At Home and Jobless, Some Israeli Mothers Use Crisis to Cultivate Business

The coronavirus crisis has hit Israeli workers hard, women especially, but not a few are using the crisis to start new businesses

Corin Degani
Corin Degani
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Toys from the Red Elk label owned by Lena Baklanova, 42, an “indie designer and illustrator” and Tal Chet, a Bezalel graduate.
Toys from the Red Elk label owned by Lena Baklanova, 42, an “indie designer and illustrator” and Tal Chet, a Bezalel graduate.Credit: Lena Baklanova

The coronavirus crisis has hit Israeli workers hard, but women especially. More women have lost their jobs than men and more have opted to work at their jobs from home so they can care for their children. Not a few are using the crisis to start businesses.

Could this wave of entrepreneurship even serve as a growth engine once the economy begins to rebound from the pandemic? Firms that engage in impact investing say the answer could be yes. Many female entrepreneurs have adopted a business model of networking and community-based business that could help them get through the crisis better than others.

One such initiative is so grassroots that it was actually started by a group of mothers at Park Hahorshot in south Tel Aviv. The group “Atzma’iyot B’Park” (self-employed in the park) now counts 70 women who are in regular contact with one another to provide practical and emotional support.

Sivan Kviatek, mother of a 3-year-old, recalls the origin of the group that began in chats before the onset of the coronavirus. “We discovered that there are a lot of independent and creative women in the group: There were designers, architects, shop owners. We understood that self-employed mothers have a common denominator,” she said.

Sivan Kviatek.
Sivan Kviatek.Credit: Moriya Naveh

“We began to meet to get to know better what the others were doing and then how to leverage the power of community, among other things, to keep the money inside our network – in other words, to buy from someone close to us, local and handmade products,” Kviatek said. “Today we use each other’s services, purchase from and recommend each other. We have an amazing mix of professional women.”

Kviatek herself designs and makes soft products for industry, pretty much anything other than clothing – prototyping children’s products such as wearables, working with medical-textile startups, mentoring industrial design students and creating innovative products of her own.

The last few months have been good for business. “I’ve gotten more offers during the coronavirus. I’m working nights and days with my students,” she says.

The first wave of the pandemic spurred a lot of home-bound people into turning ideas they had been thinking about into a prototype. “That’s exactly what I do – I teach people how to use tools, sewing machines, needles and scissors, to actualize their ideas.” Her partner, a chef by trade, was at home and took care of their child.

Lena Baklanova, 42, is an “indie designer and illustrator” and owner of the Red Elk label together with Tal Chet, a Bezalel graduate. The two, who are business partners and neighbors in Tel Aviv’s Shapira neighborhood, had to reimagine their business during the coronavirus crisis.

Lena Baklanova, 42, owner of the Red Elk label.
Lena Baklanova, 42, owner of the Red Elk label.Credit: Alexei Kodrik

“During the lockdown we needed to entertain five children, two of mine and three of Tal’s, and that took a lot of creativity. We started making painted play surfaces on the floor with cardboard and masking tape, but that didn’t survive for long, and we switched to canvas. We saw what each child needed, what interested each of them and the product – children’s games – really evolved. It is an ‘open-source’ game without rules, which can be combined with toys that are already in the house,” she said.

Baklanova sad that before the pandemic she was looking for ways to develop her career and become someone who was more than a mother to her 3-year-old twins. She and Chet joined the Atzma’ot B’Park group and formed a group called “Anonymous Embroidery,” to which mothers could come in the evenings for a break from mothering.

Many of the group’s small-business owners have thrived during the coronavirus, but not all of them. Store owners, those working with children and many self-employed have been badly hurt by the lockdown. For them, said Kviatek, “The group provides emotional support, assistance in submitting applications for grants. There is mutual help in increasing the circle of customers. No one has to fail.”

According to the National Insurance Institute, 58% of all the newly unemployed due to the coronavirus are women. The global consulting firm McKinsey estimates that a woman’s chances of losing her job are 1.8 times greater than a man’s. Women make up 29% of the global workforce but account for 54% of coronavirus layoffs. Governments are being asked to provide assistance with gender in mind, otherwise the coronavirus will leave more inequality in its wake.

Encouraging data

However, there is some encouraging data courtesy of New York-based Cornerstone Capital, an impact investing advisory firm. Companies in the United States led by minorities and women created 1.8 million jobs in the years 2007 to 2012, while companies led by white men shed 800,000 jobs.

Cornerstone says that investing in female entrepreneurs is more lucrative. It cites a study by Boston Consulting Group and the NGO MassChallenge, which helps startups, found that over five years firms started by women or that counted women as part of their founding team attracted on average less than half the investment capital of those founded by men. Nevertheless, the female-led firms performed better, among other things showing revenues on average 10% higher than the firms founded by men.

In Israel, about 90% of working women are wage earners, compared with 85% for men, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Just 1.4% of women are deemed employers (owning a business that employs others), compared with 5.2% of all men. Fewer women (7.5%) are self-employed than men (9.4%).

Self-employed women earn 20% less than self-employed men, a 2018 Economy Ministry study found, although they also worked fewer hours. In contrast to men, women’s main motivation for going out on their own is to have more flexible work hours. Only 27% expressed confidence that they had the skills to start a business, compared with 43% of men.

“Women are different from men in choosing the field they want to start their business in. Women tend to invest in businesses where they’ll have an impact, in something they can identify with and make change,” said Galit Ana Ben Simhon, who after a career at companies like AIG and Yes helped start the co-working space for women called Panthera.

Galit Ana Ben Simhon, who after a career at companies like AIG and Yes helped start the co-working space for women called Panthera.
Galit Ana Ben Simhon, who after a career at companies like AIG and Yes helped start the co-working space for women called Panthera.Credit: Shai Gavrieli

“Women take fewer risks and starting a business is a very big risk. Even women with doctorates don’t necessarily feel confident enough to start a business in their own field,” she said.

Men are prepared to move ahead even when they aren’t entirely confident about what they are doing, she said. Women tend to wait until they are confident.

“Also in interpersonal communications they are different. One of the things we’ve seen at Panthera is they need to sit and consult over and over,” said Ben Simhon. “We arrange meet-ups – groups that discuss a particular issue, for instance marketing or [social] impact. We get several women together who are interested in the same thing and they advise each other and come up with solutions. It’s really crowd wisdom. The most important tool for that is a diverse community.”

The Panthera community comprises about 150 women, including architects, designers, public relations professionals, techies, lawyers and even shiatsu practitioners. During the first coronavirus wave, it offered workshops and lectures conducted over Zoom on managing a business during the crisis, how to deal with customers and negotiate. Since then, the workspace on Tel Aviv’s Ha’arba Street is back in operation.

“In a time of crisis, it’s time to rethink things. The world has changed, consumption habits have changed, people behave completely differently. Wonderful things will come out of it, not necessarily bad ones,” said Ben Simhon. “It’s important not to be alone and to consult with others. ... This is exactly the time to do it.”