Nonprofit startup eyes untapped local talent in Israel tech scene

Nonprofit startup eyes untapped local talent in Israel tech scene

ITWorks aims to help people in the country's social and geographic periphery partake in the startup nation boom

ITWorks' technology workshops and training courses seek to close social gaps in Israel (Courtesy)
ITWorks' technology workshops and training courses seek to close social gaps in Israel (Courtesy)

After working for seven years at Cisco Systems Inc. in Israel, Ifat Baron-Goldberg got up and left. She decided it was time to move on and wanted to do something that would tie in with both business and society.

“Fifteen years ago, no one was talking about diversity of the workplace in Israel,” Baron-Goldberg said in an interview with The Times of Israel. The technology market “was booming and it is still booming. But only a few are actually benefiting from this boom. So, I decided to set up an organization that would bridge the demand for human capital and the needs of workers.”

In 2006, Baron-Goldberg, today 39, set up ITWorks, a nonprofit social startup that seeks to promote diversity in the workplace and allow under-served and under-privileged adults living in Israel’s social and geographic periphery to realize their professional potential.

The idea, said Baron-Goldberg, is to close income gaps between social, ethnic and gender groups in Israel and bring a bite of Israel’s flourishing tech scene — which has a strong presence in the country’s metropolitan areas — to places like Yeruham and Dimona, cities that suffer from high unemployment levels and a shortage of quality, high-level tech positions.

ITWorks’ founder Ifat Baron-Goldberg (Itzik Sobel)

“As of January this year there were 3,700 vacancies for entry level positions in Israeli tech firms,” she said. “The government talks about importing workers from abroad in the effort to meet the demand of our high-tech industry, but we have so much untapped local talent that we could be using. ITWorks goes out to these cities and finds out what the local opportunities are. Then we match the jobs to the workers.”

ITWorks’ pool of talent includes women, Arabs, Druze, Circassians, new immigrants, adults with intellectual and sensory disabilities and members of the ultra-Orthodox community. The nonprofit organization sets up training courses, boot camps and hackathons to boost the abilities of its talent pool. It cooperates with local and national bodies as well as with Israeli technology firms to make sure its courses match both the needs of its candidates and the requirements of the businesses.

Israel’s high-tech workforce lacks diversity and is characterized by a high number of Jewish, non-ultra-Orthodox men, while women, Arabs and ultra-Orthodox populations remain underrepresented, a report by the Finance Ministry showed last month.

“Many times, even if students obtain relevant degrees that could get them high-tech jobs, they are lacking the networks and contacts needed to land those jobs. Sixty percent of jobs are attained via acquaintances. We help them make these contacts and create a network,” Baron-Goldberg said.

For those who don’t have adequate skills, ITWorks provides soft and hard skills training, including a help-desk vocational training course, Java and hardware and software development.

“It is not always easy to get to our target populations,” she said. “Many times, these are people who have lost hope in finding a job and resigned to becoming yet another generation mired in poverty.”

ITWorks also sets up workshops for its proteges and potential employers to overcome cultural gaps.

Research has shown that Arab workers, for example, lack soft skills like self-confidence, entrepreneurship and the ability to market themselves, she said. They tend not to look at interviewers in the eye and “don’t boast about their achievements.”

ITWorks’ workshops help potential employees develop soft and hard skills to match them to the job (Courtesy)

“One candidate of mine didn’t even tell the interviewer that he was on the dean’s list at university, because he was so modest. Once you explain these issues to potential employers, these gaps can be closed and positions filled, ” she said.

ITWorks recently set up an American unit, also a nonprofit, that has just started cooperating with the US freelancer site Upwork to help its proteges get jobs in Silicon Valley but still continue to live at home in Israel.

Based in Silicon Valley, Upwork has some 12 million freelancers globally using its platform to find jobs, according to company data.

“Freelancers work alone and often they don’t have the support they need,” said Baron-Goldberg. “So, we help them with their pricing strategy and if needed we provide them with technical assistance if they hit a snag while doing their work.”

From a one-woman operation, ITWorks now employs 32 workers and makes some 600 job placements a year. Customers include Check Point Software Ltd., Intel Corp., Microsoft and IBM, she said.

Baron-Goldberg was invited last month as the Israeli representative to the UN’s Nexus Global Forum, which brings together young leaders from around the world to create inspiration, dialogue and solve common problems. She has also been awarded the Hadassah Foundation’s Bernice Tannenbaum Prize for her work promoting economic justice and equality for women and girls in Israel.

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