Dr. Orna Berry, Israel’s first and only female chief scientist

Shattering glass ceilings and overcoming personal obstacles

Dr. Orna Berry poses with some of her awards (photo credit: THE MEDIA LINE)
Dr. Orna Berry poses with some of her awards
(photo credit: THE MEDIA LINE)
Dr. Orna Berry is a computer scientist, an entrepreneur and a businesswoman. She was Israel’s first – and so far only – chief scientist. She has achieved a lot of firsts, accumulating along the way many awards.
The Media Line’s Felice Friedson spoke to Dr. Berry about her life, her career, what she has learned along the way and what she can teach others – especially women coming up in the fields of science and entrepreneurship.
The Media Line: Dr. Orna Berry, you’re one of the leading pioneers who has struggled over the years to shape the path for women. Was it indeed difficult?
Orna Berry: It’s very hard to say whether this was difficult because for me, it just came very naturally. When people are willing and competent, I don’t see a problem of going along. And I think for those women, that our working relationship or friendship paved the way, they were as much willing as I was willing, and consequently it was easy in the sense that the best is to assist people who want to assist themselves.
TML: Women who are first in their fields still have a hard time climbing that ladder. If Orna Berry was beginning her career in 2019, would it have been any easier?
OB: Maybe, but I cannot be sure because I can still see a lot of prejudice and discrimination because of socialization, if not because of other issues like dysfunctional leaders who are afraid that once certain social problems are solved, they don’t have mastery over others. So it’s hard to tell.
TML: What were the struggles? This couldn’t have been an easy path.
Dr Orna Berry talks to The Media Line"s Felice Friedson
OB: The struggle was… I can tell you: One time I flew with my children from Ouro Preto in Brazil to Sao Paolo and Iguazu. At that time, we had tickets that had vouchers, and the guy at the gate was taking from my youngest two vouchers, and from the rest one voucher, giving all of us one boarding card. I told him that she was under three and, consequently, the fare was different. I told him either you take from all of us two vouchers and give us two boarding cards, or you give me back one of her vouchers. After I explained it logically, he looks at me and explains to me: “You, you are not a woman! Women do not talk like that!” Anyway, he didn’t help. He called the station manager. Didn’t get the ticket. When we got to Sao Paolo before we continued to Iguazu, I had to ask them again, and they called au Puerto – and found out there were two vouchers and they allowed us all on the flight. But you could see people weren’t listening to you. They were looking at you. You were a woman. Women can’t make sense. If she speaks and she makes sense, then she doesn’t speak like a woman. And I have many examples. Often, I had a choice to bypass these people because you could see that they could not live with who you wanted to be. And consequently, the choice was either minimizing yourself to fit within their frame or just going on and finding a different place. So I think at the end of the day, there were enough people who were [in] the other place so that I didn’t need to minimize myself and comply with discrimination.
TML: If you could think of a word… you paved the way. You’re talking about deep, difficult things for women that helped advance them. What would that one word be? The obstacle that you can think of.
OB: Think results. Don’t think heritage. Don’t think how it was before. Think results and think competences. If you think that way, then you overcome any kind of discrimination. It’s about gender. It’s about religion. It’s about sexual preference. Everything.
TML: But if you defined the obstacle, what would that word be?
OB: The obstacle is bias. People are looking at you as a woman. They are not capable of examining what will be the result of you taking a position.
TML: You’ve straddled the public and private worlds, creating the first startup that was bought by a European giant, Siemens, but you spent much of your professional life in the Ministry of Industry and Trade, and of course as chief scientist. I guess you could say that you started what was the start-up industry itself.
OB: I think that first of all, there were start-ups before. It was just becoming something important. My friends, my colleagues and I were experts in data communications. The company that we worked in wasn’t listening to what we said about market directions and what should be done next. So we just got up and left. We were five. And we got up and left. And yes, I went out to work with the person who became our chairman, on getting the initial funds, the seed funding, and setting the legalities. And then they joined one by one.
TML: The company that you left?
OB: We left Fibronics. I worked for an interim period as a consultant at Intel and as project manager at Elbit simultaneously. And then I worked with our chair to be in on initial funding, which was coming from a software company. And that software company basically gave us the first half a million, made us employees of that company for a period of time until the venture capital industry was set and the first real investment came from the Gemini Israel Fund.
TML: Are you amazed by the amount of exits in Israel today?
OB: I am not amazed because, right now, I just completed a national project building quantum science and technology research and development structure to take what exists in academia, in defense, in industry and in science, and also to connect them more tightly. Not [to] control what each one is doing, but to connect them more tightly, to accelerate the move of, say, competences to execution. And when I look at how close and how small a community we have, and the depth of many people who are really world-class experts, then I am not surprised by that. I have to say that sometimes, [an] exit is a problem of not being able to grow in Israel, and that is an issue that everyone is aware of. Certainly, the [Israel] Innovation Authority today is aware that we would have liked to see more companies produce growth within the country, and high productivity within the country, but remember that most of the investments in the hi-tech sector are coming from abroad, so there is somewhat of a global, close, economical process of investments and exits, and since more exits are here because of the fact that fewer companies are growing, then this is happening. So I’m not surprised by that or amazed by that. I think that when we mature eventually, we shall be able to do more, but in the meantime, I’m really happy to say that every computer that we see on every desk, and most of the mobile phones that we see, contain Israeli technology.
Trailblazer Dr. Orna Berry (photo credit: Courtesy)
Trailblazer Dr. Orna Berry (photo credit: Courtesy)
TML: There is a brain drain in terms of this field. And some of the really talented young people end up going all over the world, in particular places like Silicon Valley [or] Austin, Texas. How do you bring them back? 
OB: Some will not come back because of the fact that they have a good life and they like it. Others will come back because they like the social engagement [in Israel] better. I would say that in the global world, for a small country that depends a lot on exports, this traveling is very helpful at times. Sometimes it’s very isolated. But so many times, the Israeli network, in Israel and abroad, is useful, and companies do grow that way. I am not really concerned. I am concerned occasionally, you know; bureaucracy is bureaucracy. Closing the society and having [the] ultra-Orthodox control the Interior Ministry and the influx of experts for periods of time and stuff like that, that is a concern. But I think that’s a different issue. You asked me about women. I want the future to be more liberal than the past.
TML: Let’s look at the women, and the women in this field in particular. They have not caught up. This is very, very different from what it should be.
OB: That’s very true, but it’s not only about the workplace. It’s a lot about the fact that women are still educated to be the family’s strength and spine. And consequently, I had a young woman I was mentoring, very talented. Her parents were supportive. Her husband was supportive. She was extremely successful. She had a small child. Who wasn’t supportive and who really made her feel guilty? Her babysitter. “You’re a bad mother. You’re not coming enough. You’re not this, you’re not….” So the solution was for her husband to handle the babysitter until they could put the child in [preschool] and for the woman to start smiling again and be happy. So the solution was very simple. It wasn’t about the science; it wasn’t about the quality of the person; it wasn’t about their professional competence or about the family at all. It was about the babysitter, and the solution was for the husband to talk to the babysitter until the child was in [preschool]. Once the child was in [preschool], goodbye to the babysitter. But she was under such a stress when we tried to understand how come a competent individual, appreciated at work, appreciated at home, well-supported and everything, and there was a problem. The problem was the internal conditioning, and she didn’t even analyze that her problem was not professional, not a marital issue and not a family issue. It was an issue of a babysitter who triggered the guilt feeling.
TML: So Orna Berry, the mom, how did you deal with that?
OB: First of all, there are compromises, but for biological reasons – the age difference among my kids is quite significant – the kids were my partners. Because I was also a single parent for many, many years, the kids were my partners. My daughter Yael, who lives now in Beersheba and just turned 40, she said that in our family, everyone does what they are best at. I’m very proud the kids could go get an education and everything they needed in order to grow up. If it wouldn’t be for them, in supporting me for having a career, then we wouldn’t have the economic means for them to be where they are.
TML: That moment you became the chief scientist, Dr. Berry, what was that feeling? 
OB: When I was offered [the post of] chief scientist, I said I’m not good for the job because I am an entrepreneur and I don’t like a large system. But my colleague, who was my predecessor, played on my Zionism. Then I told him you need to talk to my kids. And indeed, he went and talked to my kids. And indeed, the same chair of the kids’ organization told him: “If mom sent you to us, it means that she is interested and she just wants to make sure that we are in it, too.”
TML: How old were they?
OB: She was about 18. My kids today… the eldest is 46, the second one is 40, the last one is 29 going on 30. 
TML: You’re an example of an entrepreneur, a successful one, who believes in giving back, in the social fabric of society. What inspired you to feel that you need to give back to the public sector, to those in need? 
OB: Certain things don’t happen in society. People may want them, and many even declare that they plan to do them, but they are not able to find a way to do it. First of all, unfortunately, there are many things that I am able to do that others are not able to do. So I did them. The other thing is, social justice is well embedded in me, whether it is my mutated genes or whether it is my education from home. I don’t think we can draw a clear line because if you look at my plusses and minuses, they are much closer to my dad’s plusses and minuses than to my mom’s, which means that in many ways, I followed in his footsteps. Now, both my parents were committed to society, as are my brothers, so regardless of the fact that many times we are discouraged and disappointed by current politics, all of us believe in being in Israel because of the fact that Jews need a homeland. The definition of “Jews” is slightly different between me and those who think women can’t serve in the Knesset. But it’s very important that all of us believe that we need to be there for the betterment of society, and that all of us allocate significant time for doing good – each one in their area of competence, be it in the periphery, be it in the sciences, be it in the arts, in the economy, in justice, whatever – but we are all there. 
TML: Your father, Yoash Tzidon, was a legendary leader in his own right. One of the first fighter pilots, head of weapons planning for the air force. He served in the Knesset. Did he make you a leader?
OB: First of all, he definitely did not make me a leader. And I’ll tell you why…. He really made an effort for my brothers to acquire technology skills, which he didn’t do for me. At one time, when I was 30-plus, I told him that. And he said, “Oh, you’re wrong because I knew you would handle it yourself and they needed a little more support.” I think two things. I think first of all, I was the eldest, so it was different. He was much less at home when I was growing [up]. He had certain elements that were traditional. He really thought that the boys had to be the economic pillars of their families, which they are. He forgot about the fact that for me, it’s the same. The other way though, I definitely learned a lot from him, including in areas that I wish I would be mellower than he is. Neither of us could stand lying. I can negotiate everything, but when someone is trying to lie to me or steal from somebody weaker, it’s not something I can stand and I will express it very, very clearly. There are issues in leadership and the style of leadership and the topics of leadership that are definitely inherited, either genetically or socially.  
Dr. Orna Berry at her desk. (photo credit: The Media Line)
Dr. Orna Berry at her desk. (photo credit: The Media Line)
TML: In 1948, your dad was in charge of leading convoys to Jerusalem.
OB: He did lead convoys to Jerusalem. He was definitely on the convoy to Hadassah that had this terrible tragedy, with the nurses and doctors being burned. The thing was, he was in the tail-end of the convoy and he was called back to Jerusalem for another mission. So by all means, between the time that he commanded some of the camps for the illegal immigrants in Cyprus… because he was accompanying the illegal ships; between that time and the time that he went to flying school, he was accompanying the convoys to Jerusalem, accompanying also convoys from Jerusalem. 
TML: Turn to your mom. Did she play a vital role in shaping you?
OB: My mom has a dual personality because they say that my dad wasn’t in the country a lot during the time that they were building the air force. Predominately from our perspective, when he wasn’t around, she was the master of all trades. Even when he was around and she would be second-in-command, she was the spine of the family. After my dad passed away, she was continuously talking about him. Now, she is smart. She is definitely hard working. She has plenty of values. But she considered herself to be number two. She was number one for many, many parts of her life, and then when my dad would come back home, she would step back. I didn’t like [this] and I told her so many times. She couldn’t understand why I was angry and I couldn’t understand why she could not change it, but it’s a difference of generations. They had a great relationship, so it’s very wrong to judge what is right and what is wrong, but in my eyes, a person of her stature needed to be number one. You can have two people as number one. My dad would back her entirely if she said something. Even when it was wrong, it was backed by him.
TML: Apparently, nothing can stop Orna Berry, even if it is an insidious disease like cancer. Over a year ago, you did a TEDx talk. You were able to actually unveil the fact that the drug you take on a regular basis wasn’t given to you in the basket [of services]. Why is this whole field broken?
OB: The field has an economic value, but it also has an operational value that is influencing the economics, and it certainly has a moral value. Now, the basket will never include what I have because I have three to four different types of cancer. There is not even one point of reference that is similar in the database in the National Institutes of Health or the FDA, so there is no systemic treatment. It’s trial and error. Now what you want to do in such cases [where] you don’t have data is go by expertise, and seven experts said this should be tried. Why should it be tried at an early stage? Because it will extend the life of the chemo to a degree that if the chemo is effective and the cancer becomes less resistant to the chemo and its impact is prolonged, then I live for a longer time. The attitude I encountered was only financial; it’s not in the basket. But there are often diseases that cannot be – they just don’t exist. You need to judge, so if you look at parallels, parallels are being treated. Except this was a more complex situation. I was written off and I wasn’t ready for that. I decided to take the expertise, particularly the expertise that was very consistent, and go for it. And I wrapped it in a lot of private things that I’m doing – I’m doing acupuncture, I changed my nutrition – a variety of issues. But this is complementary to the medicine. Conventional medicine is key, and my key physician operated on me. A gynecologist, a great person. And there are first-line and second-line oncologists who we are discussing the situation with. Sometimes, the discussion is because I see the test results shifting in a direction that I know isn’t very good. Other times, it’s in order to foresee what comes next because it is not a systemic treatment. There is no systemic treatment…. Right now there in an active cancer in the thyroid, and because of a secondary threat, we are not even treating it because if we treat it, it negates some of the factors of the gynecological oncology. First of all, aside from being emotional about my life, I went into a learning mode. There are lots of discoveries. For example, one of the things you are very susceptible to is infection, and you think that certain parameters together indicate infection susceptibility. When you look at it mathematically, it’s not exactly so simple. There are some other factors that you need to check. When I came to the hospital for the annual checkup, I asked them to measure the other factors in order to know which context I’m living and whether there are additional indications. This is no problem because you just pay for it and it’s not such an outrageous cost. But when I came to the HMO, they didn’t want to do it. We started privately. Then we showed it had an impact. Then they had to approve it. I think I was declined three times before I went in person. And then they asked me: “Why did you come?” I was bald and it was a hot day. I said, “I came because my doctor wrote that I needed to get this medication and you didn’t approve it, so I wanted to explain why in a different way.” And then I gave a different explanation, a quantitative explanation of why it [appears] to be effective, and I got it.    
TML: You’re an exception, but has it changed things for others?
OB: This is another interesting issue. There are very few people who contract [only] one of the diseases out of the three or four, and I wrote a letter to the Health Ministry asking them if they would recommend that the HMOs provide this treatment to people who come in with these diseases. They weren’t willing to answer me in writing. They called me back and said yes, if a woman in your situation or similar will ask for the treatment, they will get it. But if you believe that one, I will tell you another story!
TML: Can you say what that was? Which cancer are you talking about?
OB: The pathology showed carcinoma in the uterus, a serious carcinoma in the two ovaries, and a papillary carcinoma in the thyroid. There is a secondary issue, the size of the cell. The cells are microscopic, so when the accumulation was in the uterus, it looked like a big myoma, but they didn’t see the ones that were in the ovaries. Even though the cancer in the uterus was more aggressive than the cancer in the ovaries, the cancer in the ovaries was more likely to spread. I did a lot of tests that I decided to do. I did sequencing. I learned about the difference between how a doctor who is doing cancer research is doing the sequencing and structuring the data, versus how the sequencing companies are doing it. Every time you give it a different perspective, you get to learn something new.
TML: You definitely earned title of chief scientist.
OB: I did. I definitely earned it. But the issue is that I understand mathematics but not biology, so my relationship with the medical people is very important because I get an explanation, and I get them to be curious about what it is I see in all of this. Really, sometimes things are very mathematical because of the combination, the convolution. The immune system and one type of cancer, never mind, but three types? At least it’s not just one domino effect. It’s multiple avalanches, so without understanding, I said the word “metabolism,” and toward the end of the year, there was a publication by the COO of Memorial Sloane Kettering that metabolism is the source. Nothing is the source of it all, but it put metabolism forward, and now a woman that I’m mentoring is actually doing metabolic work, mathematical metabolic work, where she wants to see the impact of a specific drug on a specific mutation, on genomic mutation, that is separating the effects of the disease. 
TML: This brings me back to youth, young women. You’re a very strong woman, Dr. Berry, and you’ve paved the way for women who are going to lead. We spoke about results. What is the most sound advice you can give young women today who can’t get there, who are having a very hard time breaking the next glass ceiling?   
OB: We all have emotions and self-image. I suggest to focus on what it is that you really want to get to. Just think about what will make you feel good and what your mission is, and then develop and force yourself into becoming less sensitive to destructive forces along the way…. Just make sure that every morning when you get up, you know where you are going. Take the steps in the 24 hours that follow; you’ll take the steps toward your goal. 
TML: What’s your happy spot?
OB: My children, my grandchildren, my family. That’s a very happy spot. My brothers and their families. My mom is still alive, so we have a weekly parliament there. So, that’s good.
TML: Dr. Orna Berry, much appreciated, good health and continued success.
OB: Thank you so much.
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