Exclusive ‘start-up nation?’

Central Bureau of Statistics figures show that of the 85,000 Israelis who work in hi-tech, a paltry 700 of them are Arab.

Happy people working at computer desks 521 (photo credit: Courtesy photos: Tsofen)
Happy people working at computer desks 521
(photo credit: Courtesy photos: Tsofen)
Bader Mansour, the soft-spoken, professorial founder and owner of a hi-tech startup, sits in his Nazareth office – or, to be more precise, the basement of his family home, which has been refurbished and renovated for the purposes of creating an office – and recalls his first foray into the Israeli technological industry.
After graduating from the prestigious Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in 1991, Mansour sent resumés to companies only to wait in vain for a response.
“I couldn’t find work for almost a year,” he says. “It was very hard. I almost gave up. I got a teaching license to teach science in high school, but I didn’t even get a job as a teacher. I couldn’t find one. After nine months, I was offered a job in Tiberias, which was an entry-level position. I became the manager of this small IT department.”
Given the limited potential of a small company in Tiberias, Mansour decided he needed to look elsewhere. Having despaired of finding work in the Israeli market, he set out for the US, where he amassed two years of valuable experience at firms in Boston and Silicon Valley. It was in the US that Mansour’s confidence received a significant boost.
“If anybody could do it, I could also do it,” he remembered thinking at the time. “I had a dream at a very young age to have my own company.”
Armed with the on-the-job know-how, he realized his dream, opening up a startup firm in Nazareth. Here, though, he would run into a problem.
“I didn’t know the Israeli market well enough,” he says. “I didn’t know anybody here. I wanted to do something different. So I looked for an opportunity.”
Mansour utilized the contacts he made in the US to find himself a job in Herzliya, the hub of the Israeli hi-tech industry. It was a last resort for the newlywed, who could not find any other opportunity in a more convenient location and thus was required to brave the two-hour commute from Nazareth to the center of the country.
“It was a company that had 500 employees, and I was the only Arab,” he recalls. “Whenever I spoke on the phone with my wife, everybody would look at me strangely.”
It was here that Mansour got a firsthand taste of the importance of human relationships and interpersonal dynamics.
“There was a very nasty vice president of operations,” he says. “These people [who work in the operations area] are very hard people. He would shout at everybody, speak nasty to everybody, even to my boss.
“I remember when I got married, I invited lots of people from the company. I invited [the VP] to the wedding. When I gave him the invitation, he cried. He didn’t come to the wedding, but he cried. He said to me, ‘Good luck,’ and everything. Then I went to my boss and I asked, ‘What’s the story with this guy?’
“He said: ‘When I decided to hire you, there was a management meeting involving all the CEOs and vice presidents. And they discussed you. They wondered, ‘Should we hire an Arab in this company?’ And [the nasty VP of operations] was the only one who was against hiring you.’
“After he got to know me, being there for two years, we became friends, even though he was nasty to my boss. He saw that an Arab could be just a person, you know. So he was touched by this.
Between 20 and 30 people from this company came to my wedding. So it was nice, I think. It proves that Arabs and Jews can work together.”
Mansour continues: “We had heavy discussions about stuff when [political] things happened, but it was also in the late 1990s, when people were more optimistic about peace. I think Arabs and Jews have no other choice but to live together and try to work together and to do things together. Slowly, we learn to live together.”
Mansour’s time in Herzliya enabled him to gain even more contacts, which proved helpful when he founded NAZDAQ, a company that specializes in an area of hitech known as enterprise-resource planning. Ten years later, his clientele – among them established firms like Boeing, Ferrari, Phillips and General Electric – includes companies in over 60 countries.
His success story is a “proof of concept” – a testament to the potential of Arab entrepreneurs in Israel – that is being touted by Tsofen, a non-profit organization that aims to bridge the gap between the country’s largest minority and the established hitech industry that has largely shunned it.
“We all know that Israel is considered ‘start-up nation’ and an economic miracle, but we don’t completely agree with this,” says Smadar Nehab, a Jewish Israeli hi-tech veteran who joined forces with an industry entrepreneur, Yossi Coten, and an Arab accountant and social activist, Sami Saadi, to establish Tsofen.
“It is just unbelievable how the Arabs were excluded [from hi-tech],” she says.
“There were many objective reasons at the beginning [of the hi-tech boom] for this, but the fact that it has continued to this very day is by no means objective.”
Nehab cites figures provided by the Central Bureau of Statistics which show that of the 85,000 Israelis who work in hi-tech, a paltry 700 of them are Arab. Israeli firms continue to outsource jobs to Eastern Europe and India, yet 80 percent of Arab college graduates with relevant engineering degrees are not given jobs in the sector.
She says the root of the problem is the government’s land distribution and zoning policies which deny Arab councils and municipalities the resources needed to build adequate office space and industrial parks where hi-tech firms can flourish.
According to Nehab, while the government has approved plans to establish a joint industrial park that would be equally split between Nazareth and the largely Jewish town of Upper Nazareth, it is dragging its feet in okaying the necessary infrastructure projects needed to build the park.
Compounding her frustration is the fact that major hi-tech firms have expressed interest in setting up offices in the area.
“Now what needs to be done is to develop this area so that building can start, and this building is being pushed back by the government because it says there are no industries interested in that,” Nehab says.
“But when we bring international companies to Nazareth, and they see the space, they ask: ‘When is it going to be developed?’ “So it’s a chicken-and-egg type thing.
We hope that by bringing these major players into the game, the government will actually, eventually approve it. It’s very, very difficult. It’s all about lobbying, which is much easier for the Jewish part [of society].”
While Tsofen makes an effort to persuade municipalities and local councils to provide the land and infrastructure, it is also working to provide Arab college graduates with on-the-job training, through courses that closely simulate real-life work experiences.
Since its founding in 2007, Tsofen has succeeded in finding jobs for 85% of the techies – most of whom have found work in Nazareth – who come through its doors.
“Hi-tech is a pilot; a means to enhance economic development in Arab society,” Saadi adds. “Through hi-tech, we want to present a model that shows that it is possible to work together. It is possible to work together, and to live together. So that’s the idea.”
ASIDE FROM the dearth of industrial office space in Arab towns, a number of other factors have conspired to keep hitech an essentially all-Jewish industry. While Jews who specialize in technological vocations usually connect with each other socially in high school and the army, Arabs are less likely to make the friendships that eventually evolve into business partnerships.
There is also the concentration of hi-tech companies in the center of the country, making it difficult to reach for Arabs living in the Galilee.
“A Jew who decides that it’s important to work in hi-tech can relocate to Tel Aviv,” Nehab says. “Relocating for Arabs is not an option. It might be an option for young people before they get married, but once you have a family, raising Muslim kids in Tel Aviv is not very easy. There aren’t very good schools, and it’s in Jaffa, if at all. So it’s very limited. It’s not as open as it is to a Jewish person who wants to live in the periphery.”
Additionally, while young Arabs may be tech-savvy, they are not nearly as cognizant of the industry’s impact as their Jewish counterparts.
“This industry does not have much exposure in the Arab sector,” Saadi says. “If you live in Sakhnin, or Arrabe, or Kalansuwa, you could go your entire life without knowing what hi-tech really is. There just isn’t the awareness of hi-tech, or hi-tech development, or hi-tech factories. These are things that aren’t really known, since it isn’t in people’s thinking.”
Saadi says the difficulty that Arab college graduates have encountered in finding jobs after their studies has dissuaded them from specializing in engineering and technical- related fields.
“Intuitively, when an Arab student finishes high school, he or she needs to pick a profession. There are the usual professions like medicine, pharmacology, political science.
That is one of Tsofen’s challenges – to promote and strengthen technological studies in Arab society.”
If Nazareth is any indication, Tsofen seems to be making headway. The town now boasts close to 20 hi-tech firms that employ 220 people – a significant boost from 2008, when there were only 30 hitech jobs in the city. In a relatively short time, Nazareth has become more than just a tourist destination, but also a mini-hub of the hi-tech industry.
“I used to get phone calls from people [asking me to help them find a job],” Mansour says. “Sometimes I succeeded, sometimes not. Now with Tsofen, it’s much more established. There’s a chance to help all of these people, not just one person here, one person there. And it’s helping a lot. We’re trying to promote Nazareth as an area with big potential here.
“Living in Nazareth all my life, it has changed dramatically – especially in the last five years. It’s turning from a small town into a small city, in a way. It is growing, and hi-tech is part of it, but it’s not the only thing. There is lots of building, lots of investments.
“People who live here understand this. We’re a different kind of Israelis, but we’re Israelis. We want to succeed personally. So I think it’s a win-win for everybody to have the Arab community succeed. It would be better for [the Arabs], and for the country in general. So it’s a positive atmosphere in general.”