Israel’s Youngest Hi-tech Exec's Unlikely Path to the Top

Eight months pregnant and after releasing an album, Efrat Rapoport was tapped to be head of Salesforce Israel R&D. This is how this 32-year-old plans to shape the tech industry

Omri Zerachovitz
Omri Zerachovitz
אפרת רפפורט
Efrat Rapoport, 32, is the head of Salesforce's R&D center in IsraelCredit: Ofer Vaknin
Omri Zerachovitz
Omri Zerachovitz

Four years ago, Efrat Rapoport decided to make an old dream come true – to be a musician. She went to a composition course, learned how to play the piano and began writing and producing songs. “It’s pretty much like entrepreneurship, at first it sounds like something ugly with chords, and then you start dressing it up and using musicians,” she says. During the pandemic she produced her first album under the stage name “Mizu,” which means water in Japanese, and some of her songs found their way onto Israeli radio.

Two months ago, her life took another surprising turn when she became head of Salesforce Israel R&D Center. Salesforce is a large American company that develops software for client management and employs more than 700 people in Israel. Rapoport isn’t only taking on the job at a relatively young age, 32, and without experience managing large organizations, but she’s also eight months pregnant.

Rapoport grew up in central Tel Aviv, the daughter of an architect father and a TV director mother. Rapoport is married to Ron Held, a co-founder of the startup StuffThatWorks, which develops a guide based on crowdsourcing to seek treatments for rare diseases. They live in Tel Aviv and Rapoport recently gave birth to their second child.

While Rapoport served in the army in a technological role in a unit that is part of the famous Unit 8200 her path in high-tech has been anything but routine. As a child, she learned Japanese and is now studying Greek.

Rapoport’s intense interest in languages led her to go tens of thousands of years back in time, to try to understand how ancient species of animals communicated with each other. Rapoport explains how she got interested in the field after she read the Indiana Jones books and “Clan of the Cave Bear,” a novel that dealt with a possible relationship between Neanderthals and homo sapiens, modern humans. “The Neanderthals went extinct 30–40 thousand years ago, and they don’t know why. One theory is that homo sapiens had higher language abilities and that gave them such a strong advantage that the Neanderthals became extinct.”

At first Rapoport thought she would study archaeology but she eventually reached that field from a different direction – a master’s degree in neurobiology at Tel Aviv University. “I studied the evolution of learning, when it began and the ability of animals to learn and what behavior is even considered learning. There are lots of genes associated with learning and we did a study to understand when they began to appear. One of the things that is studied in the context of learning is the ability to communicate. This doesn’t have to be language: For example, octopi that spray people they don’t like with water.”

During Rapoport’s studies, work in high tech was always looming. She began working in a high tech firm during her rehabilitation from an injury, and while she was at university she established, together with Barak Goldstein, Ehud Winograd and Almog Cohen a website in Chinese, that brought together information about Israeli companies for Chinese investors. Her acquaintance with Goldstein also led to the establishment of a startup with him and with co-founder Ohad Hen and Idan Tsitiat, called Bobono.AI, which was established in 2017 to develop technology that would analyze conversations with clients for big companies.

“We began with an analysis of text conversations because we thought that’s what the market wanted, but then we talked with first customers, we heard all sorts of opinions and directions and we tried to dig and understand what was the thing that worried them most. We moved to large call service centers, which receive 50,000 to 100,000 calls a day, and it is hard for their operations manager to know if there are problems that repeat themselves. For example, we had a customer that sold out their product but discovered that their customers spend a long time on the line waiting for billing details. When there are a lot of calls, it’s hard to connect the complaints. We showed them the issue, they changed their process and saw a 100 percent increase in monthly revenues.”

Two and a half years later, after raising $4.4 million, Bonobo opened an office in New York, and Rapoport was supposed to relocate. However, a surprising buyout offer from Salesforce changed their plans. “We didn’t think at all about selling the company at that stage, and there really was a dilemma. But it was a good offer with the possibility of reaching a lot of customers. As entrepreneurs who were also product and technology people, we liked it. You change something in the product, and hundreds of thousands of customers give you feedback. It’s a product person’s dream,” she said.

Rapoport refuses to comment on the size of the sale – it was in the tens of millions of dollars – but she did not feel they were missing out on something because Bonobo didn’t remain independent.

Salesforce, the buyer, is an American company with a value of over $200 billion, and in the last year its revenues totaled $26.5 billion. The company is considered to be one of the leading software companies in the world, and was a pioneer in adopting the Software as a Service (SaaS) model. Salesforce employs 73,000 people around the globe, and is considered to be an especially active buyer of other companies. Just in Israel it has bought up six firms. It has three development centers in Israel: In Tel Aviv, Petah Tikvah and Nazareth.

Salesforce is a force in the Israeli market - where it owns six firms - and has three officesCredit: Bloomberg

How are you integrating into Salesforce today?

“Salesforce wants to help the customer through their entire journey: Client management, support for services and customer marketing. These are the company’s three large business units, and they want to help bring in information from each one of them. The area of customer call analysis was missing for Salesforce, and we are the basis for it today.”

In practice, Salesforce adopted Bonobo’s product first of all for salespeople, and only later expanded it back into the area of customer service. The product is available in English, based on analysis of the content and context in which things are said – but it also knows how to recognize vocal signs to identify the style of the call, on Zoom or for voice calls, says Rapoport. For example, the company is studying pauses in speech, what the longest monologue was, what is the relationship between the sale representative’s listening and talking and how the conversation between them and the client conducted. In addition, it handles words that repeat themselves, such as the names of competitors or products, or words that help to understand the customer’s attitude – such as the word “pricing.” The system also helps to manage the conversations, archive them and flag important calls to be returned.

“We look at the entire organization, and automatically our system knows what characterizes their best salespeople, and then we know how to create recommendations tailored to the organization for sales people. For example, ‘the best salespeople in our organization listen X percent of the time,’ or to tell a representative that he interrupts clients more than the organizational average. We also provide recommendations for conversation topics.”

An entrepreneurial spirit

At 22, Rapoport decided to establish a social initiative dealing with fair trade. “I was in Scotland, and ran into sugar that was sold under fair trade. In Israel there wasn’t any awareness to this type of trade and I wanted to import tea, but they wouldn’t even talk to me. I decided to get into the matter through fashion, which was actually not my world. I wanted people to buy the products because they were pretty, not because it’s a mitzvah.”

Rapoport embarked on a search for a suitable factory that meets the conditions of fair trade. Using Google, she found a village in India, where they make scarves using traditional weaving, and the income from their sale funded cataract operations for locals and supported the area’s economic development. Later on she decided to move manufacturing to a textile factory in the south of China.

“We had to find a small factory, and I paid a company that does oversight. I got a binder that said when the workers went on vacation, how much they are paid, what the sanitation and insurance conditions are. There were also things I didn’t like. For instance, there was an employee who hadn’t taken a vacation in a long time. I went there, and the factory manager showed me that this employee lives 30 hours away by train, and he’s saving up his days to take his vacation in bulk. It was an important lesson that taught me to sync up my thinking on what right or just to what’s actually happening on the ground.”

Fake it till you make it

When asked about what she learned from the experience, Rapoport says: “It’s a classic case of entering a field I know nothing about. I had the chutzpah to jump in the water and then figure out what I’m doing. I had a mentor who prepared me for visiting the factory, he described what machines and what to do to check that the cloth is high-quality. ‘That way they’ll see that you know your stuff,’ he told me. I flew with my partner Ron, who pretended to be my assistant so that we’ll look serious. I rehearsed and observed. It’s not that my hands didn’t shake at the moment of truth, but I did it. I think entrepreneurs are judged on killer instinct. Sometimes there are opportunities, and it makes you sharper in recognizing them and seizing the moment - even when there is a risk.”

Rapaport:'I think entrepreneurs are judged on killer instinct'Credit: Ofer Vaknin

And how did she get that killer instinct? Perhaps she has years of training in MMA, which she practiced since early high school, going on to win the Israeli championship at 16.

“When we launched the startup I was relatively young, 26 years old. I think one of the things that helps entrepreneurs is the ability to pick up skills quickly. Either you reach a reasonable proficiency quickly, or you cease to exist. To me, that’s a big part of the charm. You need audacity and chutzpah as there’s a lot of failures along the way. There were times when I felt like I didn't have a clue what I was doing - like the first time I had to decide on salaries for my employees You’re in a position where you have to know everything, and when you ask, sometimes people will wonder, but it’s the only way to learn.”

Is there fear of failure after success?

“There is fear of failure unrelated to success. I know people for whom success is their biggest fear - they have an imaginary audience of people have in their heads judging them. I do want to succeed at doing real things, and in the end I’m a human being. How do I cope with this fear? I take part in a poetry writing workshop, and have to read a poem in front of people. That scares me more than anything. Even though I’ve already been a CEO and have spoken before big audiences, my hands shook and my voice trembled. Specifically at my job, I consult and prepare as best I can, and then if there are things that are out of my control, then at least I did the best I could.”

You’ve done a lot of interesting things over the years. Why did you choose to stay with Salesforce? Have you thought about going back to social enterprise?

“You always think about how to continue your career, but this is a position that attracted me because it’s technological work and it’s important to me to bring projects here and that Israel continues to be a significant place for innovation. At Salesforce this role is combined with social activity, which is precisely the combination I want. In fact, I was very surprised at how powerful it is. It has existed for many years – back when the company had no income and included only the founders. They decided to give back to society one percent of the time, one percent of revenues, and one percent of the product. It’s not easy at the current size, and the company meets the goal. It truly has an impact.

“We have a center in Nazareth, which we want to expand considerably. The percentage of women in Salesforce globally is 35 percent and here it’s higher, but there’s work left to do. It’s important to me to integrate more underrepresented populations, for instance those with special needs. We have the backing from Salesforce to deal with such issues. The organization matches your fundraising up to a certain amount, and gives the employee the opportunity to volunteer up to seven days per year. They won’t be punished for not doing so, but it’s become somewhat of an expectation: Everyone volunteers at whatever they like. Recently we planted 13,000 dunums (3,250 acres) of trees at Yatir Forest, and I helped renovate a senior citizen center in Hatikva Neighborhood. The tree planting is part of the company’s commitment to plant 100 million trees over the next decade.”

You talk about social activity, but the problem is deeper. Two economies have formed in Israel, and the flourishing of hi-tech widens the gap between them.

“Not so long ago wealth was concentrated and didn’t trickle down at all. The fact that there is now a public debate about these two economies shows that wealth is trickling down to a significant group, and we have to make sure that it keeps trickling. Salesforce has tremendous influence, and many jobs have been created thanks to our systems. I think that we have a responsibility to bring as many groups as possible into hi-tech, and it’s important that hi-tech not be homogenous. We have the responsibility, the budget, and the organizational support at Salesforce to do this. Will we solve all the problems? We’re not the prime minister, but it is meaningful.

“For instance, one of our goals is involving more women into STEM studies. We want to be involved with organizations that deal with that, for instance by sending volunteers to speak at schools. These are not things that create immediate benefits such as more workers, but part of a broad spectrum of solutions. These are long term state investments.”

Marc Benioff, CEO of SalesforceCredit: Bloomberg

The rate of women in hi-tech isn’t changing.

“The real drop-off among women en route to management positions is exactly in the years I’m in now, the pregnancy years. I heard a factoid like that a few days ago. Here’s a picture that’s worth a thousand words: When I started the screening process for the position of Salesforce’s dev center director in Israel, they couldn’t see on Zoom that I was pregnant. At some point I shared the fact, and they didn’t bat an eyelid. That’s significant. Even if I was a man, since we have equal childbirth leave, I would have been gone from work for several months either way. This equality is critical, because it allows you to get through these years. There is deep-seated discrimination in the world, and there is still much work to do. Paternity leave, for instance, is a significant thing that doesn’t exist at enough companies. That could explain the female drop-out rate.”

What does an organization have to do to improve the situation?

“Set goals. If you don’t define a measurable goal, it stays at the level of virtue signaling, and nobody knows what you do. I don’t understand enough what happens in schools, but I think that the foundation is setting measurable goals for high-ranking officials in the organization as well. This way it would be much easier to derive work plans from that and improve. We have such goals at our company, but it’s based on results. Which means not me dedicating a certain percentage of my time interviewing women, but me reaching the point where the company actually has a certain percentage of women.”

You spoke of the power moving to the workers, and that is a positive development. Do you feel that the courting of workers has become disproportionate, that employers can’t meet workers’ expectations?

“Again, there’s a positive side to it, because we’re used to the power having been with the companies and the workers courted them, and now it’s the other way around. There is a high-quality workforce here. Sometimes there are exaggerations, but all in all it’s a positive process. It’s a relatively new process, so like anything else it takes forms as it goes along, and there are some aspects that are better than others. Not everyone can do it as elegantly as others.”

Rapoport and the co-founders of Bonobo.AICredit: Courtesy

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