Nir Barkat is the current mayor of Jerusalem, serving his second term after his re-election victory in 2013. Graduated from the Hebrew University with a tech background, he founded the software company, BRM, before diving into politics with philanthropic investments in bridging educational gaps. During his tenure, Barkat has worked on issues of social welfare, local high-tech, culture, tourism, and opportunities for the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities in Jerusalem.
The Politic staff writer Allison Chen spoke with Barkat during his visit to Yale in November 2017.
The Politic: So, as someone with a tech background, what encouraged you to become the mayor of Jerusalem?
Nir Barkat: Definitely philanthropy. My wife and I wanted to take a high-tech background to the public schools and to the education system. And for that exposure, I felt that my skills were relevant to being a public entrepreneur and changing things in my city and exploring its potential, so I got sucked into doing more and more public stuff—not that I intended to in the beginning, but then when I realized real engagement was through philanthropy and that the city was not exploiting its potential, I decided to retire 16 years ago and focus on being mayor of Jerusalem, and I got sucked into it.
So you talked about helping with the education in Jerusalem; what kind of problems did you want to address?
Well mainly, I felt that we needed to run the economy in the city, so I focused, and still am focused, on economic growth and developing Jerusalem to its potential as a destination for tourism and culture. And we have a very strong Hebrew University in computer science, math, and applied sciences, so we are very skilled in the high-tech sector in our city. These are two economic drivers and also, coming outside the system, the political system, I brought reforms to the education system and welfare, and many, many other elements of local government.
So for me, it is improving services, making the city more attractive to investors, young couples, families, and visitors. That’s many, many reforms in making the city much, much better for the residents.
Because you are coming from a tech background, are you helping certain tech startups also work in social entrepreneurship?
There are almost triple the amount of startups in the city [compared to before I was mayor], so I helped actually lift, creating an ecosystem that is very attractive to young investors, and we grew [many] startups in four or five years. Also, the market share in the country is growing dramatically because of that.
Also, the tech background helps me manage the city through sophisticated data management and data mining and the ability to define measurable, meaningful, achievable goals, like in the high-tech sector and classic management—so leaving more professional management to the city and building a good team that knows how to get things done, which is not standing in public life, which I enjoy a lot.
Awesome! And also, what sort of goal do you plan on achieving with your visit to Yale?
Well, I make a habit of visiting the Ivy League, colleges around the United States and everywhere in the world. I know that it is an investment in a future. Sharing some of the challenges we have, I find that my perspective on the neighborhood and the Middle East and Israel specifically, and even more specifically in Jerusalem, may make a difference. I feel that I need to challenge the students so that the students challenge me and leave people with perspective. And also, been there done that, I was a Hebrew computer science graduate and from my home, so part of that feeling is to feed back to the next generation of students.
Okay! And, I just have some rapid-fire questions. Where do you get your news?
My team provides it, as in we get it from the media or social media.
What place would you most like to visit?
Meaningful places I have not been to yet. Pyramids, Egypt.
If you weren’t in your current job, what would you be doing no?
I would probably be in high-tech.
Do you have any advice for college students?
Follow your passion. I am an entrepreneur, so I went through a path of entrepreneurship, but it’s really follow your passion. Do what you like, and it will eventually become your life.
Thank you so much! Thank you for the interview!