Chana, 21, and Miriam, 20, were among the youngest of the 50 Orthodox female entrepreneurs who filled a bus last week for a pilgrimage to Israel’s high-tech shrines in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, meeting their counterparts at Microsoft, Google, Cisco, Intel and more.
Chana and Miriam, who preferred not to reveal their surnames, studied computer engineering at a Haredi college and are now working in a startup set up by Ruth Margalit, the ultra-Orthodox CEO of Bnei Brak-based I-rox, a software company that outsources services to firms.
Miriam started working there five months ago, and unlike most of the women on the bus, she is not wearing a wig or other head-covering, indicating she is not yet married. “My parents are in favor of me working,” she said. “They want us to do what we love.” When asked about her prospects for shidduchim, or arranged dates for the purpose of marriage, she said with a smile, “Be’ezrat Hashem — with God’s help — in another year or two we will go on shidduchim.”
“Shidduchim are not relevant to this article,” interjected Chana, rightly outraged by the question. “If we study, we progress.”
Both Miriam and Chana expressed aggravation at what they say is a “stigma” carried by ultra-Orthodox women, who are seen in Israeli society as subjugated and surrounded by multitudes of children.
“We are on this trip to learn and see how work is done” at big tech companies, Chana said.
The trip was organized by KamaTech, a nonprofit organization and startup accelerator for ultra-Orthodox entrepreneurs that aims to integrate ultra-Orthodox men and women into Israel’s high-tech industry.
Chana and Miriam represent a growing trend among ultra-Orthodox women who are learning skills to take up posts in tech companies.
Every year over 600 ultra-Orthodox women graduate from engineering and programming courses in the Haredi seminars. Women constitute around 50 percent of the 6,000 qualified ultra-Orthodox men and women in KamaTech’s database who are looking for jobs in the field. And while in 2013, when KamaTech was founded, there were just 5 ultra-Orthodox entrepreneurs in its databse, today there are some 500, 200 of whom are women, said Moshe Friedman, the co-founder of KamaTech.
Israel is looking to tap into new sources of workers as a lack of skilled employees is hampering growth of its high-tech sector, until recently the growth engine of the economy. Tapping into the ultra-Orthodox and Arab populations, which have been left on the sidelines of the high-tech boom because of their lack of relevant training, is one way Israel is looking to overcome its shortfall or skilled employees.
“We want these women to meet with women entrepreneurs and see them as role models,” Friedman said in an interview with The Times of Israel. “We want to teach them what a startup is, what a VC is, what the chief scientist does. The idea is to show them different parts of the high-tech puzzle and inspire them to get ideas and dreams.”
The average salary in Israel is NIS 9,032 a month ($2,350), and the average salary of women in Israel is NIS 8,173. But the average salary of Haredi women in Israel is NIS 5,284, according to Ministry of Economy and Industry data.
Today ultra-Orthodox men and women who work in high-tech are employed at the lowest levels, said Friedman. “We want to bring them to a high level, we want to help them rise, through inspiration and mentoring.”
To date KamaTech has managed to place some 400 women in higher-ranking jobs at multinationals like Microsoft, Google, Cisco and Amdocs, Friedman said, with some salaries reaching as high as NIS 14,000.
In the two-day bus tour, the women, mostly clad in skirts, headscarves or wigs as is traditional for the sector, went from office to office to meet with some of Israel’s most successful entrepreneurs. These included Zika Abzuk, senior manager, business development at Cisco in Israel and Yael Villa, Cisco’s Jerusalem site manager; Inbal Arieli, vice president, strategic partnerships at Start-up Nation Central and founder of the accelerator 8200 EISP; Michal Waltner, Campus Tel Aviv Program Manager at Google; Yifat Oron, the CEO of LeumiTech, Leumi Group’s high tech subsidiary; Liat Aaronson, a partner at Marker LLC fund who set up the Zell Entrepreneurship Program at IDC Herzliya; and Esther Barak Landes, the CEO of Nielsen Innovate.
Some spoke about the difficulties of being a woman in a generally male-dominated workplace; all showed willingness to mentor other women, in a sort of a high-tech sisterhood. In addition, they said, a heterogeneous workplace, with employees from many sectors of society in the high-tech world, was key to success as it contributes to the diversity of products companies strive to offer their users.
“Israel has reached a glass ceiling with regard to workers in high-tech. There is not enough supply of workers,” LeumiTech’s Oron said in an interview. “All the good employees are getting hired by the multinationals. It is a competitive market which is good for the workers but not good for the industry. To get new sources we need to reach out to new talent, go to new untapped environments.”
LeumiTech partnered in the bus event with KamaTech.
There are difficulties however, Oron said, as ultra-Orthodox women are less likely to work in environments that are not religious, feel more comfortable in a women-only surrounding and have special kosher dietary requirements. The idea is to help them find the right conditions that would enable them to work at large multinationals and encourage them to become entrepreneurs.
“Many come from a very different world,” said Oron. “This bus tour is to get them familiar with the ecosystem.”
Heni, a 29-year old ultra-Orthodox entrepreneur who has four children, is setting up a studio to design websites for small and medium-sized businesses after having been employed in the field for seven years as a salaried worker. “It was important for me” to come on the bus tour, she said, standing in line for the elevators at the Google offices in Tel Aviv. “I want to see the startup world, learn what I can and try to get partnerships.”