MATI offers big ideas for small businesses

One typical mistake Olim learn not to make is not to expect payments in Israel to be made the American way.

A year and a half after Dori Gould arrived in Israel to make a new life for herself, her five dogs and her five cats, she signed up last year for a small-business course tailored to the needs of English-speaking immigrants. First offered in Jerusalem in 2005, the course was made available by MATI, the country's government-backed Small Business Development Center, in conjunction with the Nefesh B'Nefesh organization and the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel. "I took the course because I wasn't sure what I'd do when I came here and thought it would give me some useful skills for many different things," Gould said. After learning the ins and outs of Israeli bureaucracy and taxpaying, however, Gould decided to postpone her small-business dream - a decision she actually gives the course credit for. "It was a real cultural experience, and also a great networking opportunity - I've made a lot of contacts and have the necessary information for the future, but this course also can make you realize you are not as committed as you thought you were," she said. Gould, who resides in Ma'aleh Adumim, still recommends the course to anyone contemplating starting their own business. "I've run across people who didn't have that information and suffered for it, so it's essential to take the course if you don't want to do a whole bunch of things wrong," she said. A non-profit organization, MATI was founded in the 1990s following the massive waves of immigration from the former Soviet Union, with the purpose of helping new immigrants create work opportunities for themselves. MATI is supported by the Israel Small and Medium Enterprises Authority, the Ministry of Absorption, the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor and the Jewish Agency, in collaboration with various local municipalities. Michal Vulej of the MATI center in Jerusalem said that she was surprised by the interest in the center's English-language training course, which has run four times since it was first introduced in early 2005. Following a growing interest in the program in the north of the country, the MATI center in Haifa is now opening a similar course that will start on Wednesday, January 11. Consisting of eight afternoon sessions with English-speaking trainers, the course costs a mere NIS 250. "This is a program designed for people that may already have or have had small or medium-sized businesses, as well as those who are thinking of opening one," said Tamar Simchi-Seifer, the marketing and training director of the new program in Haifa. The course provides some background on the Israeli economy and classes on locating business opportunities, tax laws, account administration, marketing and product design. In addition, the program provides business consulting and offers personal mentoring by specialized professionals. The program also offers special loans for new immigrants. CJP Boston, the sponsor of Haifa-Boston Connection, offers up to NIS 70,000 in individual loans with a 1 percent interest rate, and additional subsidized loans are offered through the Absorption Ministry. According to Avi Faigenbaum, the CEO of MATI Haifa, the need for new immigrants to find adequate sources of income that will also allow them to maintain their professional status leads to a level of personal entrepreneurship that significantly exceeds that of the country's general population. "This is especially true when immigrants have specialized professional experience for which there is not a readily available niche in Israel," Faigenbaum said. "Typically, they will operate first within their community, and as they become more successful, they will branch out into Israeli society at large." The new course in Haifa, like the courses in Jerusalem, will be directed by Judy Feierstein, the CEO of Transitions and Resources, Ltd - a business that Feierstein started herself eight years ago. "The teachers are all Anglos who are self-employed successfully in Israel, so we know what we are talking about," Feierstein said. Participants in the course, she said, belong to a wide range of professions - from translators to former high-tech employees. "Even people who are opening up a business here similar in nature to one they had abroad have to be aware of the different cultural nuances and licensing aspects," Feierstein added. "You also have to learn how to market yourself in a market deluged with competitors, while not being part of good-old-boys referral network." One typical mistake Olim learn not to make, she said, is not to expect payments in Israel to be made the American way - that is, in a timely manner. Another important detail to know is that there are seasonal aspects to every Israeli business - based on the Jewish holiday calendar and other constraints - including the weather. While entrepreneurs in Israel typically work less than their American colleagues, Feierstein said, she also taught her students about the cultural aspects of time management in Israel. "It takes more time to get things done here because there are more social and communal expectations," she noted. For more information about the new MATI course in English, contact MATI Haifa, 1-800-334477. MATI has other branches situated around the country: See and