Things can get lonely when you’re the new kid — or adult — in town, and for immigrant entrepreneurs looking to start a new business in Israel, loneliness isn’t the only problem. Business is all about connections, and it can take a very long time to build up a network of mentors, customers, lawyers, bankers, and supporters who can share their resources to help build success.
What immigrant entrepreneurs need is a shortcut — and that’s exactly what they find at TheHive, an accelerator that caters specifically to new immigrants in Israel. The accelerator provides all the usual support services — work spaces, mentors, advice and planning — but for new olim, those services take on a much more important role in the success of their business than they do for “regular” Israelis, who already know how to negotiate the system in Israel.
New olim have much to contribute to Israel, said Cynthia Phitoussi, codirector and founder of TheHive. “The immigrants in our program give as much as they get,” she told The Times of Israel. “Western olim have great ideas on solving problems that Israelis should be listening to, ideas that have great potential for the economy of Israel.”
To that end, Gvahim, a nonprofit that helps new immigrants find jobs and build careers in Israel, started TheHive early last year. The first round included eight companies; the second round, which is ending in January, has 10. Phitoussi said that the first round, which ended last May, was an unqualified success. “Five of the eight start-up programs have already raised funds, launched their product, recruited staff, formed partnerships, and show significant sales.”
Not only do the ideas and projects started by olim from North America, South America, and Europe help out the Israeli economy, said Phitoussi; the can-do spirit of Western entrepreneurs trying to make it in Israel, against many odds, is a great lesson in Zionism for native Israelis as well. “When they first meet the entrepreneurs in our program, many Israelis ask ‘Why?’– why did they leave New York or London, why did they choose to come to a country where life is so much harder, and why are they trying to start a business in a country where red tape can get out of control? When they see that program participants are willing to do it, it gives them more confidence in the future of Israel.”
Last week, TheHive ran a special “graduation event” for investors, enabling the program members to pitch their ideas in the hope of getting on the radar of VCs and angels. Ten start-ups began the second round of TheHive’s accelerator program last August, but only one could be chosen as the top start-up by investors: SmartLive, which provides a platform for better and more efficient customer service for companies.
Yohanna Emkies, the COO of SmartLive, is an olah from France, and has been in Israel for six years. “I had worked in the customer service space in France and wanted to continue that here. I had heard about TheHive and thought it sounded like an exciting program, but it was only after we joined the program that we realized how much potential we had,” Emkies said. “We met a lot of people who helped us out, teaching us about business, how to pitch our ideas, and much more. We now have a great network of people who are helping us out in many ways.” Emkies compares TheHive to “the ultimate garage, the kind of place where entrepreneurs work on the nuts and bolts of their ideas, turning it into a success. But in this garage they have all the resources you could need to succeed — help with technology, content, legal issues, and much more.”
Currently, TheHive does not get any government assistance, although Phitoussi is hopeful that will change soon, as the Absorption Ministry has begun taking an interest in the accelerator’s activities. Meanwhile, all the funds to run TheHive come from donations, corporate and private. If and when government funding kicks in, Phitoussi said, the group will be able to expand its activities, offering more programs for immigrant entrepreneurs.
Which would be a very good thing for Israel. “The people who come to us have a wide variety of skills, language abilities, business acumen, and great ideas. Just to have them in one room is a great experience,” enthused Phitoussi. “This is a great way to maximize the potential of the Israeli economy.”