Haredi start-up star’s feet set firmly in two worlds

Mixing ‘sacred’ with ‘profane,’ Yossi Rabinovitz builds an e-commerce business good enough for a top Israeli accelerator

Yossi Rabinovitz (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Yossi Rabinovitz (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Yossi Rabinovitz, CEO of Israeli e-commerce start-up SelfPoint, is selling to customers around the world, and his pop-up grocery platform development company is a member of the Microsoft Ventures Accelerator, showing that the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) high-tech revolution is growing rapidly and making him its “poster boy.” SelfPoint lets customers easily set up and use an online store for their merchandise.

Besides being a successful entrepreneur, Rabinovitz is also a committed member of the Chabad hasidic movement. “People who come to visit the accelerator are often surprised, because the first people they see — with long beards and big black kippot — look as if they don’t belong in that environment,” he told the Times of Israel in an interview Tuesday on the sidelines of the second Haredi High Tech Forum event for new entrepreneurs.

Rabinovitz, along with hundreds of other entrepreneurs from the haredi community, both male and female, do belong at high-tech accelerators, multinational R&D centers and tech start-ups of all sizes and types, said MK Erel Margalit (Labor). As a founder at VC fund Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP), Margalit has been intimately involved in the Israeli high-tech world for years. As head of the Knesset’s haredi high-tech lobby, he has been a principal advocate of encouraging haredi Israelis to try their hand at entrepreneurship.

Those efforts have proven more successful than most people realize, said Margalit. “Haredi Israelis are flocking to government programs designed to help them build businesses,” he said at the event, held at JVP’s Jerusalem headquarters, where haredi businesspeople, industry leaders and business experts discussed ideas and saw presentations on how to take a high-tech idea and “run with it,” get backing and achieve business success. “Haredi entrepreneurs who take an idea and build a company are like the cloud of fire before the camp,” Margalit said.

Rabinovitz is one of those “clouds of fire.” Before starting SelfPoint along with several partners, both haredi and secular, in 2010, Rabinovitz worked for ten years at Israeli point-of-sale (PoS) specialist Retalix, where he was leader of a development team that supplied the technology to run the back office for retail giant Ikea, designing PoS systems for the merchant’s $20 billion worldwide operation. “Now I’m leveraging that experience for my own start-up, using the skills I picked up over the years to develop a unique e-commerce solution for small and medium businesses,” he said.

SelfPoint, said Rabinovitz, supplies a solution for small and medium grocery stores that want to develop a web shopping presence. “Setting up an online grocery store requires a great deal of resources, such as distribution channels, delivery systems and price coordination on items whose prices are constantly changing. Our platform allows retailers to set up an online store in minutes. We take care of the logistics, packaging, pricing and all other details. All they have to do is put their logo on the site.”

It was an innovative enough idea to get Rabinovitz’s company into the prestigious MS Ventures Accelerator program, where they get help from top business mentors, connections to investors and exposure in Microsoft’s worldwide enterprise sales network. Just being accepted into the program, which enrolls just a dozen companies of nearly 1,000 applicants each cycle, is a guarantee of success. According to Microsoft Israel, the average series A investment in MS Ventures Accelerator graduates is about $1 million, with several graduates of the program already being bought out. SelfPoint is a member of the fourth round.

As a member of the community, Rabinovitz realizes how difficult it is for yeshiva graduates like himself to make it in the tech world, but he has some ideas on how to succeed. “I think the career path I took is the right one for community members who want to work in tech,” Rabinovitz said. After yeshiva, he took an eight-month programming course at the Jerusalem College of Technology and landed a job at underwater acoustics and site security firm DSIT, where he worked for about a year and a half before moving to Retalix.

Rabinovitz worked his way up the ladder in his new job to the position of development team leader, supervising workers with masters and doctorate degrees. “I made up for my lack of education with experience, and it’s an excellent method for learning the skills needed to get ahead.”

Working at a large corporation is also easier on religious people, said Rabinovitz, a fact confirmed by representatives of companies such as Retalix, Intel, Cisco and Mellanox, all of which presented at the forum event, who described how they ensured that haredi employees had access to mehadrin (specially supervised) kosher food and flexible schedules to ensure that they were never scheduled to work on Shabbat.

Rabinovitz realizes he is somewhat of an exception, but there is no reason others can not succeed as he has, he tells others in the community. “One message I try to transmit is that there is nothing to be afraid of in engaging with the secular world,” he said. “It’s not closed off and prejudiced — quite the opposite. The only reactions I’ve gotten to who I am have been positive. And if the secular public has prejudices against the ultra-Orthodox community, we have our own prejudices against them. If we are true to ourselves, we have nothing to fear from being open to working with secular people, and by working with them as we are, and contributing to the bottom line, we can show them that they have nothing to fear from us.”

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