Israeli AI startup helps firms like Nike, PayPal hire for diversity

Joonko builds network of vetted job candidates with emphasis on people from underrepresented communities

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Nvidia employees in Israel. (Courtesy)
Nvidia employees in Israel. (Courtesy)

An Israeli-founded startup, Joonko, hopes to help bring diversity to the workplace by providing companies with a recruitment technology that leads to much-needed balance between genders and cultural and ethnic influences.

“We are providing opportunities to underrepresented people, women, people of color, veterans,” said Albrey Brown, who recently joined the firm as its US general manager and VP of strategy.

Creating a diverse workforce is beneficial for company culture and helps in building innovative products, Brown said. It’s also the “the right thing to do,” he noted.

Businesses globally are realizing the importance of having a diverse workforce – both because employees increasingly expect it, and because having employees with an array of genders, ethnicities and cultures is good for business.

Research published by consultants McKinsey & Co in 2015 and updated in subsequent years shows that companies with more diverse workforces “perform better financially.”

“Companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians,” McKinsey said.

More diverse companies get better access to top talent while becoming more appealing to customers, boosting employee satisfaction, and seeing improved decision making, McKinsey said. And yet, progress has been slow in most nations and across all industries, McKinsey said.

Female representation on executive teams in the US and the UK was still at 20% in 2019, according to McKinsey. Globally, female representation on executive teams was just 15% in 2019, up from 14% in 2017. Representation of ethnic minorities on executive teams in the UK and US was just 13% in 2019, up from 7% in 2014; globally, the proportion was 14% in 2019.

Employees at Nvidia Israel. (Courtesy/Nvidia)

Joonko was built on this concept. The company was founded in 2016 by Israeli Illit Raz, its CEO, who said that as a woman in tech she had personally witnessed the major roadblocks to the hiring of underrepresented talent.

Named after Japanese mountain climber Junko Tabei, who became the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1975, Joonko has developed AI-based software that pinpoints qualified candidates and matches them to suitable roles among companies with which it partners. The company does this by building a large talent network of vetted candidates, across sectors, with an emphasis on potential employees from underrepresented communities.

Through Joonko’s tech platform, companies and businesses can access the network to recruit for different positions, track their analytics to improve their strategy, and deploy personalized rejection letters to candidates who didn’t make the cut as “a graceful farewell” that extends further opportunities (with an offer to join the Joonko network and get “matched” with relevant roles). Joonko then gets top candidates into its talent pool.

In September, Joonko announced a $25 million Series B funding round led by Insight Partners, with support from Berlin-headquartered firm Target Global and existing investors Kapor Capital and Vertex Ventures Israel. The round brought the total amount of funds raised by the startup to date to $38 million.

Finding the right candidate

Here’s an example of how Joonko fits into the recruiting process: a female software engineer interviews for a post at one of the companies that partners with Joonko. She makes it to the final stages of the interview but does not get the job or decides not to accept the post. At that point, the recruiter at the company offers her the option to join the Joonko talent network. If she agrees, the recruiter informs Joonko, and the startup sends the woman an email to invite her to join its network.

If she accepts, Joonko’s algorithm jumps into action, determining from publicly identifiable information if that person is an underrepresented candidate and suitable for the network: Is the person a woman, a person of color, a person from a diverse cultural or ethnic background, or an army veteran?

“If someone passes seven out of 13 of the checks that we have, we then send them the offer to join the pool. Once they get the offer, they decide to opt in or not… 87% of people who get the offer join the pool, join our talent network,” said Brown. Once they give their consent, the algorithm connects them to jobs that are like what they originally applied for, with Joonko’s partner companies.

Joonko partners with 130 companies including Nike, American Express, Adidas, PayPal, and Crocs, said Brown. And there are about 170,000 candidates every month applying for jobs, he said.

The average business using Joonko sees a 25% increase in underrepresented candidates in their hiring funnel, and hires one in six of the candidates sourced through the platform, the company said in a statement announcing the funding round.

Illustrative image of working from home, video conferencing and a laptop (asiandelight; iStock by Getty Images)

Joonko’s data does not show how long the new employees stay in their new job, said Brown. But customers that have used Joonko for diversity hirings stay with the company. “We have experienced no customer churn,” he said.

Currently, Joonko focuses on women, people of color, and army veterans in the US market only, because “diversity looks different in different places,” explained Brown. Before expanding to other markets, it is important to understand them first, he said.

There are competitors in the field, like recruiting platforms Untapped or SeekOut. But Joonko is different because its candidates come recommended by other recruiters, Brown said.

“Our key differentiator is that we don’t allow every candidate to sign up for Joonko. We only allow candidates that are referred by other companies,” said Brown. Thus, customers don’t have to worry about the quality of the candidates, as they have been previously vetted and recommended by other recruiters, even if they did not get that original job, he said.

“Everyone has been a silver medalist” sometime, said Brown. Even if they didn’t win gold by getting the job, it doesn’t mean they are not qualified to fill a similar position at another firm.

Joonko is part of a growing trend that is seeing technologies play a key role in the management of human resources. According to ResearchandMarkets, a data firm, the human resource (HR) technology market was valued at almost $29 billion in 2021 and is expected to reach almost $49 billion by 2027.

Additionally, an HR Tech Survey by consultants PwC shows that 19% of respondents said that diversity, equity and inclusion was one of the biggest challenges their organization faced in relation to human capital.

“Our entire portfolio and companies everywhere are hyper-focused on building and maintaining a diverse workforce because it leads to a better culture and better returns,” said Liad Agmon, managing director at Insight Partners, which invested in the startup. “Joonko has the team, product, and vision to help businesses get there faster,” he said in the statement.

Headquartered in New York, Joonko also has an R&D center in Israel and employs 36 people. The funding will help the startup expand its New York team and boost marketing and sales to increase activities in the US, said Raz, Joonko’s CEO, in an interview.

Going global is definitely “one of our milestones to hit in the next two to three years,” Raz said.

But, for now, the focus is the US market. “We’re trying to keep very, very focused on the US market as there’s so much more to cover there.”

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