How women have advanced in Israel's hi-tech scene

Today, practically every major start-up or corporation in Israel has a woman on its executive team, and in many cases leading the organization as a whole.

 GROUP NINETEEN Negev office. (photo credit: Group Nineteen)
GROUP NINETEEN Negev office.
(photo credit: Group Nineteen)

Israel’s hi-tech sector is filled with diversity, which is fitting due to its population hailing from different countries and backgrounds. One sector that was historically held back – which has seen an astronomical rise in the past decade – is women. Today, practically every major start-up or corporation in Israel has a woman on its executive team, and in many cases leading the organization as a whole.

This rise is due to several reasons. For one, aspiring women eager to climb the corporate and start-up ladder have been successful. Another, a cohort of women is dedicated to improving working conditions for women and empowering them to rise to peaks previously not reached. Together, they are united in a common cause to build each other up. Speaking to these exemplary women, a common theme arises: confidence.

Rachel Wagner Rosenzweig is the founder and CEO of FemForward, a Jerusalem-based initiative that offers programs for women in hi-tech looking to progress into first-level management roles with higher salaries. The initiative was co-founded in 2020 by Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Fleur Hassan-Nahoum and Meirav Atun Amiry, CEO of InTouch, as a community within Made in JLM, a nonprofit that helps to oversee and grow Jerusalem’s hi-tech ecosystem. 

Having previously started an initiative called Fem JLM, Rosenzweig says that she “realized that there wasn’t a tangible impact” when she began. This led her to ask, “What are the biggest problems?” To her, it became clear: Where are the women leaders? Starting from the early stage of the career cycle can help women advance to another level.

Thus far, FemForward has held four programs. According to Rosenzweig, the success rate far exceeded her expectations. Approximately 50% of attendees have received a raise and/or a promotion within three months of completing the program. This success was recently recognized by FemForward’s partners – the US Embassy and the UAE-Israel Business Council. The US Embassy also granted the initiative funding to expand its operations to the Abraham Accords countries  – Bahrain, Morocco and the UAE  –  to help women there excel in the workforce. Rosenzweig says they are starting the next cohort in mid-January with in-person seminars in Israel and Dubai alongside hybrid weekly workshops.

 SCHOOL FOR future CEOs, Supersonas’s flagship program. (credit: Supersonas) SCHOOL FOR future CEOs, Supersonas’s flagship program. (credit: Supersonas)

In Rosenzweig’s eyes, FemForward is “trying to solve a global problem. This isn’t just in Israel,” she says. Working directly with women, her initiative matches attendees with mentors from the highest levels of Israel’s hi-tech industry. For women eager to grow, she recommends networking and meeting people across industries. What’s more, she points out that not all hi-tech jobs mean programming, and that “there are so many skills within hi-tech. There is a job for everyone.”

“There are so many skills within hi-tech. There is a job for everyone.”

Rachel Wagner Rosenzweig

Helping women advance in hi-tech

One woman who is helping women network is Hilla Bakshi, the founder of HaMeetupistiot, a grassroots organization that connects women in hi-tech to a broad range of networking and business events. The organization was founded in 2019 after Bakshi, who frequently attends meet ups and networking events, realized that there were rarely any women there. She asked herself, “Why don’t women come?” Taking the initiative, she asked them why, and their responses were all the same: “We can’t find them [such events].” Consequently, Bakshi realized she could be their answer.

She launched on Facebook and within one month had 1,000 members. Within five months, she had 5,000 members. From there, she built partnerships with large corporations such as Microsoft, Google and Amazon. Today, HaMeetupistiot is the go-to place for women to find hi-tech events, boasting more than 70,000 members.

In regard to advice for women, Bakshi says, “The most important thing is not to give up on yourself… sometimes they do… don’t give up on parenthood, either. Just combine it with your professional career.” Of course, it is not always so easy for a new mother to reenter the workforce, but it is important to recognize it is possible to balance both, she asserts.

LEAH FORKOSH KOLBEN brings this idea to life with her work. She is the co-founder and CTO of cnvrg.io, a data science platform she founded in 2016 to help companies, large and small, build models that are smarter and less expensive. The company was sold to Intel in 2020. 

She says it was “very hard at the beginning as a woman,” but now she is “very, very proud.

“I had to convince others we were worthy; especially in tech and as CTO, it is not typical [for a woman to be in that role],” she explains. 

She notes that venture capitalists are eager to diversify, and although she doesn’t like the fact that funding is defined by gender, she recognizes that it is a good opportunity.

She also thinks that women feel they have to project an image of themselves in order to succeed. For Kolben, this came to prominence right before they announced their series A funding round: “We [Kolben and her co-founder] needed a photo together, but I was 39 weeks pregnant. We took the photo, and it got published in the paper. Even now, the photo is used of us… everyone still thinks I am pregnant.” A unique story, she received many messages from women telling her how encouraging it was that a pregnant woman could run a company.

Today, Kolben is active in mentoring and working with aspiring women tech leaders. She has participated as a mentor in all four of FemForward’s cohorts, as well as speaking at networking events for women. She says that the most important thing is “don’t be afraid of the challenge and of failing. Failing is part of success. It is important to learn from failures and take the lessons forward.” She says that it is a challenge for women, especially as “women have a lot of setbacks from friends, family and society... if you are afraid, find someone who can help and guide you… it is much easier to go to someone who has been through what you are going through before.”

Based in Jerusalem, Kolben remarks that if we want to see change, we need more women in positions of power. “Something as trivial as having transparent offices is a huge issue for women who are breastfeeding. Without a woman in power at a company, this concept would never come to mind. It is not their [men’s] fault; they just don’t think about it.” This stresses the fact that having an environment that enables more women to feel welcome in the office is crucial.

A FAST-GROWING Jerusalem-based company that has two women in senior roles is AutoLeadStar. Director of operations Shoshana DuBow and VP of marketing Ilana Shabtay speak candidly about the challenges women face and how to overcome them. Motherhood is the main factor preventing women from reentering the workforce, although many are eager to return to the office and provide for their family. DuBow says, “It is totally normal to leave early and pick up your kids from work,” which shows the flexibility to which companies and society at large are adapting to fit the needs of women. 

Shabtay mentions the issue of IDF reserve service: “It is very difficult for a mother to be left alone with the kids and have to work, while her husband is away in reserves for a month. There are no solutions for it, and it is a tough month.” For the two, the most important thing is perseverance and being confident in all you do. two

Raissa Hacohen is the managing partner at HUR Partners, a private investment firm that builds tailor-made early-stage hi-tech portfolios for private corporations and individuals. She has helped build portfolios for some of the largest international funds. Hacohen points out that the “9-5 or 9-9 work-life mentality is not built for parents,” and that the system is “archaic.” These issues are especially poignant for mothers. The emergence of remote work in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, has helped contribute to an increase in flexibility of the workforce. She hopes there will be more of that, “a system where success is measured by productivity, not hours.”

As the founder of her fund, she is fortunate to be able to set her own hours, especially as she is the mother of four. She stresses that the workforce is “inherently unfair in how it is run” and that “time is your only resource.” Her advice to aspiring women entrepreneurs is to “respect your time, and others will too… time is a zero-sum game. You need to be disciplined with it.” In doing this, it will allow women to balance their private and professional lives to achieve success. Hacohen also mentors with MassChallenge, an accelerator program, and helps connect angel investors and venture funds with female founders.

AN ORGANIZATION making a broad impact is Hana Rado’s Group Nineteen and Supersonas. Supersonas, whose CEO is Liat Shaked, is a social business that promotes gender equality in leadership positions. Founded in 2014, it is one answer to the problem of there being no women speakers at large events or women making big decisions, as they aren’t in positions of power. What started as a website with profiles of women who had already accomplished so much in the workforce has evolved into a large organization with influence across many different industries in Israel. 

Shaked says, “When we start every conversation, we say, ‘Women are 51% of the population, but we are the largest minority – we make up 20% of C-level positions.’” As such, the organization works with entrepreneurs or women who have decided they want to excel to the top of their companies. “They are ambitious, aiming for the stars, and we are helping them get there.”

Shaked says, “Many women feel uncomfortable promoting themselves and their start-ups, so we created a strong network of men and women to help them know that everyone should know about their success.” This has led to partnerships with organizations such as the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange to bring more women to the top of public companies. They are also working with Israel Aerospace Industries, where they are making a great impact. “We are looking around us to see wherever there are not enough women, and how can we help.”

Rado points out that of the top 125 companies in Israel, 122 of the CEOs are men, and only three are women. “It is interesting –  the secular Israelis are more chauvinistic than the haredim. They have the ability to change, but they choose to follow the status quo. As a result, they have only men on the board.” Shaked adds, “We are helping them to understand why it is good for them to have more women… to be more profitable, where employees are proud to work.” They both say that the hi-tech community is very conservative, though you would think the opposite. Shaked even likens it to “a boys’ club.”

Group Nineteen’s major initiative is working with women in Yeruham, a small town south of Beersheba. There, Rado sees immense potential for the women to grow and support their families. The town is not in the best economic situation, so providing jobs, training and employment for the women is critical to their family’s ultimate success. Group Nineteen pays for all their training and even the salaries. The only problem is that companies need to take on the women – which they are not doing. “They don’t want us to be employees and mothers. To them, it is something that doesn’t go together.” As a result, the companies are not hiring women from Yeruham. Rado continues that “the CEOs are very closed and not resilient. 95% are men, and they like their friends. They need the courage… they make a lot of excuses.” It is unfortunate, but they are growing in partners and organizations eager to hire these women.

The impact of women goes well beyond advocacy and start-ups. The Israeli offices of Meta (formally known as Facebook) and Microsoft are both led by women. This is sure to grow in the coming years as the impact of women in organizations in Israel continues to expand and reach more people.

Of course, there is still work to be done, as only 33% of the hi-tech workforce today is women. As Kolben notes, “If you want to see a change, you need to be a part of it… in the Knesset, in tech… If we want to change, women need to be in power.” 

The writer, a Jerusalem Post staff member, is an entrepreneur and Hebrew thinker, known as Osher in Hebrew. A recent immigrant, he also helps oversee the start-up ecosystem in Jerusalem with Made in JLM. On Twitter: @troyfritzhand