Haredi Women Closing the High-tech Gender Gap in Israel

At a first-of-its-kind conference for ultra-Orthodox Jews working in high-tech, women and men share their innovations and fears.

Racheli Ganot, a 35-year-old mother of three, has 100 women working for her today at Rachip, the semiconductor development firm in Bnei Brak she founded five years ago.

They are all ultra-Orthodox Jews. So is she.

“There are lots of people out there who still don’t know what to make of us,” she acknowledged, speaking Tuesday at a first-of-its-kind Haredi high-tech conference. “Semiconductors has always been a field dominated by men. So it’s quite interesting that we in the Haredi community are actually helping close the gender gap in this field.”

Ganot, who is about to open a second development center for her firm in Haifa, was addressing a special session on Haredi high-tech entrepreneurship at the conference, which was held in Jerusalem and organized jointly by the JVP venture capital firm and the Haredi Hi-Tech Forum.

Born and raised in Bnei Brak, Ganot was introduced to the world of high-tech at the age of 16, she said, when she took a first basic course in computer programming. “It opened an entire new world for me,” she recalled, “and I decided I wanted to go deeper into it.” In an unusual move for a woman of her background, she decided to pursue a degree in computer science. “I worked in the semiconductor industry for six years, and at one point, while I was working as a team manager, I realized just how difficult it was to recruit skilled workers in this field. I figured there had to be other Haredi women like me out there interested in this field, and I decided to go for it. I set up my own company. I had no experience whatsoever in business but lots of technical know-how, and that’s how it started.”

The initial funding for the project, which was minimal, came out of her own pocket. By contrast, Nili Davidovitch, the founder of Daat Solutions, an outsourcing center in Tel Aviv that specializes in cellular and web development, needed outside investors to get her project off the ground.

And that, she says, was one of the biggest obstacles she faced as a Haredi entrepreneur. “People in the high-tech world here just don’t know us,” she told the forum. “We don’t serve in 8200 (the Israel Defense Forces’ prestigious military intelligence unit) and we’re not graduates of the Technion,” she said. “But what we do have are lots of fears.”

The challenges, she said, are even more daunting for female entrepreneurs in the Haredi community. “We grow up hearing constantly how important it is for us to maintain modesty as women,” she noted. “And suddenly we’ve got to go out there and sell ourselves – well not ourselves, but our ideas. It goes against everything we’ve been taught.”

Davidovitch, a mother of five, eventually did find an investor to back her project, but like any Jewish mother, particularly one brought up on the ethos of modesty, she preferred using the podium today to boast about her son rather than herself. “He’s not even 25 years old yet, but he’s about to complete his third exit this week,” she kvelled.

Yitzik Crombie, head of the Haredi Hi-Tech Forum, said he came up with the idea of holding a conference of this sort after he realized that a growing cadre of Haredi high-tech entrepreneurs were quite clueless about how to take their ideas and turn them into finished products or services. “They know nothing about working with angels or venture capitalists,” he noted. “It’s just not part of their mentality. You never see them at high-tech conferences because they have no idea how important it is to go there and network.” Crombie, a high-tech entrepreneur in his own right with several start-ups under his belt, said his ultimate goal is to recruit a number of investors to help fund an incubator for high-tech ideas conceived by Haredim.

The conference attracted several hundred participants, include venture capitalists, who congregated around tables in the JVP Media Quarter, men on one side and women on the other, to hear the panelists. The real networking began, though, during the break when business cards were exchanged - between men and women as well - over bagels and coffee (“it’s all Glatt Kosher,” an organizer reassured the crowd).

Boaz Sharon and Yanki Har-Tzvi, two Haredi entrepreneurs, were trying to interest potential investors in their month-old venture, a website that allows users to design their own personalized Jewish-themed gifts. Avi Kohen, who described himself as a serial entrepreneur, was looking for workers to man the portal he recently created that helps consumers discover great bargains in Bnei Brak. Avraham Orbach, the founder of a new online interest network project, said he had just come to observe. “I’m still in stealth mode,” he said. “It’s too early to look for investors.”

JVP founder Erel Margalit, who is also running on the Labor Party Knesset list, said the conference coincides with the Haredi workforce entering a new stage of development. “There’s been a huge change in the past 10 years,” he said. “A lot of high-tech work that used to be outsourced to India is now being outsourced to Haredim at centers in Modi’in Illit and Kiryat Sefer. But many of these Haredi workers now also have their own ideas and are becoming part of the creative process in the high-tech world.”

Krombie said that the conference organizers had invited all the Haredi members of Knesset to attend, but they all declined. “It’s difficult for them to come to an event like this, where Haredim are being encouraged to join the workforce,” he said.

A number of Haredi women gathered around Ganot during the break, wondering how she managed to juggle kids and career. “Everybody helps,” she told them. “My husband helps, the grandparents help. The kids actually like seeing different faces every day.”

“You know, high-tech is actually a perfect career for a Haredi woman,” one of her interlocutors mused. “She gets to sit in front of a computer, she doesn’t have to mingle with men, and she can bring her work home on a flash-drive.”

It's not only the Haredi women who face unique challenges in high-tech, said Kohen. “Before I had my portal, I used to work in a computer hardware company. Once I delivered some equipment to a client, who had never seen me in person before. You know what he said when I walked in? He said: ‘We’ve already made our contribution this year.’ That’s right, he saw a Haredi guy and immediately assumed I was there to ask for donations.”
 

Emil Salman