Most women their age would be enjoying the benefits of retirement by now. Not these two Israeli grannies, who much prefer working around the clock, promoting and growing their very own startup.
Meet Livia Goldenblatt and Bella Rozovski-Roitblat, the brains behind a fast-developing business in online English courses aimed at university and college students. Their Haifa-based company, Fixread, offers an integrated, all-in-one platform for teaching non-native speakers to understand, speak and write in English.
If something similar exists elsewhere, these two women say they are not aware of it and, therefore, feel comfortable terming their product “unique.”
At present, their client list includes 15 colleges and three universities in Israel. At last count, 7,500 Israeli students were using their system, with the number growing at a pace of about 1,000 new users each year. In a small country like Israel, that’s a nice chunk of the market. Goldenblatt and Rozovski-Roitblat weren’t willing to publicize what the product costs, but stressed that it is “definitely affordable.”
Looking to build on this success, Fixread is now casting its sights on overseas markets.
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“It took chutzpah,” says Goldenblatt, 75, explaining how two not-so-young women with no business experience under their belts got to this point.
Especially considering, as 66-year-old Rozovski-Roitblat is quick to point out, they are both “digital immigrants.” In other words, they did not come of age in the digital era and, consequently, had to overcome their inbred technophobia to function and thrive in this world. Based on how nonchalantly the two women throw around tech phrases in casual conversation, it is clear they’ve done a good job of it.
What they do bring to the venture, though, is lots and lots of experience in teaching English as a second language — more than 60 years of it between the two of them.
And although the perception of places like Silicon Valley and Silicon Wadi (the Israeli equivalent) is that they are teeming with young entrepreneurs, a recent U.S. survey found that a 60-year-old entrepreneur is three times as likely to found a successful startup as his or her 30-year-old equivalent — and is almost twice as likely to create a startup that makes it into the top 0.1 percent of all companies.
Goldenblatt, a grandmother of five who grew up in Montreal and moved to Israel in 1972, is a native English speaker. But Rozovski-Roitblat, a grandmother of four who hails from Belarus and immigrated to Israel in 1980, is not. Their diverse origins, the partners note, have worked to their advantage. “We complement each other,” says Rozovski-Roitblat.
Goldenblatt goes on to explain: “As a non-native English speaker, Bella has a personal understanding of the problems involved in learning English as a second language, whereas growing up in Montreal — where English was my mother tongue but where I had to learn French as well at a very young age, and later on Spanish — I became familiar with many of the problems involved in learning a foreign language in general.”
Fixread’s founders met about a decade ago when they were appointed to a team at the University of Haifa tasked with putting together teaching materials for English classes in written comprehension. (Rozovski-Roitblat, who completed her doctorate when she was 58, still holds a teaching position at the university.) “We got such great feedback that we said to ourselves, ‘If we’re so good at this, let’s try something commercial,’” relays Goldenblatt.
Feeling audacious, they sat down and wrote a textbook and tried to interest Cambridge University Press. Remarkably, they say, they were very close to striking a deal with this distinguished publisher of academic books, but it didn’t work out in the end.
“So we said, let’s just print the book ourselves,” Goldenblatt recounts.
Although they began their venture with a tangible product, Rozovski-Roitblat says they understood that the future lay elsewhere — in e-learning. “So we started to adapt the material we had to an online platform and began selling both products — the book and the online course — to Israeli colleges,” she explains
When they launched their business in 2010, they only offered lessons in reading comprehension, at one basic level. Today, through the integrated system they’ve developed, they are able to provide lessons not only in reading comprehension but also in speaking, writing and listening in English. There are currently five different levels available. From 700 users that first year, they’ve since grown more than tenfold.
The best part of it, they say, is that two years ago, for the first time, they moved into the black and can finally start drawing salaries from the business (they are still Fixread’s only employees). They do get free consultation services, however, from their children. Goldenblatt’s son, for example, has helped hook them up with an agent abroad, and Rozovski-Roitblat’s son has created a program for them that helps shorten the process of registering students for the courses they offer.
“Our kids are very excited about this venture of ours,” says Rozovski-Roitblat.
They haven’t yet joined the ranks of Israeli startup millionaires, says Goldenblatt, “but hopefully we’ll get there one day.”
And when’s the big “exit” — that dream of every startup that some huge tech company will buy them out for an astronomical sum? She breaks out in laughter in response.