Ethiopian-Israeli Woman Makes Good in High-tech: An Unrepresentative Story

Shoshi Jambar worked her way up from cleaner to manager at an Israeli startup; she’s under no illusions, though

Shoshi Jambar worked her way up from cleaner to manager at an Israeli startup WalkMe
Neta Alonim

Her circumstances really were hard when Shoshi Jambar joined WalkMe. Aged 28, two months after the birth of her second daughter, separated from her partner and owing a fortune to the National Insurance Institute, which forced her to return to work sooner than planned. She wanted a challenging job that would give her financial independence, but wound up cleaning the WalkMe offices at night.

Within two years, despite having no academic degree, connections or relevant professional background, Jambar is a manager in the growing startup.

Her previous work experience included cashier at an organic food supermarket. Her brother and former partner both worked for the company that got the cleaning contract at WalkMe. Hating it, she took the job.

However, the WalkMe sales team worked at night, when she did, and she learned from one Ido Paz of an opening in QA, quality assurance. She said she was “pretty good” at computers. “Anything you ask me, I’ll always say I’m terrific. Then I’ll study hard to prove I didn’t lie,” she says. And no, she hadn’t known what QA meant. “I barely knew what high-tech was.”

She feels the WalkMe team worked hard to help her get the job; she even consulted with them on what to wear for interviews.

But it would be wrong to ascribe all of Jambar’s success to luck or making good connections. Colleagues say she has a rare combination of amiability, irrepressible optimism, eagerness to express opinions and chutzpah – all pluses when it comes to taking advantage of opportunity.

After more than a year in QA, which involves testing software, she moved up to management and now supervises five employees.

For the most part, Jambar’s story is unrepresentative. Not many startups would give such an opportunity to a person bereft of resume, given the cost of training somebody from absolute scratch. But two weeks before she applied, WalkMe managed to raise $25 million, so at least it was feeling flush: Since its establishment, it’s raised $92 million. Today it has 460 employees in New York, Raleigh, North Carolina, Paris, Japan and southern Israel, where it employs 240 people. Its clientele includes the likes of SAP, Cisco, PayPal and Comcast.

Third of six children

Jambar, 30, was the third of six children, born in Be’er Sheva to parents who arrived from Ethiopia. The family moved to Petah Tikva when she was two. After an injury on the job, her father didn’t work for eight years. Her mother worked in kitchens and in cleaning and the family collected welfare. Her father died when she was 15 and she went to work at a pizzeria as a waitress and cashier. Jambar’s mother didn’t want her, the eldest daughter in a religious family, to be drafted.

Shoshi Jambar worked her way up from cleaner to manager at an Israeli startup WalkMe
Ido Paz

The Israeli army and its elite high-tech units are famously a launching pad into a technology career, but soldiers of Ethiopian heritage there are rare. In fact the gaps between them and other Israelis begin well before boot camp: Only 0.04 percent of Ethiopian-heritage high-school pupils matriculate in advanced mathematics and only 0.2 percent in English. Only 27 percent of those who do have matriculation certificates achieve the marks needed for university, compared with 53 percent of all Jewish pupils. Only 0.6 percent of students studying science at university are of Ethiopian background. In engineering the proportion is 0.9 percent.

(To put these figures in some proportion, the Ethiopian-background population aged 20 to 29, the relevant age for BA studies, is 3.3% of the total Jewish population.)

They’re also a rare sight in technology companies. Their background aside, Israeli tech companies usually recruit via the “friend brings in a friend” system. A third of technology employees are recruited that way. But if there are no employees from this community, there’s nobody to bring in others.

Also, they tend to marry within the community (90 percent, says the Central Bureau of Statistics); to serve in army units that already a large proportion of their ethnic group (80 percent of soldiers of Ethiopian origin serve in just 30 units, according to IDF statistics). Some 72 percent of the community lives in 19 cities, while 75 percent of the general population lives in 76 cities.

Speaking with Haaretz, Jambar says she wants to empower the community – but isn’t sure which one: All Israelis of Ethiopian origin? Or just the invisible people, the cleaners and kitchen workers?

A Taub Center report from 2015 shows that half the women and 17 percent of the men who came to Israel from Ethiopia over the age of 12 work in cleaning and kitchen work. But among the generation of Ethiopians born in Israel, the proportion in such work is the same as the general population, around 4 percent.

In other words, the people in Jambar’s age group are in much better shape than their elders – but they have not achieved equality. Only 21 percent of them work in the higher echelons of occupations, versus 40 percent in the general Jewish population.

The Olim Beyahad nonprofit organization, which helps Ethiopian Israelis find work after university, says the community still suffers from low income, high unemployment and significant wage gaps. The state comptroller report from 2012 revealed that Ethiopian Israelis who find work suited to their abilities get 40 percent less than the average Israeli. That could explain another survey finding – that young people in the community tend not to believe education will improve their employment prospects.

Indeed, there is no race to hire them. Jambar’s sister is at university and Jambar is enormously proud of that, but is also clammy about her prospects.

Unemployable mother

“My mother took courses in computers, English, literature, manicuring, entrepreneurship and imports,” she says. “That’s supposed to be empowering, isn’t it? But she couldn’t get beyond kitchen and cleaning jobs. Because she’s an elderly Ethiopian woman with a bit of an accent. Nobody wanted to employ her at the hairdressing salon. I think it’s a matter of opportunity, not education. Formal studying at university is just one way to advance.”

Her oldest brother, 35, is a handyman and plumber; the second, 33, is unemployed; a sister, 28, is studying economics and business; another, 22, is a housewife, and then there’s the baby, 18, who’s about to be drafted. Jambar feels she’s nobody to give them advice, at age 30 with two children. Asked if they might find jobs in high-tech, she answers, “High-tech isn’t the goal, it’s just a means. I hope we all find work that makes us a living and is interesting.”

As a mother, she needs to economize, but life is different now. She drives a leased car and isn’t behind on payments. She can go to the supermarket once a week, not once a month. She is saving money and has an expanded healthcare plan from work.

She’s in a stressful position but, if anything, feels life is easier. Working as a cashier is intensive physical labor, she points out. She would come home after the day exhausted and feeling that the ordeal would never end, remembering insults from other cashiers or customers. And maybe that’s why Jambar, at least, doesn’t feel that working in high-tech is so stressful.

Nor does she feel that the people in the field are different. People are people, she says – the cashiers at the supermarket and the high-tech workers fight the same fight against the National Insurance Institute, or the Interior Ministry. People who earn more spend more, but everybody’s in the same rat race, bitching about their pay.

Her profile picture on her mobile phone shows her holding a WalkMe sign.

“WalkMe certainly is a source of pride. It’s a growing company and I’m proud to be part of it,” she says. “But I’m not blind. I’m the only Ethiopian in the building. There was no organized drive here to locate and integrate weaker parts of society. I’m young and sociable and I believe I also look good and am grateful, so it was easy to help me. Do you think that a 40-year-old Ethiopian cleaning woman with a rag on her hair would have been given the same opportunity?”