They sit opposite me in the Jerusalem Development Authority offices at Safra Square: three exceptional, religiously observant women who have launched lucrative businesses, and in the process helped put Jerusalem on the map of emerging start-up cities.
The first to speak is Nava Brief Fried, founder and CEO of ModLi.
“I created ModLi for women like me,” she says. “ModLi is the first and only modest fashion platform combining many designers from differing religions and countries with the same vision. Together we can change the face of modesty.”
She says that after starting to work in the fashion industry, she did some research and realized that there were over 100 million women around the world seeking “modest fashion.”
“Whether they were Mormon, Christian, Jewish or Muslim, they were all looking for a specific type of brand that would connect and understand their values and way of dress,” she explains. “So I decided to build my start-up.”
With the help of her husband Yehoshua Fried, she launched the company just over a year ago, and they devoted eight months to development. Siftech accelerator, the first startup accelerator in Jerusalem that has been helping young entrepreneurs to launch their startups in the city and located in JVP Media Quarter
, had an integral role in ModLi’s growth. Siftech provided the company a shared workspace inside JVP Media Quarter and hands-on mentorship with leading figures form the Israeli startup scene. Located on Hebron Road, JVP was founded in 1993 by hi-tech pioneer and now Labor MK Erel Margalit.
“It’s like building an Amazon or eBay of today, because it’s a marketplace,” Fried says of her company. “We feature designers from all over the world who can open up their shops on our website. Of course, we have to approve each one, but they’re then able to sell through us.”
Since February, she says, the company has been able to reach over 100,000 women all over the world and provide them “with modest fashion choices.”
ModLi, she says, allows “a woman who dresses modestly who feels neglected from the mainstream fashion world to finally find a home and a brand that speaks her language and shows her things that are a little bit more covered and modest.”
In the last six months, she has brought on 70 designers in boutiques across the globe, and created what she calls “a cosmopolitan community of women.”
“I think what’s really nice about it is that there are a lot of designers who wouldn’t normally sell outside their community, the Mormon or the Muslim community or whatever, but with ModLi they’re actually able to discover that there are more markets interested in their designs. So we’re not only helping women buy modest fashion, we’re also helping designers sell more and improve their business.”
As an example, she cites a former designer for the Zara clothing stores in London who was from a Muslim background and wanted to start his own brand of modest dress. “It’s really beautiful in today’s day and age, where things are so different, to know that we’re able to help everybody.”
SHOSHI RUSHNEVSKY is the co-founder – together with her partner, Dan Siboni – of Chiprix, which provides big-data creative solutions for near-field communications (NFC).
After growing up in a haredi home in Har Nof and graduating from an ultra-Orthodox high school, she did a bachelor’s degree in computer science and began working 15 years ago in hi-tech. After she did an executive MBA, she says, “they tell you, ‘Just go and do something yourself,’ which I always wanted to do.”
She recalls that “I found a really good partner who I met through volunteering four years ago, and a year ago we decided that we want to do something together.
So we sat in a bar one day and went through ideas for a start-up.”
After her secular partner, who grew up on a kibbutz, returned from IDF reserve duty in Operation Protective Edge last summer, he left his job and she left hers. They moved into SifTech in January, got a customer right away, and hired their first employee.
Chiprix offers what it calls “a new, exciting user experience using a smartphone for interaction with objects in the environment.”
“Our product creates a new customer experience via smartphones, connecting businesses and customers,” she says. “We are now developing a physical item that sits on tables and restaurants, and a customer can come with his smartphone and do all kinds of things that interact with a business. And we sell the product to businesses.”
So far, she says, “there has been a lot of interest in the market for what we do,” and they now have eight employees.
“Baruch Hashem [thank God], it’s going great,” she says, smiling. “I came here to the Jerusalem Development Authority for a few meetings, and we just loved the people and the idea that we have someone to help us. It’s really amazing. We sat with the deputy mayor and several other people, and they all were so friendly and helpful, and they connected us with whoever we needed.”
She says that in Tel Aviv, where there are thousands of start-ups, they would never have received such personal attention and support.
“There’s an amazing environment at JVP, where we work, and there are groups from all over the world coming every day, so we can expose our business and what we do,” she says.
Rushnevsky says she fought against “the system and her background” – for her right as a haredi woman to get equal pay, and then to take the risk of forming a start-up.
“I get my support from meet-ups and within the hi-tech community,” she says. “There are many start-up hubs now, and everybody knows one another. Last week, the Jerusalem Development Authority had an amazing party in the JVP courtyard, and 600 people came. Something exciting is happening in Jerusalem.”
MIRIAM SCHWAB, CEO and founder of illuminea, a software company that focuses on WordPress, says her path has been different from Fried’s and Rushnevsky’s.
“I have been in business for nine years, and with regard to hi-tech and start-ups in particular in Jerusalem, I have seen the change,” she says. “About five years ago, there was nothing happening here. You were alone. There was no activity. Now, practically every week there are meetups.
It’s like night and day, compared to what it was five years ago.”
The Toronto-born Schwab started illuminea after giving birth to her fourth child, when she realized she needed more flexibility and room for creativity in her work. She has led the illuminea team in creating over 150 WordPress websites, organizing four WordCamp conferences for the Israeli WordPress community, and training clients and the public in best practices for digital marketing.
“We’re one of the leading WordPress development agencies in Israel, and we’re also known around the world,” she says. “There are very few female business owners in WordPress and in Web development in general, so that also kind of makes me stand out.”
Schwab says she has seen a dramatic change in Jerusalem in the last few years, including a technological boom.
“Until a few years ago, the focus was tourism as the business booster for Jerusalem, and tech was basically ignored,” she says. “The reason I think things have changed is the perseverance and passion of a certain group of people here. They just kept going with this idea that Jerusalem is a tech hub, until it started to pick up momentum to the point where in the last few months Jerusalem keeps getting put on lists of tech hubs around the world.”
The 2015 Global Start-Up Ecosystem Report ranks Jerusalem in the top 50 emerging start-up cities, and Entrepreneur Magazine has even ranked Jerusalem first in a list of emerging tech hubs.
Schwab says being part of “the Jerusalem tech brand” gives women CEOs a unique advantage and selling point.
“It’s still such a small community, which is the nature of Jerusalem. It’s a very warm, friendly and supportive community, whereas in Tel Aviv it’s huge and very competitive.”
She notes that the members of the Made in Jerusalem start-up community have even created an event called “Firgun Day,” in which people say something nice or give credit to someone, using Twitter and Facebook hashtags.
“It did so well that on Twitter, it trended, which means that so many people were using that hashtag that it became one of the top hashtags on Twitter on that day, a Friday.”
She says the idea of “firgun” – a Hebrew word for complimenting colleagues or patting them on the back – is characteristic of the Jerusalem community. “You might be my competitor, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to help you and you’re not going to help me. I have knowledge, you have knowledge, let’s share with each other. And the fact that the community is tight-knit and small also means that you can go meet the deputy mayor, because you’re one of 100 rather than 1,000 start-ups in Tel Aviv.”
On the negative side, she notes that many of her clients are in Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem, “so when they consider who they are going to hire, they don’t look to Jerusalem first. But that’s okay. First of all, I can go there, that’s not a problem. And secondly, we’re in a digital age, so we can do a lot online.”
Today, she has seven children, and her company has gone “completely virtual,” with one of her team members even working out of Costa Rica.
“It kind of relates to Rosh Hashana, the new year, with new beginnings and start-ups,” she says. “It’s a weird thing, but there’s something about having a new baby that is kind of like an innovation, and it drives you to be innovative and instead of pulling me back, it pushes me forward.”
Also, she adds, it’s forced her to structure her team so that not everything is dependent on her.
“Things are dynamic with kids,” she says. “I say that every kid is a new factor of some kind of dynamic that is unpredictable. You don’t know if today their tooth is going to hurt, or tomorrow they have a party at their school, or who knows what? So I had to build a team.”
Schwab says that mothers shouldn’t feel that children are a barrier to their career, and can even help push them further.
“We are very lucky to live in a digital age,” she says. “I thank God that I was born in this age, because we can do what we need to do and it’s not geographically restricted.
We don’t have to be in a particular place. If I have to work at home with my kid, so I can work from there. If I have to work at night, I can work at night. We have so much flexibility, and in my opinion, it’s really important for women to further their careers. We have a ton to contribute.”
She adds that “women are so talented, and we need to believe in ourselves. We need to take a bit more risks and really believe that we can deliver. I believe that we have a lot to contribute to our families, and to Jerusalem and to our country by having a career.”
As I leave Safra Square and my encounter with these three inspiring women, I can’t help but think of the words of the Eishet Hayil hymn in Proverbs 31: “A woman of valor, seek her out.... Honor her for her work; her actions proclaim her praise.”