Gender agenda

From hi-tech to fair trade, smart business initiatives are helping women from minority groups build careers.

Ahoti feminist org 521 (photo credit: Lauren Laines)
Ahoti feminist org 521
(photo credit: Lauren Laines)
When Najach Khir, a Druse woman from Peki’in in Upper Galilee, gave birth to her daughter Yara in 1995, her life changed forever.
Yara was born with celiac disease, a condition that results in painful intestinal damage when sufferers eat gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye.
To buy the special gluten-free foods her daughter needed, Khir scoured shops up and down the country.
She had little success: few places sold the foods, and what was on sale was not tasty.
“For 10 years, I traveled all over Israel searching for suitable products. Gluten-free foods are so hard to find, so eventually I just started baking my own,” says Khir. “I experimented over and over again with various gluten-free flours to make the best dough for pita with za’atar, sambusaks [filled pastries] and cookies.”
When she shared her story with other celiac patients and their families, Khir realized there was a countrywide gap in the market for delicious, glutenfree foods. And since nobody else seemed to be doing much about it, she decided to set up her own business from her home in Peki’in.
Khir, who had no previous experience running a business, learned how to parlay her baking skills into a profitable small enterprise through courses run by Jasmine, the Association of Businesswomen in Israel.
Jasmine, a nonprofit whose aim is to realize the economic potential of Jewish and Arab businesswomen, is the brainchild of Kiram Baloum, a charismatic Arab woman. Baloum founded Jasmine in 2006 as a branch of the Center for Jewish Arab Economic Development.
Since its establishment a little over four years ago, Jasmine has expanded into a countrywide network of Christian, Jewish and Muslim businesswomen headed by honorary president Ofra Strauss, chairwoman of Israel’s second largest food manufacturer, the Strauss Group.
WITH ROOTS in the Israeli-Arab town of Taibe, a BA in Middle Eastern Studies from Bar-Ilan University and a background in media, Baloum understands the barriers that minority and immigrant women have to overcome to be successful.
She believes women have the ability to achieve great things in the business world – as long as they are given the right tools to learn how.
At a welcoming speech in Tel Aviv to a group of Jewish, Christian and Muslim women about to embark on their first steps as small business owners, Baloum is characteristically blunt, but positive.
“Not every woman can be an entrepreneur. It depends on the individual,” she says. “But Jasmine is also here to give you the tools and the confidence to succeed.”
According to Baloum, through initiatives like business training courses and support networks, Jasmine hopes to break the trend of women’s underrepresentation in the Israeli small business market.
While Israel is rightfully proud of its reputation as a country of entrepreneurs, of over 400,000 Israeli small businesses, only 40,000 are owned and run by women.
And immigrant and minority women own just a tiny fraction of those 40,000 businesses.
While Arabs, for example, constitute a fifth of the country’s population, almost half live below the official poverty line. If Israeli Arabs can be considered to be on the country’s economic periphery, then Arab women are right out on the fringe. Only one in five Arab women are employed compared with one in two of their Jewish counterparts.
What is the reason for such a bleak statistic? In contrast to recent comments by Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, who blamed high unemployment rates among Arab women on “cultural obstacles and the belief that women have to stay in their home villages,” Baloum claims that, in fact, Arab men are increasingly positive about their wives working outside the home.
“In the past couple of decades, the old attitudes towards Arab women who work have changed. Now men don’t want to be the sole financial provider for the family,” Baloum explains. “Now the men are supportive of women starting businesses.”
Instead, Baloum points to the lack of development in Israeli Arab towns and villages as a major contributor to high unemployment in the Arab community in general, and women in particular.
“There are enormous economic gaps in Arab society,” says Baloum. “If you go to an Arab town or village, you immediately notice that the infrastructure is very underdeveloped, especially compared to Jewish towns.”
One of the effects of poor infrastructure, including inadequate public transport to connect Arab villages with employment centers and a dearth of industrial zones in Arab villages, is that Israeli Arabs (particularly women, who are less likely to drive) find it hard to access jobs.
BALOUM SAYS Jasmine is trying to help improve the situation in Arab communities by giving women the tools, funding and confidence to generate income through their own businesses.
“In the 1990s, we did a survey and found that Arab women were very behind economically. There was a fear of starting businesses; there were a lot of negative ideas about that. We realized we needed to help women develop self-confidence and let them turn their potential into reality,” Baloum says.
“Women have so much potential. They raise children and care for their families. But because they are constantly giving, they don’t always think about what they want for themselves. So through Jasmine we teach women how to create their own businesses.
“At first it was very difficult, because there was a mentality of fear. But we overcame that and created a model of success that we rolled out to other communities.
Now we have a pool of successful businesswomen who are helping us reach out to even more women.”
What sort of small businesses do Arab women typically start? According to Baloum, some use skills they already have to create a small business within their home village.
Jasmine has even reached women from the most marginalized groups within Arab society and taught them ways to combine traditional skills and culture with entrepreneurial knowhow.
In the Negev town of Tel Sheva, for example, a group of Beduin women have created a cosmetics company, Asala Desert Nature (Asala means “authenticity” in Arabic), with face creams and washes using wild herbs and desert plants. The products are sold around Israel.
Have Jasmine and CJAED’s Women’s Unit made an impact? “We did a survey of 300 women and found that in the last two years there has been a 14% increase in the number of women owning small businesses,” says Baloum.
For Najach Khir, Jasmine gave the know-how and confidence boost to set her on the road to creating a profitable business.
“I can’t say it was easy. But now people come from all over the country to buy my goods,” says Khir, whose bakery achieved its excellent reputation through a combination of hard work and savvy marketing campaigns – including taking samples of her gluten-free pitot to hungry celiac patients in the hospital in Nahariya.
Khir’s latest business venture is a weekend cottage in Peki’in offering gluten-free Druse home hospitality to visitors.
Both Asala and Khir’s gluten-free bakery are relatively unusual, because they have a customer base beyond the local village. Most women-owned businesses, says Baloum, operate on a very local scale.
“Typical businesses include import businesses, where women buy goods like clothing from places like Turkey and Jordan and sell them in their home villages, and businesses that provide local services like beauty parlors, law practices or accountancy,” says Baloum. “Our next step is to help women think beyond their local village and expand.”
While Jasmine is making huge strides to boost small business ownership, cultural differences and educational or language gaps still prevent some women, particularly older Ethiopians and refugees, from turning their skills into a profitable business.
Though the gap between these women and the market might be wide, one organization at least is proving that it can be bridged.
Through its countrywide network of women’s cooperatives, south Tel Aviv feminist organization Ahoti is empowering some of Israel’s poorest women to create and sell traditional handcrafts and art.
“We are talking about women who don’t know how to create a business and market their products, so even though they were creating beautiful, salable items they were still unable to change their economic situation,” says Shula Keshet, director of Ahoti (the word means ‘my sister’ in Hebrew).
“So we created a fair trade coalition for different women’s collectives around Israel to give them an outlet to sell their goods.” Ahoti has established fair trade stores in central Tel Aviv and the Arab village of Abu Ghosh.
Among the items on sale at Ahoti’s Tel Aviv fair trade store are traditional hand-embroidered and ceramic items created by Ethiopian artists and craftswomen in Kiryat Gat. The brightly colored tableware, bags and bed linens these women have crafted are a delicate balance between modern Israeli and traditional African styles.
“Often, Tel Aviv residents who visit the store are surprised to learn that these are actually Israeli products,” Keshet says.
“As well as creating employment for women, the Ahoti shop is bringing this ‘hidden’ Ethiopian culture into Tel Aviv and teaching people here about it.”
Keshet describes the Ahoti shop as a combination of economics and social action. Instead of the limbo of long-term unemployment and welfare, women who would otherwise find it impossible to access Israel’s labor market can be economically active.
“Because the items are sold on a fair trade basis, as much as possible of the sale price of an item goes directly to the woman who created it,” says Keshet, who adds that the shop also makes these marginalized women visible.
“For each item on sale, we include a picture of the craftswoman and her story, so people can get to know the woman who created the things they buy. And buyers feel good about their purchases, not just because the items are beautiful, but because they are being socially active and supporting a woman artist.”
While the concept of fair trade has been widespread in Europe and the US for several years, it is still a fledgling industry in Israel.
“In other countries, fair trade is used as a way to support poor people in the developing world,” says Keshet. “When we thought about bringing fair trade to Israel, we decided we would sell locally made goods rather than imported ones. That way, we could make a difference to women here.”
While nonprofits like Jasmine and Ahoti are certainly making a difference to Israeli women, particularly from Arab and immigrant communities, it’s not just these groups who struggle to access the labor market.
According to data published last year by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, the rate of nonemployment among Israeli women has decreased in the last 30 years for every group apart from one: haredim.
Israel’s growing haredi community is currently around 9 percent of the population, but almost half live under the official poverty line. Only 37% of haredi men, who are discouraged from working in favor of Torah study, are employed, leaving women as the chief breadwinners as well as homemakers and mothers.
Yet the responsibility of caring for a large family, together with religious requirements like strict gender segregation and the need for a kosher workplace, make it harder for haredi women to find work in secular companies.
Those haredim who do venture outside the community to find work face discrimination when it comes to being hired: According to recent findings by researchers at the Ono Academic College, who polled companies about their attitudes towards minority groups, haredim are one of the three biggest groups that Israeli employers are reluctant to hire and promote (the others are disabled people and Arabs).
With these statistics, it’s easy to understand why the career options for haredi women are so narrow.
The situation might seem bleak, but there are signs that change could be on its way. While Industry, Labor and Trade Minister Shalom Simhon recently stated that improving haredi participation in the labor market is a top priority for the government, Israeli businesses are slowly waking up to the economic potential of haredim – not least haredi women.
ONE ENTREPRENEUR who believes haredi women can be excellent employees is Nadav Mansdorf, joint CEO of 3Base, a technology boutique specializing in web and mobile technologies. Together with two other young entrepreneurs, Pini Mandel and Yossi Cohen, Mansdorf founded 3Base in 2008, when other Israeli hi-tech companies were cutting overhead costs by outsourcing programming tasks to Eastern Europe and India.
Mansdorf says 3Base wanted to create a business model that could keep programming work within Israel. The result was a decision to locate 3Base’s offices in the haredi town of Elad and hire local women as programmers.
“We discussed what we could do to add value and contribute to Israeli society,” explains Mansdorf. “We saw that although there was a lot of hype about haredim and employment, there was very little actual action.”
Mansdorf says 3Base had to be flexible to adapt to the unique requirements of its workforce.
“Everyone knows about ‘hi-tech hours,’ where workers start early and finish very late in the evening.
That is very hard for haredi women, who prioritize their families and children,” says Mansdorf. “So we listened to the women’s preferences, and though they work eight-hour days, they are allowed to start later to allow them to care for their children and families.”
3Base also ensures its office meets the strict haredi requirements, including maintaining a kosher environment.
Mansdorf says 3Base has developed a rigorous hiring system that selects only the most brilliant women. Only one out of every 25 applicants is successful.
The outcome is a situation that is mutually beneficial to both 3Base and its employees.
“Everyone wants to achieve something meaningful,” says Mansdorf. “All our employees work intensively, but we nurture them intellectually. We give them personal development by offering training in different technologies, including those that are harder to find in Israel, like [open source web development platform] Ruby on Rails.”
How do salaries at 3Base compare with those of software developers in other Israeli hi-tech companies? “If an applicant tells me she can get a higher salary in Herzliya Pituah, I advise her to go there,” says Mansdorf bluntly. “If she is able to work in a secular environment, great. But 3Base offers women a respectful haredi working environment, with proper training and development.
“We currently have 85 employees, not just from Elad, but also from other haredi communities like Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, and so far not a single one of our staff has ever chosen to resign. And because we develop people within the company, our team leaders and managers are all women.”
The ultimate proof of any business model’s success is in its bottom-line profits. In the fast-paced, cutthroat hi-tech market, Mansdorf says 3Base’s female haredi workforce has helped create a profitable, preferred local alternative to outsourcing programming work to Eastern Europe or India.
“We’re only a few years old but we’ve become a major player in the development market,” he adds.
At first glance, a hi-tech start-up that trains haredi women as top computer programmers, a feminist Free Trade collective that sells Ethiopian embroidery, and a Jewish-Arab NGO that helped create a glutenfree Druse baked goods business might not seem to have much in common.
Yet what all of these very different initiatives share is that they are all partnerships between women from marginalized and often denigrated communities, and the business world.
Regardless of whether the bridge connecting these women with business is a for-profit company, a feminist movement or an NGO aiming for coexistence, the outcomes are the same: meaningful employment opportunities for women who would have struggled to enter the workforce.
And when these minority women are visible members of the workforce, we can look beyond the stereotypes to see their potential as equal citizens and help them integrate into wider Israeli society.
Jasmine’s Baloum says the economic development of Israel’s minorities is directly linked to coexistence.
“Ultimately, coexistence is something that happens when people have a shared interest in society,” she says.
“When people have an interest in common, that’s when they start to connect with each other. And that’s just what we want to achieve.”