Out of the Bubble
“Getting a Haredi employee into a company is not a simple thing”
CTech’s Out of the Bubble series visits Bnei Brak to explore the relationship between Startup Nation and the country’s ultra-Orthodox community
“I think we need to acknowledge the challenges otherwise we wouldn't be able to move forward,” explained Gigi Levy-Weiss, Co-Founder and General Partner at NFX, a venture firm that invests in pre-Seed and Seed stage startups. Levy-Weiss made the comments during a panel discussion in the Kama-Tech offices in Bnei Brak as part of CTech’s Out of the Bubble series, exploring the social periphery of Israel’s high-tech community.
“To start with, clearly, there is a challenge of education before young kids get into a program like Kama-Tech,” he continued. “The fact that there are not enough Maths studies and not enough English studies are huge inhibitors to our ability to continue growing. This is something that if this could be handled, would be very material.”
For years, there have been perceived stereotypes across the country that despite a variety of efforts, Israel’s Haredi community is unwilling and uninterested in integrating into the workforce. Many are sacrificing English and Maths education for sole Yeshiva study or simply refusing to engage in a culture that they feel does not match their values. The Haredi community makes up 15% of the country’s population, but only accounts for 3% of Startup Nation. Since 27% of first graders are now in the Haredi community, it is an issue that must be addressed in the next few years.
“I think it is important to understand that getting a Haredi employee, man or woman, into a company is not a simple thing,” Levy-Weiss continued. “Meaning it does require the company to make various changes. I think in the big picture it very much is worth making these changes, but it definitely is something that companies need to be aware of.”
Gigi Levy-Weiss was joined by Moshe Friedman, Co-Founder and CEO at Kama-Tech, Marcy Tatelbaum, Head of HR at Triple Whale, and Aaron Fruchtman, Vice President at JBH (Avratech), who spoke with CTech about some of the perceptions tensions that exist between Israel’s fast-paced tech industry and its conservative-leaning ultra-Orthodox community.
Moshe, I would like to start with you please: tell us a bit about Kama-Tech and where we are today.
“We are here in Bnei Brak in the tower and we can see the beautiful view of the city,” said Friedman, Co-Founder and CEO at Kama-Tech, a social enterprise that helps integrate the ultra-Orthodox community into Israel’s high-tech ecosystem. “If you try to imagine this scene a few years ago, it would look like a dream that we would have towers and high-tech companies and an accelerator for startups. It was a dream but this dream came true. I remember about 10 years ago, I started my own startup company and I met a few people from the high-tech industry who told me “we don't care about your startup, but what's most important is to bring more and more Haredim into the high-tech industry.” Israel's high-tech industry is the jewel of the crown, but we have a problem that the Haredi population is not part of this movement. Today 12% of the population of Israel are Haredim, but more importantly, 27% of the kids in first grade in Israel are Haredim. If we manage to bring this talent and these people into the high-tech industry, it will be a huge win-win for both sides. If we fail, it will be a big problem.”
He continued: “I started Kama-Tech with a mission to bridge the gap between Haredim and the tech industry and bring more and more Haredim to become entrepreneurs, start companies, and become employees of big companies. We see today in these offices where we do training and accelerators for startups, and we are bridging the gap between the Haredi community and the tech industry. Baruch Hashem!”
What are some of the tangible ways this is done? There are some separations between the conventional Tel Aviv startup nation bubble and the lifestyle that is being lived in Bnei Brak. What's that like for outreach and how do we get people in Bnei Brak aware and eager to do the things that are being done?
“Our organization was founded about 8 years ago by Rabbi Label who is a Rosh Kol, a well-known Rabbi in the community,” explained Aaron Fruchtman, Vice President at JBH (formerly known as Avratech), a project helping place Haredi people into the workforce. “He saw there were a lot of Avrichim (someone who studies the Torah full-time) aged 28/30 mainstream Haredi men who might be looking to do something else, but it is not relevant for them to go to university for four years… He built our program where men learn Torah from 9-12pm, which is like how they used to learn Torah. And then they learn Math, English, and Computer Programming. Then after that, we give them employment. RavTech is one of our other partner companies.”
According to Fruchtman, the goal was to build a track for Haredi men who can integrate into the high-tech community and high-tech professions. “There are certainly issues in that not every Haredi man knows what high-tech is,” he continued. “Our organization creates an answer, a solution, for a 30-year-old man, a mainstream Haredi man who is looking to get into the high-tech profession. And we do see research done by a few institutions to show that it works: vocational training coupled with practical experience, all of our graduates either all get internships or work in our partners' companies for a year or two, is successful at integrating a Haredi man with really limited secular education (these men come with no English or no math) into the high-tech sector. We have graduates working at AT&T and Check Point, and major companies.”
Fruchtman himself comes from the Haredi community and admits that for certain people there is a cultural difference. “A Haredi man has different values, and Baruch Hashem thank God, he doesn't have the same values. But there are definitely a lot of shared values with the secular society. I think we have to find those shared values and speak on those shared values in order to promote more men to work in the high-tech sector and I think that’s the key to our success: finding the key values. I think that's the key to any integration of the Haredi and the high-tech sectors.”
Marcy Tatelbaum is the Head of HR at Triple Whale, a Jerusalem-based Saas company who built software to assist e-commerce business with their digital advertising analytics that hires folks from Bnei Brak to work remotely. “Aside from men in the Haredi world, the presence of women in high-tech from the Haredi population is amazing,” she said. “There are so many programs there, there are so many talented women coming out of post-high school type programs with amazing depth of knowledge and talent in programming, in data engineering, and all kinds of related fields of high-tech. It's really an honor to be able to work and plant seeds of slashing down barriers and being able to accommodate different kinds of people to work together to build tech and build companies together.”
Tatelbaum shares that in Bnei Brak, “there is a ton of hidden talent, just amazing things going on with the men and the women. People learning on their own, on the side, teaching themselves so many courses out there… I think one of the most amazing things is that it is really doable. There is so much progress that has already been made, especially in the last few years. Small accommodations whether that's to make a kosher kitchen, whether that's seating arrangements, whether that's being sensitive to Olim (immigrants). Those simple changes can make your workplace a little more accommodating especially to men and women in the Haredi world.”
“I think sitting here and talking about this topic is something that makes me super proud and excited,” said Levy-Weiss. “When Moshe came to me 10 years ago, it all looked like an impossible dream that we would be able to sit and talk about thousands of Haredim, men and women, working in Israeli high-tech. I think we take a step back for a second and we need to understand that this is a national goal - both for the high-tech industry and the Haredi community.”
For Levy-Weiss, there are two things that make it such a win-win. “On the one hand, for Israel to maintain its advantage in the high-tech world since we are in a huge shortage of talent,” he explained. “Technically we are growing so much and the companies are growing so much we just need more engineers and more people. It’s salespeople, SDRs, all these roles. On the other hand, we have this huge community that is growing as a percentage of the population and if we want to allow them to change their social-economic status, one of the best ways is by joining the high-tech industry. When we started talking about this there were hardly any sort of women and nothing else at the time… When we started looking at it there were almost no Haredi-led startups. Now I think the number that we identified is 150, which is a crazy number we are so proud of.”
Importantly, it requires not just training but also getting the companies to work out what it means, to have an employee that has different values. “We have been training companies and putting people in companies so that they will get the experience from the existing large tech companies we have been investing in and startup companies that come from the community. I think this is a huge achievement but it's just the beginning of the road. There is such a long journey to be had here because it is still a tiny percentage of the Haredi population and we want the Haredi population to be represented as if they're part of the Israeli community. We think we can get there, and more, in time.”
“When I first met Gigi and we spoke a few years ago, the numbers were less than 1% of the employees in Israeli high-tech were Haredim,” shared Friedman. “Today almost 4% of those working in Israeli high-tech are Haredim, which is rapid growth. We need to get to 12%, but we have come a long way.”
“When we started working on this, the concept was that if somebody wants to work in high-tech, they need to be like the high-tech people,” added Levy-Weiss. “I think the big change we are seeing which is critical for the success of this ongoing change is that the companies need to understand that to benefit from this talent, they need to adjust themselves rather than ask people to adjust. This is a change we are seeing in the last two years, which I think is super meaningful because that is the infrastructure for further growth.
I don't want to be treading on eggshells when I say this but there are some perceived stereotypes that some members of the community don't want to be as involved as other sectors, and that out of the investments that are being made here, some are fruitful and some are in vain. Does anyone have anything to say about some of those challenges that may be coming across?
Fruchtman highlighted that he originally came from the United States, where the values promoted in what he calls pop culture are not values that are revered in the Haredi community. “My daughter is nearly 12 years old, she doesn’t know any foul language, and she has never had an iPhone. There are certain values that the Haredi community holds, among them the value of learning the Torah, and learning values and promoting our values. I would say the Haredi community is very conservative and not very prone to change.”
He continued: “I do think that there is a certain change going on in the community, but the Haredi community with good reason is very conservative about that change. We want to make sure our values are remaining in place, the values that we deem important are going to be guarded. And with that, slowly some people will go and some people won’t care about the values, but you do see that even more mainstream Haredi men are willing to take steps could ‘engage’ with the values.”
Levy-Weiss: “I think we need to acknowledge the challenges otherwise we wouldn't be able to move forward. To start with, clearly, there is a challenge of education before young kids get into a program like Kama-Tech. The fact that there are not enough Maths studies and not enough English studies are huge inhibitors to our ability to continue growing. This is something that if this could be handled, would be very material. I think it is important to understand that getting a Haredi employee, man or woman, into a company is not a simple thing. Meaning it does require the company to make various changes. I think in the big picture it very much is worth making these changes, but it definitely is something that companies need to be aware of.”
He confirmed that not everyone in the Haredi community is supportive of the efforts that are done there. “Not everyone thinks that this is the right thing. Some people are more into progress and some people are into less. I’ve personally been yelled at with Moshe at least once by people who didn't think that what we are doing is the right thing. This is clearly something that culturally we will need to change over time… I think that from my experience of investing in a few Haredi-led startups, I can say that they're as good as at least non-Haredi startups. When you say there is potential criticism that Haredi startups are not such good investments, what we see is the other way around: As hard-working, as committed, and as wanting to succeed as non-Haredi startups with some very amazing success stories.”
You can study the Torah all day long and it might give you good morals for Startup Nation and tech companies that are moving fast and breaking things, but if people are going to be so adamant about remaining on the last carriage of the train then there is a natural tension there. If these populations are growing from 12-15% up to 27% in 15 years when those folks enter the workforce, what is the future looking like? Is the tension going to snap?
Friedman: “Five years ago before Pessach, Gigi met me at an event and he told me you should start a VC to invest in Haredi startups. Gigi was the first investor and then 60 investors joined, all the leading figures in the Israeli high-tech. We closed our first fund and invested in 17 companies, now we are closing our second fund. He just told me a few months ago that when we started he thought it was a bit of a charity. ‘Ok, let's start and give Haredi entrepreneurs a little bit of seed money to start’, he thought. Eventually, the performance of the fund was amazing - even beyond our dreams. It became a financial fund that made huge returns. We see today it is not a charity but a huge opportunity because there is so much talent, so much passion, so many people with the drive to become successful. So it is not charity, it is really beneficial for both sides… We started in Kama-Tech a few years ago to train Haredi women and bring them into the best high-tech companies to become employees in the best companies like Google, Microsoft, Cisco, Apple.”
According to Friedman, it wasn’t so easy. When they started they saw that the Rabbis would be against them. “We spoke with all the Rabbis and I must say that the big Rabbis are supporting us and helping us,” he confirmed. “Haredim means to be afraid: they are afraid of change and they don't want it. But they’re very practical and if they find a solution to bring those kids, men, or women into high-tech without changing their lifestyle, their set of values, then the rabbis are supportive.”
“I think that the biggest word here is ‘fear’,” added Tatelbaum. “It is to get beyond that fear of hiring somebody different, on both sides. You mention the challenges of slashing that bias whether it is a bias from a Haredi who may think that person is bad because he/she is dressed in a certain way. It goes both ways. When you start to really slash that bias and get back to those A B Cs of life: not judging a book by its cover and really being able to see past that and see towards the talent and really accommodate that person into your company, really great things happen.”
It's been 20-30 years. There has been government effort, private effort, and NGO effort toward this community. Has it been worth it and has it been everything that it could be? Has the potential been matched?
“What I see is mainly a private effort, philanthropists, investors, private companies, and people that work to help this movement,” said Friedman. “I think it is the best investment for the government to do it. The ROI is unbelievable.” According to Friedman, he spoke with the Minister of Economy and Industry, Orna Barbivai, who visited a few weeks ago, and showed her how investing in the training of Haredim, can help get the government back its money in the same year. “During his career, they get their money back 100 times,” he confirmed. “It is the best investment for the government. I think the government is doing a wonderful job, but they can do much more. Every shekel they invest, they will get this 100 times. My advice for the government is to do more and you will get more.”
Fruchtman: “I think there are definitely conflicting values between the Haredi community and what the government wants. One example is that today you have a lot of Haredi ladies who support their families. They're programmers, they make money, and the men are studying Torah… The government wants to obviously increase the economy and increase the GDP and that's their goal. The Haredi community's goal is a little bit different - that’s not the community's goal. I do think there has been a lot of success, certainly for the last 22 years, that people have been able to integrate into the high-tech Israeli crown. I am very proud of the high-tech in Israel and I think it is a great thing. But I think we really need to work with the community and see what the community wants and to develop together with the government.”
“Obviously, there can always be more of every type of government program, but I think especially within the past 5-10 years we’ve seen major growth as we all know,” said Tatelbaum. “One of the important things to understand is that in the Haredi community, I think there is a lot of word of mouth that goes around, talk between a lot of different people, and one of the most important things is creating this positive work environment in the different companies because that's going to spread, and that going to make the Haredim feel comfortable and want to work in different companies whether they're startups or large corporations. That's an important part when corporations are employing people, is to make it a really positive experience. Because when it works, it works really well.”
“I think we are in a much better place than we've ever been before, but it is just the beginning,” said Levy-Weiss, who made the final remarks of the panel. “For me, I understand that for the government to work much deeper on this is a very politically touchy topic because it is all about education and studying Maths and English early on which not everyone in the Haredi community is in favor of. This is why this has been led by the private sector on this win/win basis, and by NGOs that basically have been pushing for this. I think we are now at the point where if we want to extend that, the government needs to jump in a lot more. But I think a lot of it depends on the actual Haredi community and its willingness to embrace it.”