Feral Qammou (left) and Nitzan Weinstein of CleverPark pitch their smart parking technology on Thursday.
(photo credit: YARIN TARANOS)
Tel Aviv’s notoriously homogeneous hi-tech culture was notably more diverse at an event at the Tel Aviv stock exchange on Thursday, which sought to promote Arab, Druse, Beduin, and Circassian entrepreneurs into the start-up scene.
The event was the culmination of an intensive five-month “accelerator” run by the Maof Business Incubation Center in Nazareth and the 8200 Alumni Association (8200 is an elite IDF intelligence unit whose graduates are leaders in the hi-tech field). The program received a NIS 1 million grant from the Economy Ministry of via the Small and Medium Business Agency and the Authority for Economic Development for Minorities at the Ministry of Social Equality.
Eight start-ups with at least one Arab, Druse, Beduin or Circassian founder were chosen in a highly selective process; they received business development training, mentorship from industry leaders, networking and free office space.
According to Aiman Saif, director of the Authority for the Economic Development of the Arab, Druse and Circassian Sectors, Arab-Israelis face numerous obstacles in order to break into the hi-tech scene. “They don’t have the ecosystem to be part of the hi-tech, there’s not enough networking, and lack of funds in the Arab communities,” Saif said.
Arab-Israelis are also often geographically isolated from the center of Israel’s startup culture – Tel Aviv – and lack the essential contacts most Jewish- Israelis looking to work in hi-tech gain while serving in the IDF.
“8200 has become synonymous with start-ups in Israel, so we decided we wanted to do something to change the face of the Israeli economy,” Eitan Sella, managing director of the accelerator program and a 8200 alumnus told The Jerusalem Post, “It’s about turning Israel into a truly ‘Start-Up Nation’ from a ‘Tel Aviv nation’... we are not doing anyone any favors. The only favor is to the entire Israeli economy.”
While the event was a marked difference from the typically Jewish dominated start-up scene, there was a lack of any female-run start-ups. According to Sella, the lack of gender diversity among start-up entrepreneurs is an ongoing challenge for the entire start-up culture, not just among the Arab-Israeli sector. “A lot of Arab women actually work in hi-tech but the problem begins with entrepreneurs,” he said, “we put effort into finding women, but this is a problem.”
Fadi Swidan, director of the Nazareth-based Maof Incubator said that the program originally recruited a women entrepreneur, however, she dropped out because the association with the IDF proved to be a problem for marketing her product to Arab countries.
“There are venture capitals companies in Ramallah and Jordan that are looking to invest in Arab-Israeli entrepreneurs, but they force these start-ups to move 70% of their operations to Ramallah or Jordan,” Swidan said, “I’m trying to avoid this because we need successful start-ups here to create new and quality jobs. This brings hope to the Arab population here and provides a role-model for more entrepreneurs.”
Mohamed Abed Ilhadi, an engineer and avid Arabian horse breeder, is co-owner of Horse Mate, a “smart marketplace for horse breeding.” He said that the accelerator program was essential to helping his fledgling business succeed.
“We don’t have the engines, the money, or the investors as in the Jewish community,” Abed Ilhadi remarked, “the program helped with exactly this problem.”
While the majority of Arabian horse breeding is actually located outside the Middle East, according to Abed Ilhadi, he said that Horse Mate has no problem working throughout the Middle East. “We will work with everyone who wants to make good business, and who loves horses,” Abed Ilhadi said with a smile.
Aiman Saif of the Authority for the Economic Development of the Arab, Druse and Circassian Sectors, has a hopeful outlook for the future of Arab-Israelis in hi-tech. “I’m very optimistic and this program is proof of progress. The next step is looking for the first Arab ‘exit,’” said Saif, referring to the sale of a company – hopefully at a significant profit.