An Israeli Bridge Between Startup Nation and the Arab World

Dona Haj heads up a program under the aegis of the British Embassy in Tel Aviv that helps Israeli-Arab technology entrepreneurs to hone their interpersonal skills and to form partnerships with U.K. companies

Dona Haj, an Israeli Arab who heads the U.K. office of the UK Israel Tech Hub at the British Embassy in Tel Aviv.
Ofer Vaknin

Israeli Arabs barely have a toehold in Startup Nation. Arabs make up 17% of the country’s workforce, but they account for just 1.4% of all the people working in Israeli high-tech — despite the industry’s severe labor shortage.

To really understand Israel and the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

One woman working to help change that is Dona Haj, an Israeli Arab who heads the U.K. office of the UK Israel Tech Hub at the British Embassy in Tel Aviv. The Tech Hub serves as a bridge between Israeli startups and British industrial companies seeking innovative technologies.

Haj is dedicated to building another bridge, linking Israeli Arabs via British companies to the wider Arabic-speaking world.

“There are more than 400 million Arabic speakers in the world, about half of whom use the internet. The rate of internet take-up of those who speak the language is the fastest in the world,” she told TheMarker. “Still, only a few percent of Internet content is in Arabic and there’s a lot of room for innovation.

Haj, 34 and living in London, is a Muslim from the Galilee village of Kafr Yasif. She acquired fluent English in the Christian school she attended and later, when she and her family lived in Boston for several years.

She graduated the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology with a degree in business and managerial economics and began a career in consulting, first at Tefen Management Consulting and later for MATI Nazareth, a government body that helps small businesses, since renamed Maof.

In 2011 she joined Tech Hub, funding for which is split equally between the British government and private sources.

The main purpose of the Tech Hub is to link up Israeli tech companies that traditionally look to the United States as their primary market and coax them into giving Britain their attention. Haj’s job is to focus on Israeli-Arab entrepreneurs.

“From the start, we began looking into what’s happening in [Israeli] Arab society and how it could contribute to Britain,” Haj said. “We discover that Arab entrepreneurs in Israel have been developing products for the world Arab population, which is a giant market.”

Haj points to examples such as digital libraries and music services. “However, as a rule the entrepreneurs are interested in revealing themselves and the fact that they are working from Israel, so they don’t harm their reputation,” she said.

Using the U.K. as an intermediary is one way to solve their problem. “British media companies and publishers are interested in penetrating the Arab market, so that Israel is a bridge. There are Arab entrepreneurs who are graduates of the Technion who live in Startup Nation. “

Among the hottest areas for Israeli-Arab tech entrepreneurs is biotech and digital health because so many have studied medicine, chemistry or biology. Many young Arabs concede they won’t get a top job in Israel’s defense history or in government, so tech startups are an attractive alternative.

As Haj sees it, the big problems facing Israeli-Arab entrepreneurs isn’t technological abilities but the soft skills needed to do business.

“Arab entrepreneurs have a problem in terms of basic skills, starting with coming to a meeting on time to building a presentation and submitting it. Our Go Global program is aimed at developing these skills through conversations and meetings with entrepreneurs,” she explained. “The goal is to learn how to work with investors and customers.”

As of today, some 50 entrepreneurs have participated in the program, 10 of them women, in a two-year program that begins with 14 of them traveling to Britain. Haj says that 90% of participants have never traveled abroad for business.

Another project that is close to completion is the Arab Tech Port, an online platform in Arabic for entrepreneurs that contains a database of Israeli-Arab startups as well as informational videos, for instance on how to prepare for a meeting with investors.

The Tech Hub program is small, but Haj said its impact can be huge by setting an example for other entrepreneurs. Moreover, the program itself has led to deals with British companies.

“There have been deals signed between Arab entrepreneurs and British companies. Most of them I can’t reveal. The important thing is that enhances their confidence. They know they can go all over the world and close deals. That’s a real change in attitude,” Haj says.