in Los Angeles, the CICC helped American and Israeli companies, particularly ones involving technology — connect during the Silicon Valley boom in the 1990s, and it eventually relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area. The SCICC was then established to connect Israeli companies with Southern California and to provide an educational forum for U.S. businesses and individuals seeking to do business in Israel, according to Gardner.

Since then it has regularly sponsored breakfasts — like the one with Rubinstein — and evening get-togethers. From the leaders of Israel’s SpaceIL project, which aims to land the first Israeli spacecraft on the moon, to executives of major Israeli defense companies, SCICC’s main purpose is simple: facilitate business connections between Israel and Southern California.

“We are the shadchan [matchmaker],” said Jacob Segal, an SCICC executive board member. “We are connecting capital, people and opportunities.”

When an Israeli entrepreneur needs a list of names or even an audience to speak in front of, SCICC helps make that happen. Segal’s motivation in taking part in the organization, which doesn’t charge for its services, is the belief that vibrant Israeli businesses will make it easier for people around the world to view the Jewish state outside the prism of perpetual conflict.

“When I can [say] to somebody, ‘You see, if you look at your phone, this was technology that was invented in Israel,’ we get away from the conflict,” he said.

Shai Aizin, who was Israel’s consul for economic affairs to the West Coast and based in Los Angeles between 2005 and 2009, said that SCICC has helped the Israeli economy grow by making it easier for companies to find investors in America. And, he added, even in his current role as a private businessman, he has received help from SCICC.

“They’ve helped tremendously,” Aizin said in a phone interview from Israel. “They are always willing to see what they can do and how they can help.”

That assistance could take the form of anything from helping an Israeli businessman find investors to raise money for patent costs for a special type of jewelry to connecting local metal furniture manufacturers with an Israeli R&D design firm that designs bus station furniture.

Tom Shapiro, owner of Trade Supplies, a local specialist in food service packaging, said that a few years ago he was looking for a new manufacturer for one of the company’s products. So he contacted Segal to see if SCICC could help put him in touch with an Israeli manufacturer

“We were looking for an alternative manufacturer of a product in Israel,” Shapiro said. “We didn’t know where to look, so we spoke to Jacob and he was able to direct us.”

In 2006, an Israeli company founded by a student and professor from Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, e-mailed Segal hoping to meet investors interested in learning about the company’s groundbreaking technology, which made movies of Web site users’ browsing sessions. It was essentially a graphic look at how visitors navigate that Web site. Segal met with one of the founders and helped him connect with local investors. That company now has more than 80,000 users.

Unlike some Jewish matchmakers, Segal said SCICC simply makes the match and then lets things take their course. The group doesn’t know how many businesses have benefited from its work, only that companies constantly reach out to SCICC to make connections, suggesting that Israeli companies looking to make contact in Southern California know where to go.

Segal believes that SCICC’s role in fostering these types of connections can only help the Israeli economy become an engine for wealth creation.

“Israel’s no longer a startup nation,” Segal said. “It’s a standout nation.”