Newly trained, young Haredi women ready for bold foray into tech world

1st group graduates intensive 2-year Adva program, which is lauded as model for other sidelined groups by industry figures eager for diversity

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

Ultra-Orthodox young women who are part of the Adva program that aims to train them with skills for the high-tech sector. (Courtesy)
Ultra-Orthodox young women who are part of the Adva program that aims to train them with skills for the high-tech sector. (Courtesy)

The Times of Israel first wrote about Zahava a year ago, the eldest daughter of a Jerusalem ultra-Orthodox family, when she was allowed to take a break from her household chores, including babysitting, dishwashing and grocery shopping, to study coding, calculus and math in the hope of finding a high-paying tech job.

Zahava, now 21, was part of the Adva pilot project, whose first group of Haredi women graduated last week. The two-year program, whose name means “ripple” in Hebrew, aims to teach these young women the skills they need to become active participants in the nation’s high-tech boom.

“It was very hard work, but worth it,” said Zahava, in a phone interview on Wednesday. She prefers not to use her full name for modesty reasons. “It was a lot of hours, a lot of homework. We were basically working nonstop.”

It was worth it, she said, because she gained “a lot of knowledge in a short time” in coding, math, statistics, calculus, linear algebra, data structure and algorithms — and learned that she was up to the challenge.

Haredi young women who are part of the Adva program that aims to train them with skills for the high-tech sector (Courtesy)

Zahava is among the 81 women of the first graduating class of Adva, and even before the end of the program, 13 of them had already secured jobs at tech firms including Apple, Facebook and Check Point Software Technologies Ltd., the project’s organizers said.

Adva is operated by Scale-Up Velocity, a nonprofit organization affiliated with Start-Up Nation Central that partners with tech firms and academic and training institutions to set up initiatives to help Israel’s tech industry tap into talented human capital.

“It was wonderful,” said Anat Greemland, VP Strategy of Scale-Up Velocity. Partners in the project include the Bais Yaakov ultra-Orthodox educational movement, tech giants including Google, IBM, Mobileye, and the Defense Ministry.

The jobs snagged by the program’s graduates are full-time, “at the heart of the firms’ activities, and not at the sidelines,” and come with salaries similar to those of people who have completed a BA in computer sciences, Greemland said, proving that Adva’s vision has become a reality.

Anat Greemland, of Start-Up Nation Central, who runs the Adva program to train Haredi young woman for tech jobs, July 23, 2019 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

The goal is to get more government agencies, authorities and academic institutions to adopt the Adva’s model in order to tap into additional populations.

Shifting the program to a virtual environment with the onset of the pandemic made the effort more challenging, Greemland said. But at the same time it opened up new avenues: more mentors from the tech industry could be approached to participate in the sessions, and they were directly exposed to these young women’s talent, she explained.

For the online sessions each student was assigned a computer and a “kosher” internet network, in which certain sites, words and images are blocked.

The virtual studies also “took off the table many issues that need to be addressed when working with Haredi women,” Greemland said, such as providing them separate seating areas from men.

Adva is now in the middle of its second cohort of students, who are expected to graduate in September 2021, Greemland said, and a third one will be opening shortly.

“There has been so much determination from everybody, the industry, the students, and academia, to make this happen,” she said.

Adva selects outstanding students who are enrolled in religious seminaries to become software engineers. It is a two-year program that teaches mathematics and computer science, taught by senior academic staff from universities, and offers practical experience in conjunction with the tech firms that support the program.

The program has also received the blessing of religious leaders from the ultra-Orthodox communities.

Nineteen-year old ZF, center in blue sweater and pixellated face, talks to donors of the Adva program in Jerusalem; July, 2019; to her right is Anat Greemland from Start-Up Nation Central (Courtesy)

Zahava has not yet found a job, but is determined to find one. She has gotten married since her last interview with the Times of Israel; her 24-year-old husband is a student in a kollel, an institute for full-time study of the Talmud and rabbinic literature.

Her husband is “very supportive” of her studies and her determination to work, she said, as are her family and his.

“I want to work,” she said. “I don’t like sitting and not doing anything.”

Diversity is key to innovation

At last week’s virtual graduation event, attended by the students and figures from the tech industry, program organizers praised Adva’s achievements, underlying that human capital diversity is a key to innovation.

“We invested a hefty sum of NIS 10 million ($3.1 million) in the program, approximately NIS 125,000 for each student,” said Eugene Kandel, CEO of Start-Up Nation Central, at the event. Calculating the next 30 years’ worth of salaries just of the graduates who have already found jobs in the high-tech industry, “we reach NIS 25 million, 40% of which is expected to find its way back to the government as tax.”

There is “tremendous potential of ultra-Orthodox women,” Kandel said. “Their contribution to the economy cannot be overstated.”

“The added value of the program to the industry is huge,” Mor Schlesinger, engineering manager at Google Israel and member of the Adva Steering Committee, said at the event. “It opens the door to unique groups” and makes it possible “to understand the unique needs and gaps that we at high-tech companies must be aware of. Google, like other companies, is looking for people who can think out of the box and are able to grapple with challenges. I was impressed to see all this and more by the young women in the program.”

Diversity of human capital “is the name of the game today, both in companies and military units,” said Col. Y., commander of the Israeli Airforce’s Ofek 324 unit, at the event. “Today we already have 15 ultra-Orthodox young women in the unit, and they are involved in development of operational systems. Success is not only measured in professional terms, but also, and primarily, in the significance and connections it creates. The effect of a program like Adva will be clear in the future. Integration of the ultra-Orthodox graduates is no less than a national strategic objective,”

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