A market sector all their own

Haredi women are carving out a piece of Israel’s entrepreneurial space.

A career development workshop for Haredi women at the Temech office in downtown Jerusalem (photo credit: TEMECH)
A career development workshop for Haredi women at the Temech office in downtown Jerusalem
(photo credit: TEMECH)
When a friend gave her the book I Don’t Know How She Does It, about a prototypical supermom balancing her kids with her job as a hedge-fund manager, Adina Becker was unimpressed.
“Whatever she went through in the book, we go through like times five,” said Becker, one of a growing class of technically skilled ultra-Orthodox women who are carving out a new sector in the Israeli entrepreneurial space.
Whereas Kate Reddy, the book’s main character, has two children, Becker raised six while managing a career.
“The main difference between me and her,” she said, “is that I’d say 95 percent of haredi women will not work full-time plus overtime ever – because the family comes first.”
Starting a business – and not just a front-porch business selling household goods – is an increasingly popular way for haredi women to earn a living within the dictates of their lifestyle, which casts work primarily as a means of supporting a family.
“If you’ve got a choice between going and working in Tel Aviv, in a totally nonreligious environment, and starting your own business, where you can make your own hours and be there for your kids, decide where you’re going to put your business and who your client market it is – I mean, it’s a no-brainer,” Becker said.
Becker is a fast talker with an easy smile who wears a traditional straight-hair wig.
But she is quick to say that she is not a typical haredi woman.
She is a college graduate from Australia with degrees in English and philosophy who held professional jobs before stepping away from a position as assistant director of a nonprofit educational organization to pursue a business in promotional writing and design.
Becker was working out of her house until her daughter brought her an advertisement for Temech, an organization that helps connect haredi women with professional resources and employment opportunities.
It also rents out office space at a significant markdown, a draw for haredi home-based entrepreneurs who struggle to separate family and work.
“The pain point is that the haredi community wants to be able to support themselves respectably,” said Temech CEO Shaindy Babad, speaking recently on the WiFi-equipped balcony of the hub’s ninth-floor office in downtown Jerusalem.
“They don’t want to be taking charity – they don’t want to be unproductive – on the one hand,” she said. “And on the other hand, they need that workplace that won’t necessarily contradict with their values, because their values are very important. The values in the haredi community are do-or-die kind of values.”
Temech is located in the Sha’arei Ha’Ir building, about two minutes by foot from the Central Bus Station.
It houses Temech’s “Jerusalem Hub” – a shared set of offices and resources for haredi woman entrepreneurs – in addition to professional resources and career development courses for haredi women seeking paid work.
The Temech office basically resembles an average startup accelerator that one might find in Tel Aviv or Palo Alto, California.
(Babad pointed out that Temech is not an accelerator but a hub; the latter term avoids the implication that it takes a cut of the businesses it houses, which it does not.) The bulk of the square footage is taken up by shared workspace, rows of low cubicles like the one where Becker sits.
A bookshelf at the entrance boasts a fairly typical, business-minded library, including The Lean Startup, something of a bible in the entrepreneurship community; and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, equally prolific in the self-help world.
But it also contains titles like Money in Halachah, a two-volume, gold-lettered set by Rabbi Yitzchok Silver.
And also unlike the typical Herzliya or Silicon Valley accelerator, the enterprises being started out of Temech’s office are not strictly or even predominantly technology based. Instead, they run the gamut; the walls of the lobby are lined with photography displays, beauty products and jewelry arrangements courtesy of Temech-based businesses.
“We have two women here who just started a hi-tech startup, and they’re working on a project that’s top secret – I don’t even know very much about it,” Babad said. “They could be the next Facebook. They could be. But a lot of the initiatives are sales or service oriented, way across the board.”
Temech is not necessarily interested in spawning the next Facebook. Instead, the goal is to create business environments that cater to the unique requirements and preferences of the haredi workforce, particularly for women.
Among those: access to Kosher food, a workplace free of obscenities and, in particular, the freedom to work a career around child-rearing and not the other way around.
Those things can be hard to find in secular workplaces. Becker recalls “10 memorable months” working as a technical writer for a hi-tech company in a shared workspace full of Israeli engineers. “And anytime anything goes wrong, the only language they swear in is English,” unaware that swearing is objectionable to haredi individuals like Becker.
Beyond that, an isolated working environment better allows haredi men and women to navigate a fraught relationship with the Internet and computer screen, for instance, avoiding Web content bandied in secular offices that might offend ultra-Orthodox values.
Badad said Temech skirts those issues by offering a place where haredi woman can come and use technology “in a way that feels comfortable and safe, that doesn’t violate their personal principles.”
Temech operates on the conviction that by allowing haredi women to form their own purposefully separate sector of the workforce, they can begin to realize unused economic potential, a boon for the entire market.
“It’s one of the stories we tell [Jerusalem Mayor] Nir Barkat,” Babad said.
“We say, ‘If you get a conglomerate that comes to Jerusalem and rents 600 square meters in Har Hotzvim, first of all, 50 percent of his employees are going back to other cities, and they’re not spending their money in Jerusalem.’
“Small businesses are spending all of their money in Jerusalem, and they’re hiring in Jerusalem. That’s a major impact for Jerusalem.”
But first and foremost, Temech’s Jerusalem office exists to offer a space and a community for business-oriented haredi woman.
“Within the first two weeks I worked here I got three job offers because there are a lot of other woman working here, and we refer work to each other,” Becker said. “So it’s tremendously helpful for networking – tremendous, tremendous, tremendous. I’ve already got a whole network here just from sitting at my desk.”