Eyal Bino is a co-founder and partner at ICONYC labs, a customized acceleration program for top early-stage Israeli tech startups looking to become successful global companies via NYC. Born in Tel Aviv and educated in New York, Eyal’s passion has always been merging these two powerhouse tech ecosystems and suppporting exceptional Israeli entrepreneurs. He lives in New York with his wife, Dina, and their two kids, Ella and Micah. You can follow Eyal on Twitter @eyalbino.
If you told me 20 ago that I’d be living in New York, married to a non-Jewish girl and working in venture capital, I’d say you must be crazy. Insane. But it turns out this is my life at 41. It’s been guided by the heart, not the mind.
My life has been defined by a series of unexpected pivots, from school to business to love. So much of it was unexpected and, in many ways, unimaginable. I’m excited to share some of my abrupt changes of direction with you and the even more unexpected lessons they have taught me.
I grew up in Bat Yam, a city that neighbors Tel Aviv, and I set off on the traditional path – did well in school, played basketball, went into the army. I tried to take the conventional route my parents expected me to follow. After all, they were blue-collar folks who just wanted their kids to be good students, good workers and good people. It went without saying that all of this was supposed to happen close to home. Maybe not in the same town I grew up in, but somewhere reasonably nearby. This was the only way they knew – the only way I knew – until…
I was midway through my army service when I decided to sign up for a course to prepare for the Israeli SATs (or Psichometri as we call them in Hebrew). I thought, “Why not get this out of the way before I finish my army service?” I went to the first class not knowing what to expect and not even really sure why I was doing this. What was the rush?
At that first class, I sat near a guy who would become one of my very best friends and who would one day pave the way for my move to America. Dori had roots in the US since his dad was living in Stamford, Connecticut. After spending a lot of time studying for the exam, neither of us did particularly well, most likely due to the knowledge we had gained of Tel Aviv bars in addition to our test subjects.
Dori ended up moving to the States to enroll at the University of Connecticut (UConn), and I was intrigued by the idea of studying in America too. So although I was already accepted into a school in Israel, I made a last-minute decision to switch gears and try my luck in the US instead.
I bought a ticket to New York and tried a summer class at UConn. I was amazed by how big the campus was, how different the culture was, and coming from Israel, how green the grass was. What can I say? I decided to go all in, and I did what any naive Israeli would do: I bought a directory of colleges and started calling schools in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. There I am in the middle of August cold-calling basketball coaches asking if I can try out for their teams about two weeks before school starts.
Seriously?? Every American kid starts getting serious about picking a college about two years in advance. But with me, two years became two weeks. I guess that’s an Israeli trait. After a lot of interesting phone calls, I ended up getting accepted to Kean University, where I played on the basketball team and got a full academic scholarship. This definitely wasn’t the plan when I signed up for an SAT test prep course – not even close – but it turned out to be one of my favorite pivots.
After finishing college and getting a little work experience, I decided to pursue a master’s degree at NYU. Then came my first big job: running business development for an education tech company based in New York City and with offices in Tel Aviv. I was excited by the opportunity because it combined business development with working for an Israeli-NY company, two things I was very passionate about. And it was great…until my boss left and I found myself working for a new guy who didn’t seem to like me or value my skills as much. It became clear that I had to make a move, but I had no idea what it should be.
I started to advise startups and liked it, but I quickly realized this was too difficult without a good infrastructure in place. One of my mentors told me to “go get a real job.” That comment stung for a couple of days, but it led me to come up with an idea that proved pivotal for my career. I decided to develop a program to help international tech startups break into NYC more strategically and to give them real exposure to the tech ecosystem here. I called it the Global Innovator program. It was a fantastic journey, with 100 startups from every corner of the world going through the process in 4 years. The things I learned every day while I was running this business were invaluable. This was a pivotal career decision, and the lessons it taught me will stay with me forever.
And then, as if this weren’t enough, came my love story, and it’s the most non-traditional of them all. I spent my early 30s as a single guy in New York, working hard but partying even harder. That meant going out as often as possible, hanging out with friends nearly every night and soaking up everything the city has to offer, which is a lot. If you’ve ever lived here, you know you can make a career out of that.
In my mind, I never saw myself seriously dating an American, let alone a non-Jewish half-Italian half-Irish one. But as they say, you make plans and God laughs. And I had him in hysterics. It was a Sunday afternoon in late April of 2008 when I was having a drink with a couple friends at one of NYC’s finest rooftop bars. This was where I met Dina, who very quickly became my date, then my girlfriend, then my fiancée. But because it happened so quickly, I was not that easy to deal with in the beginning because it completely upended my conventional thinking, and I needed to let my mind catch up to my heart. She was the best thing that had ever happened to me – completely unlike everyone I had met before. She was always so open, supportive, optimistic, fun and positive, and she also happened to be extremely pretty, too. No, she was never in the army, and I can’t tell her jokes in Hebrew, but she taught me that when there’s a connection, nothing else matters. Religion, origin, culture, history, they’re all details.
I ended up proposing to her at the United Nations, a place that is not so favorable for us Israelis these days, but back then it was the perfect spot as it symbolized our joint life coming from totally different parts of the world. We now have two beautiful kids and live very happily in the suburbs of New York.
Life is full of crossroads, twists and turns. We’re always facing new challenges, some of which are unexpected and quite scary. Whether it’s where to go to school, what to study, where to live, what to do for work or whom to date, your life is shaped by the decisions you make. So if you have some important ones to make and you’re not sure if going the traditional route is right for you, see what else is out there. Then follow your heart. It may be the best thing that ever happens to you…even if it was something you never imagined.