Like I’d died and gone to geek Heaven
By 30 she had already established four start-ups. Later on, she was the first Israeli accepted to Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity University. Now ,she is incorporating innovative ideas into a new format that will usher you into revolutionary digital reality.
By Maya Sela, Photo by Ilya Melnikov
During our conversation, Maya Elhalal-Levavi, 37, showed me her digital brain. I felt minor discomfort peeking straight into her brain, but she said that for her it is “A protective mechanism against disasters”. These things will evolve to be even more of a digital representation of our brain and experiences, so much so,that if we sustained brain injury, we could re-upload all our knowledge”. It is the “The Brain” application, that you can upload ideas into it, names and pictures and create a diagram to corresponding with our associations to them. The result is a digital representation of ideas and links that enables to manage the private knowledge. At least theoretically, this is also the place for all the fantasies and perversions.
“So if I die I can leave my brain to my daughter?” I asked, immediately turning to morbid humor. “Yes”, she laughed. Have you seen the ‘Black Mirror’ series? There is a similar example there. The futurist Ray Kurzweil wrote that the ability to minimize artificial intelligence into a Mobile device will materialize by 2030 ,making the mobile”brain” more clever and wittier than the human brain. You can get receive a witty text from your lover, for instance, but actually, they might be in a meeting and it would be the artificial intelligence keeping the romance alive”.
No doubt that her digital performance is impressive. Part of the time we were standing near the large glass door of her office, which diagrams were drawn on it with marker in order to explain her ideas. Later on she showed me her 360 camera, which takes a 360 degrees photograph in one click and we took a picture with delight. She has a performer’s charisma, but it turned out later in our conversation that the performance characteristics are not necessarily congenital features, and you can learn and teach them.
She is the CEO, founder and curator of the contents of ESH, an initiative that deals with development of structured conferences aimed at maximizing the knowledge conveyed in them. Among the formats developed, together with Prof. Dan Arieli, you can find Bubbles, where participants were encouraged to burst bubbles of thoughts, in a light format. The company employs ten permanent employees, and for each project a few dozens more are recruited ad hoc. By now she has already orchestrated 20 conferences,with each undertaking spanning up to a year. Her main preoccupation these days is developing two international conferences, to be held in Israel, and are dedicated to shaping the future of human experience.
To understand the resistance to change
She was born in Jerusalem and grew up in Herzliya. Elhalal is a Yugoslavian surname, originating from the Sepharadic jews , deported from Spain. Her father, who now lives in Belgrade, was born in Israel to Holocaust survivors and manages retail companies. This was how he met her mother, who was a successful salesperson.
In the army, she was an officer in the unit devoted to screening army personnel before allowing them to become officers and advance. She has a BA in Computer Science from the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC Herzliya), and attended the prestigious entrepreneurship program ‘Zell’. In the IDC ,with her mate ( at the time) founded four start-ups. “The first initiative project was in fact my schooling for initiatives. We established Spot Folio in 2003, when we lived in Australia. This is a platform for websites creation such as Wix, only with longstanding tools and for professional photographers. Then we established Ad On Spot, a company that monetized High-traffic sites, later on we continued with Beta Marker, a social network focused on software preferences, which enabled users to manage and update their softwares and learn about new softwares.
The last initiative, Quotes Daddy, was developed in the years when I gave many lectures and found that when I was preparing materials for lectures I went through many quotes, because sometimes a quote from the right person validates, and in a condensed form or witty, is saying what I want to say. I did not have a place where I can keep them all in order to reuse them. The initiative was driven from this need and we built up a system of citations that gives individuals the ability to offer and add their own quotes. It is really a cool site and I am still using it”. Ad On Spot, which was the largest project of the four, used to manage dozens of millions of business pages a month.
She is the first Israeli woman who completed the Executive Education Program at Singularity University in the Research Center of NASA in California. Not an easy feat ,to gain admission to a place that seeks to provide tools to entrepreneur s in order to make use of the great potential of the technologies. In her application she described her desire to explore people’s objections to radical ideas offered by the digital revolution and the way it will change life in almost every facet. They liked it…
“For me it was like a dream that came true. Just being at the research center at NASA, where there are hangars filled with spacecrafts and astronauts roam the halls. And I, got the chance to talk address them as an equal. As if I’d died and gone to geek Heaven. There, for the first time, I was able to be convinced beyond any doubt how powerful the digital revolution is and the profound way in which it will change our lives”.
Why it is difficult for us to understand what is going to happen?
“One of the reasons that we cannot grasp this exponential growth, is because it is not intuitive to us. It is a very difficult concept for us to perceive, resistance to change is inherent, and I want to find ways to give access to the ideas so we can be proactive in designing the future. We grew and evolved in a linear environment. If I am taking 30 steps it means that I passed a distance of 30 meters. But if I ride an exponentially digital growth graph, so when I am taking 30 steps it means that I progressed from one to a billion. This explains the growth of companies that leverage the capabilities of digital products. Google, Amazon, Twitter and Facebook are the classic ones. What is common to all of them is that by using the digital platforms, they harness the activity of all users in favor of growth, as opposed to the old economy where growth was dependent on employees’ activity”.
At age of 30 she separated from her mate and from the four projects they established. “I was single again, and for the first time I had some money of my own, as we sold our joint assets. I moved to live in Tel Aviv and I had all the freedom levels that one can dream of. I was after a very intensive seven years of work and travel.” Shortly after, she visited NYC, where she met Noam Levavi, who became her husband, and the father of her children (4, 2.5 and a one year old baby).
Levavi established in 1999 ,YCD multimedia, a provider of intelligent digital media solutions. “I moved in with him in New York and two years after the wedding I already had two small children. Noam worked long hours in NY and I felt I needed some help. My life during that period felt like I am managing a project of guilty feelings. I couldn’t find the right balance that enabled me to work like I wanted and in parallel to raise my children. Once we returned, it changed, because I now have intensive help from my family. Paradoxically, although I could do bigger things over there – as I could approach many of the speakers and opinion leaders, I attained far less. Today I am able to work more, travel more and my guilty feelings have somewhat subsided. In fact, we returned in order to enable me to work as intensively as I wanted”. She was one of the initiators that brought TEDx to Israel, which is TED’s expansion for local communities. “It was a period in which I decided that I could afford heading a project that I am passionate about it, without yielding to the business model behind it. Simply to do what I wanted to .”
Did you bring into account that it may fail?
“They always show you only the pictures of the giant exit check and not the projects that are had risn and fell, after people “burnt” a few years of their life, and sometimes even large sums of money. The failure is part of the entrepreneurship process. There is no choice. We have to learn the hard way how make our peace with this experience.”
Is the fact that your husband is an entrepreneur helpful?
“The fact that Noam is an entrepreneur is very helpful. He raised a lot of money over the years, in almost any type of funding form, and he had many employees. His knowledge and experience are enormous and I consult him often. Most nights,we go outside to sit in the yard. Our conversations are 80% work related. On the other hand, this is a challenge, as today, both of us are in stages of constructing new businesses, and this is a very intensive time “.
Marriage for hundreds of years
“The digital world is about to change us greatly” she says, “And will force us to re-think every aspect in our lives. This will require an open dialogue on the new norm of behavior between people. Today, for example, you can find out that your spouse had conducted an ongoing conversation of two years with another person via SMS messages. In the past, these things could have happened secretly, but from now on it will be difficult to hide due to many digital reasons.” She refers, for example, to the fact that we will live longer, so that couples can be married for hundreds of years. “There are already predictions stating that the first person who will live to the age of 1000 will be only ten years younger than the first person who will be the first to reach to the age of 150 years, and that the 150 years old person has already been born”.
Do we want to live for hundreds of years?
“Yes, definitely. Noam, my spouse and I always say “until we’ll be digital”. I find it fascinating. The human experience will be different. Today the majority of human experiences are sensorial experiences, our brain is flooded with stimuly. We may not be in this format anymore. We would be integrated with technology. It will be an amazing world to live in”.
What about world overpopulation?
“We probably will not live on this planet forever. All is going to be radically changed. We have various mechanisms related to human nature that do not allow us to absorb the rate of change and how our will be altered by it. For example, it would not be wise to think about a career choice of driving a taxi in a world that will have only autonomous cars”. These are just some ideas that she wants to turn into more accessible and clear paths. Elhalal has a well rounded theory on how to mediate ideas. “If you google search trends what people seeking, you will see that Kim Kardashian has more searches than searches for terms such as ‘the meaning of life’, ‘happiness’ or ‘global warming’ “. She demonstrates. “According to the sheer number of searches she is 30 times more interesting. Another thing that is connected here is time. Time is an ultimate zero-sum game. Time that is dedicated to one thing can never be dedicated to other thing. There is a collection of studies that show that there is no real multi-tasking in high thinking. Not without a price”.
So how do you help us watch a lecture rather than an episode of a reality show?
“We have to design and create an environment that helps make the right decisions. Once I realized this, I changed the way searched for trend and content. I understood that content is not king and new knowledge does not rule, but rather biology is king and the environment rules. These two things together are, actually, determined through a collection of small details that come together, where people’s attention goes. I’ll give you an example. Where were you in August 2010?”
I have no idea.
“But you know where you were on 9/11??”
“If there is a significant event, important and interesting, it is stored in the brain in a more detailed level and in association with what had happened. If I want to draw your attention to an important detail,it is important to keep in mind, to present it with something that stirrs emotions. Curation of content is very important because the amount of content and its accessibility today are unlimited. If there is an idea that I feel it’s time has arrived, and people do not find it as fascinating as i do, I can bring it to them combined with winning content. “
How to attract the attention of the audience?
“We design a presentation, for example, in accordance with how the brain manages resources of analysis and understanding. This ability is an exhaustible resource throughout the day. Brain capacity is higher in the morning than in the evening. Another thing we know is that the brain likes to decode facial expressions of people, babies and patterns, so I will shape my visual accessories in a way that attracts attention. Ultimately, it comes down to ‘can I eat it, or it is going to eat me, ‘and’ ‘can I mate with it and will it agree to mate with me. We are designed to be attracted to certain things. When presenting a new idea, more than 80% of what is impacting it non verbal”.
You describe a world where if you are a great performer but a mediocre human being you have an advantage over a physics prodigy who’s a poor public speaker.
“Right. I want to see how you can take advanced thinkers who possess the most relevant knowledge and make them interesting. To do this, you need to study human nature,specifically regarding attention span and learning. When we work on presenting an idea, most of the work is about taking the knowledge of the person and his understanding and putting them all into story format, one that involves as many senses as possible. This way you will remember it much better”.
Exiting on a high note
Her personality today is completely different than it was. “As a child I had social anxiety. I did not like going to class parties, for instance, and I would announce to my mother that my stomach may hurt and I will have to return. Indeed, I used to go back in the middle, and she used to wait for me with a cup of tea and I, immediately felt better. Today I cannot wait for opportunities to travel by myself to conferences, land in a new place and spend four days with several hundred people I have never met before. When traveling with friends or partners, it is easiest escaping from moments when I find myself suddenly alone. When I have no one to talk to, I have to join a conversation or speak directly with someone in order to start a conversation.
“I learned that other people are equally embarrassed in such situations, and they are almost always happy when someone approaches them. There is also etiquette that you can learn. I love staring at people’s feet. They are almost always pointed towards they really want to go. Someone can turn to me with their upper body during a conversation, but if they’re already pointing elsewhere with their feet, or even one foot turned out,it’s like a leaked message of the person’s true desires.
“I also notice when the other party stops asking questions, and I allow the conversation to come to a hault , the other person in front of me may say that it is very interesting and he would be happy to continue on another occasion and we go our separate ways, or they ask a question, and I know they wish to continue. In general, I always prefer that the other side be left with a taste of wanting more than become saturated. It’s always better to leave when the level of interest is still high. For me, these situations are a tremendous opportunity for adventure”.
Today she is a popular lecturer, after she managed to overcome the terrible stage fright – a few years ago she undertook teaching a course at the Interdisciplinary Center in order to create a situation where she will have no choice but to face an audience. “I would sit at home and practice guided imagery day and night. I learned why there is fear of an audience, how we can change that, and I simply developed a way for myself. Later, when a proposal to train the lecturers of TEDxTelAviv came, I said yes, but what about the role of the moderator? It took 60 hours of training. They took me to very uncomfortable place in order for me to stand in front of an audience and have the ability to deal with it. “
Perhaps because of your stage fright you are on stage today.
“They say a good way to know what one wants is to do is to look at who they are jealous of, and what they are good at. Because I genuinely appreciate charismatic speakers, such as the ones holding conferences of several hundred people, I really wanted to get better at it and it was important to me to overcome my stage fright “.
And today, is it pleasant for you to stand on stage?
“The moments I love the most are those when you can feel the entire hall is transmitting on the same frequency”.
Passion also needs to be planned
She already acts according to how we will probably act in a digital world, and she carefully selects what to see. “If I want to focus on writing or reading there are always distractions – Whatsapp, Skype, Facebook…
Once my mind was distracted, returning to full focus does not happen immediately and it has a cumulative negative effect on productivity. Instead of thinking that I would be able to see a popup message and not check it out, I use an application that shuts down all alerts for 25 minutes. Some organizations started doing that – they shut down the mail servers over the weekend and new mail items are not received, otherwise it is very difficult not to address them. It is done in order for people to really have a restful weekend and it is an example of how it is possible to manage the environment in the digital era”.
The theories she learned, also affect her personal life. “Passion also needs to be planned. With three small children you should act as an architect of the environment. When I go on date night with my husband, I try to act like a couple that just went on their first date and we try not to mention the kids. Or, for instance, taking a ten days’ vacation on a gorgeous beach. You are there for only ten days, but for the rest of your life you feed off this memory, so it’s worth investing in designing a memory that exceeds reality”.
How would the digital world be in a few years?
“The health sector will become very personal. There will be fewer reasons for major illnesses to go unnoticed , as we will use internal sensors that will constantly monitor our physical state. We could anticipate diseases in advance and stop them. Each of us will have data about their own health. We can be informed partners and manage our own health. Also, there will be a change in the education field. Today you can take courses of various universities via the web. Through these systems anyone can put together their own curriculum which l includes what they wish to learn. There will be no reason to travel to a physical location”.
Another area where she sees a change is the workplace. According to her, our telecommunications capabilities will become extremely high and people will do their job online, “but that does not mean they won’t be good team players.. My company already operates this way. I met Anat , my personal assistant, only once. She works from home here in Israel. Heidi, who is responsible for our strategy development lives in New York. Brooke and Josh, who do our copywriting, are in Portland. Diego, our tech guy, is in Colombia, and Johelya, who is charged with our post-production and market research, lives in the Philippines. There is excellent collaboration between all in order to make things happen without geographic limitations.
I find it amazing. The freedom it allows is enormous on the lifestyle level. You can simply work from anywhere in the world, you can get the greatest talents, and a very high level of efficiency that makes better use of the 24 hours of each day. The business benefits for it and the employees gain flexibility in their lives”.
She is well aware of the fact that this might also create future problems that would need solving. For example, in the regard to taxation, the question would arise of where the company is actually located, if its employees are scattered around the world, as well as state law issues”. What actually, defines a country? It is also possible that these geographical borders would become blurred and that you may have a strong connection with your circuits in a way that is not related to your geographic location. To me it is an exciting and brave new world, and, of course, it requires dialogue and redefinition of many of the social and economic models we live according to today”.
The mind in the digital era
How does the mind manage to grasp the accelerated digital changes?
“One of the ways for the mind to defend itself against the information flow is to store the experience. In many matters in my life today I deliberately engineer an environment that will assist me in better dealing with the human experience, I would be less depressed, less sad. I can control what I can see or what I do not see. I am curating the content I am revealed to. I have not had a TV set for over 12 years. I’m not subscribed to any newspaper as I cannot control what will be written in it”.