Untold story of Start-Up Nation: High-impact, low-tech, and undoubtedly female - opinion

Women addressing challenges in ways that differ from their male counterparts is well documented.

 THE WRITER with her mom in her childhood home, 1978. (photo credit: Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, New York )
THE WRITER with her mom in her childhood home, 1978.
(photo credit: Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, New York )

Israel as the Start-Up Nation has been a central storyline surrounding the Jewish state for more than a decade.

Rooted in a New York Times best-selling book, the idea explains the country’s success by toting its hi-tech industry – a trend that’s kept hidden another compelling narrative: the high impact of Israel’s low-tech sector.

This summer I met some of the remarkable creators pioneering Israel’s low-tech ecosystem, thanks to the talented Galit Reisman, who offers curated fashion tours throughout Tel Aviv. What I learned was that while more than 90% of Israeli hi-tech start-ups are led by men, Israel’s low-tech sector is dominated by women – and their contributions have yet to be valued by Start-Up Nation champions.

I am not much of a feminist in the traditional sense. My formative years were spent batiking, sewing, embroidering, weaving, crocheting – learning so-called “women’s work” – on the top floor of a Brooklyn brownstone designated as my mother’s art studio. I did not know then that by passing down handcraft skills from mother to daughter we were participating in a centuries-old ritual often used to preserve culture and a sense of shared beauty. Craftwork, as type of feminist expression, has received only sporadic attention in the art world, but for my mom, it has always been central to her identity and her work as an artist.

So, it’s no wonder I was moved beyond measure when I met a team of Israeli social entrepreneurs using handcraft know-how to build a successful business. The Jaffa-based IOTA Project makes luxury items by providing women from Israeli Bedouin communities, and those who fled Syria for Turkey, specially fabricated materials used to knit and crochet squares from home. Then, design experts assembled the squares to create furniture and other décor sold worldwide.

Panthera's shared workspace for women in Tel Aviv (credit: SHAI GABRIELY)Panthera's shared workspace for women in Tel Aviv (credit: SHAI GABRIELY)

It’s an effort that exhibits the same high-quality innovation and entrepreneurship as any Israeli start-up – it’s just low-tech. It is also unmistakably female. “Women from different countries and cultures can communicate and dialogue through knitting,” said the group’s co-founder, Tal Zur, in an interview. IOTA is entrepreneurship inspired by “women’s work.”

“Women from different countries and cultures can communicate and dialogue through knitting.”

Tal Zur

That women address challenges in ways that differ from their male counterparts is well documented. For example, during the recent health pandemic it was widely shared that female leaders reacted more decisively than men. Of course, Israeli women innovators would have a distinguishable approach.

The next stop

At our next stop, we walked into the studio of Diana Bazeli. Surrounded by her affordable, ready-to-wear fashion, Bazeli spoke with the group pointing to pictures of her beloved grandmother, who “taught her to sew before she could walk.” Her skills, rooted in Georgian tradition, helped her create clothes that are in high demand across Israel, but it’s her approach that gained her notoriety in a highly competitive market.

Bazeli is a leader in Israel’s “slow fashion” movement, which means that her clothing considers all aspects of the supply chain. Like sustainability efforts in every sector, “slow fashion” is dominated by women. It offers a way of thinking that is largely dependent on what fashion leader Hazel Clark calls “women’s wisdom,” rooted in beliefs and methods common to women.

Maskit, the Israeli fashion house that dressed Sarah Jessica Parker for the 2021 opening scene of the long-awaited sequel to Sex and the City, has origins that go back to 1954, when Ruth Dayan, the first wife of foreign minister and general Moshe Dayan, created jobs for skilled immigrant handcrafters.

Part of an organization of Israeli women teaching farming skills to new immigrants, Dayan quickly noticed that the young country was inheriting talents that could be a better source of revenue, like Bulgarian lace workers and Yugoslavian knitters. She was right. It didn’t take long before her garments were sold at Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue and used in collaborations with Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior.

Maskit shuttered in 1994 and lay dormant until 2014, when it was revived under Dayan’s watchful eye by the former head of embroidery for Alexander McQueen, Sharon Tal. Tal’s successful career in fashion was interrupted by motherhood; but, after a few years, she became restless and pursued Dayan with a vision that is now a true Start-Up Nation success story.

“Women’s work,” a mainstay of the low-tech sector in Israel, employs the types of skills that distinguish women. And, thanks to an environment that supports entrepreneurs, Israel has seen human-centered businesses flourish. It’s a Start-Up Nation phenomenon that, like hi-tech innovation, may also be unique to Israel.

For my part, I never thought of pursuing craftwork as a career. Despite winning art awards, the skills I learned from my mom were largely integrated into other endeavors. Here in the US, where women still lag economically and entrepreneurship does not flourish the way it does in Israel, the low-tech economy has been slow-moving. The Department of Labor explains that “women’s work” is simply “devalued” (though the definition of what that work is varies). 

What I saw in Israel reconnected me to a cherished ritual and inspired me to power those leading with “women’s work” in the forefront.

The writer is a former Jewish communal professional. Her works can be purchased from Kakar House of Design in Miami.