Just two years ago, you could count the number of start-ups run by ultra-Orthodox entrepreneurs on one hand, according to Itzik Crombie, who was at the time one of those few entrepreneurs. But today there are dozens of start-ups owned and managed by members of the Haredi tech community, creating their own ecosystem of support, assistance, and even funding.
As befits a tech ecosystem, that community is now getting its own high-tech incubator. The Haredi Hi-Tech Forum, directed by Crombie and fellow ultra-Orthodox tech entrepreneur Racheli Ganot, announced the new incubator Tuesday. It’s the result of two years of work in building an ecosystem in which ultra-Orthodox entrepreneurs can thrive and succeed, enabling them to take their place in the start-up nation, said Crombie.
For many Israelis, the terms “ultra-Orthodox” and “high-tech entrepreneur” don’t belong in the same sentence. Tech entrepreneurs are open to new ideas, experiment with advanced technologies, show independent spirit, and are at home on the Internet – quite the opposite of the popular stereotype of the average Haredi individual.
But anyone who thinks that way is behind the times, said Crombie.
“Haredim are just as creative and imaginative, and as willing to succeed, as are secular Israelis – in fact, from what I have seen among those in the high-tech world, they are even more ambitious,” Crombie told The Times of Israel. “The problem is that they don’t have role models to show them how to navigate the business world and get to the point where they can build their own businesses.”
To that end, Crombie, along with venture capital fund Jerusalem Venture Partners, organized the Haredi Hi-Tech Forum, in which ultra-Orthodox businesspeople, industry leaders, and business experts help entrepreneurs in their community to take their tech and business ideas and make them real. With just a few members when it was started in 2012, the Forum has grown to include dozens of start-ups, and Forum members have raised between them over NIS 7 million (nearly $2 million).
The new incubator will open up the tech world for even more ultra-Orthodox entrepreneurs, said Crombie.
Led by Ganot’s RaChip, a Bnei Brak programming firm, and Crombie’s own online business platform iSale, the incubator will, beginning later this year, sponsor several-month programs for entrepreneurs – both male and female, in separate facilities – with programmers, marketers, and other mentors advising them on how to improve their technology, how to approach customers and investors, and how to prepare their product or technology for market.
“The incubator will provide the ecosystem necessary for development of technologies and products, as well as helping members find customers, markets, and funding,” said Crombie.
Haredi entrepreneurship has become a popular topic in recent months, with numerous projects, conferences, and events boosting the idea that members of the community can fit right in with Israel’s tech ecosystem. As a result, many established companies and organizations will be working with the forum to ensure the incubator’s success – among them technology integrator Rad-Bynet, hardware manufacturer Sanmina-SCI, communications firm YES, and others.
But the incubator’s primary partner – indeed, the group that pushed Crombie and Ganot to spread the gospel of entrepreneurship in their community – is JVP, which organized that first 2012 event that led to the founding of the forum. According to current MK and former JVP director Erel Margalit, the forum and the incubator are long overdue.
“We believe that there are a lot of untapped talents in the community, and in fact we see this in action. When they get the proper training and have been working for a few years, we see that they are very innovative, and make themselves a very important part of the business they’re involved in.” Those are exactly the skills needed for entrepreneurial success, Margalit said, and a main reason why JVP got involved in the forum.
There’s a great need for the forum – and the incubator – according to Crombie, who said that his story is typical of many other members of the ultra-Orthodox community who could succeed, but have found themselves up against a glass ceiling.
“I was a typical Haredi, having finished yeshiva without learning English or the other core subjects” such as math and literature, he related. Crombie worked in rabbinic-related posts for a number of years before he decided to go in a different direction. “I took a course and learned computers, worked in some companies, and eventually went out on my own,” he said.
There were many tense, if not farcical, moments in which he had to deal with ignorant or unsympathetic people, the entrepreneur said. In the end, his business acumen won out and he rose to become number two in a large sales organization, in which he dealt with many foreign customers before striking out on his own.
If only the forum and the incubator had been around when he was starting out, said Crombie.
“Starting out years ago, I faced numerous cultural and professional difficulties, and managed to succeed despite them,” he said. “I am very aware of the roadblocks that ultra-Orthodox entrepreneurs face, and I believe our program will help them cope with those difficulties, and provide them with the tools they need to succeed.”