Avi Nevel, founder and CEO of the Rhode Island-Israel Collaborative (RIIC), was recently named by Providence Business News to its 2020 list of 25 Leaders & Achievers.
Nevel, an Israeli, and his wife, Laura, a native New Yorker, left Tel Aviv for Providence in 1981, when Laura was accepted to an OB/GYN residency at Brown University’s medical school.
Although they had only planned to stay in Rhode Island for four years, Nevel quickly found a foothold in the local business community, and the couple decided to stay in the Ocean State. They hold dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship; Avi was naturalized as an American citizen in 1986.
The Nevels, who have three adult daughters, celebrated their 44th wedding anniversary in July. The couple lives on Providence’s East Side.
Nevel is the head of Nevel International, LLC, an international business consulting company based in Providence. In 2017, he founded the not-for-profit Rhode Island-Israel Collaborative for the purpose of building bridges between businesses and government in Rhode Island and Israel.
You came to Rhode Island for your wife’s residency, a four-year program. What kept you here?
When we came [to Rhode Island], I was looking for a job. I’m a textile engineer by trade, and I studied instrumentation. Someone connected me to Lawson-Hemphill, a company that manufactured textile-testing instruments, and I got the job with them. After seven years I bought the company, and then in 2005 I sold the company.
And now you do consulting work with your company, Nevel International; tell me about that.
When I sold the company [Lawson-Hemphill], I felt there was a market for B2B [Business to Business] at the international level. At Lawson-Hemphill, we were a small company, 50 people, not a lot, but we exported all over the world. Around 70% of our business was international; we sold in 67 countries. I felt that I could help other companies do the same, so now I assist companies with strategic planning, help them prepare for trade shows, and serve as a guide and liaison between companies and business resources. Our aim is to help companies achieve their international business goals.
That liaison work is similar to the work you do with the Rhode Island-Israel Collaborative; how would you summarize what you do there?
I think I’ll stick to our mission statement. Our mission is to connect Israel and Rhode Island in business, academia and research. Anything we can do to connect [people and organizations], we’ll be happy. And, as I continually say to our board, “It’s not what we do, it’s what other people do as a result of our efforts.” We all volunteer, everyone on the board and myself. It takes a lot of my time, but I see it as a labor of love. Our mission is to help. If you call me and say, “Avi, I want to do something in Israel,” I’ll go to my board. We’ll help you.
RIIC’s website shows that the organization has built connections with Hasbro, IBM and many others. What was the genesis of the collaborative?
Well, there’s a lot of history behind it. When I sold the company [Lawson-Hemphill], I wanted to do something at the volunteer level, because I had more time, and an issue that was close to my heart was both Israel and Rhode Island. I said I’d get involved, and someone connected me with the Israeli Consulate; they asked me to help in Rhode Island. Before the Alliance [the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island] was called the Alliance, I was a chair of the Israel Task Force for five years, and I was on the executive board of the New England-Israel Business Council, in Boston, and we organized three business missions to Israel. The Israeli economic minister said to me, “[Rhode Island] has quite a lot of activities. Why don’t we have a chamber of commerce for Israel and Rhode Island?” I said, “Yes.” We felt there was a place to build something in Rhode Island, for Rhode Island, which is unique for being a small state with a big city.
And Rhode Island is a surprisingly vital place for its size?
Yes, and the truth is that we have so much activity going, and it keeps going. [RIIC] took on its own life, and people got involved. I was really happy when I called people and asked them to be on the board, because everyone I called said, “Yes, I would like to be on the board.” Usually, people shy away!
What do you think are some of Rhode Island’s greatest assets?
I love the location. I love sailing, and the sea, and Rhode Island is a heaven for that. I love the food culture. The people are very warm, the quality of life is amazing, and it’s a diverse culture. We’re also very convenient to Boston, but without the daily traffic, so that’s part of what we tell the Israelis.
But don’t make this story about me, because I really want to give a plug to the RIIC, our board, and what they’re doing. For me, that’s the most important.
It sounds like you’ve got a talent for bringing people together. What are some of RIIC’s greatest successes?
Well, no doubt one of the biggest successes is the [business] accelerator which we helped [build] with IBM Alpha Zone Israel. We wanted to be cutting-edge, so I called the Alpha Zone CTO in Israel and I said to him, “Listen, we’re going to have this conference in Rhode Island, and we’d like you to come.” He agreed, we pitched him to the Secretary of Commerce, to Brown University, a few other stakeholders, and they all came to an agreement, which established the Rhode Island iHub. I think that it was a huge coup, because IBM can work anywhere in the world. There were a lot of raised eyebrows; “Why in Rhode Island?” The CTO, he was shocked to see what was in Rhode Island. And this is one of the problems in Israel with Rhode Island, which is that people don’t know enough about what’s here. We tried to get [Rhode Island] governors to go to Israel on a business mission. In 2011 [Gov. Lincoln] Chafee couldn’t go because of the pension crisis. And then [Gov. Gina Raimondo] was supposed to go with us, but she got pneumonia the week before. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the term nudnik. I’m very good at that [being a nudge], so every time I see the governor, I say, “You need to go to Israel, you need to go to Israel.” And all the stars aligned, and [Raimondo] went to Israel. She saw how much was going on, and for me, I was pretty emotional when we went to the president’s house, and I said, “Gina, you’re fulfilling my dream of I don’t know how many years,” and she kind of gave me a hug and said, “See? Keep on pushing.”
It pays to be a nudnik?
It’s for a good cause, so I don’t feel bad about it. And people know that I really, truly believe it’s a win-win for Israel and for Rhode Island. It’s people to people; it’s not politics. I don’t care if you’re left, right, black, white, whatever. You create friendships through business.
What about challenges?
The challenge is to continue to build our name in Israel, and we’re doing it more and more. We want people to know about us – I mean Rhode Island – and that’s a challenge because literally every state wants to do business with Israel, because it’s a startup nation, a lot of technology, a lot of traffic there. And we’re a not-for-profit, so the other challenge is money. We don’t take any salaries, and a lot of my time is volunteer time. We can’t take donations, because we’re a 506(c) and not a 503(c); we get money from members and sponsors. But we shall overcome; we’re managing. We have a terrific board [with] great people from Rhode Island and two in Israel. I can’t give the board enough credit, they’re terrific.
What is RIIC working on now?
We’re celebrating three years of RIIC, which is a dream; we’re very successful. I’m working with the executive director of the Rhode Island iHub to try to recruit Israeli companies to move from New York to Rhode Island. There are already around 350 Israeli startups in New York, so we’re trying to see how to bring them here. We’re going to have a webinar with Hope & Main [culinary incubator, in Warren] for Israeli companies who’d like to start a food business in the U.S. We’re working on a new program named “Israel Marketplace,” and every two months we’re going to have three Israeli companies present new, cutting-edge startups in a webinar with us here.
What about RIIC’s plans for the future?
There are two things. One is developing young leadership, because we need that to sustain our mission long-term. Second thing, and it’s not our main mission, but the Jewish community has a disconnect with Israel. That’s no secret, but if you do some business with them, we connect with Israel. If I can connect people, especially young people, with Israel, I don’t need to worry about all the rest; they’ll become friends. So for us, part of the mission is to connect the young people, Jews and non Jews, to work together, because that is our future.
For more information, visit theriic.org and nevelinternational.com.
MICHAEL SCHEMAILLE (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes for Jewish Rhode Island and the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.