By Gwen Ackerman, Bloomberg
A self-taught ultra-Orthodox man is breaking with tradition that puts religious study before work to lead his community into an Israeli technology industry starved for skilled workers.
Cisco Systems Inc., Microsoft Corp., and Alphabet Inc. are among companies supporting Moshe Friedman’s KamaTech, a venture backed by the U.S. government and private money aimed at getting more ultra-Orthodox Jews like Friedman into Israel’s burgeoning technology industry.
Friedman, who wears the white shirt, black suit and black skull cap of ultra-religious Jews, has seen interest in his program soar: from five haredi entrepreneurs at a community startup event he hosted in 2013 to 1,000 at a Tel Aviv gathering a year ago. Friedman said today there are at least 6,000 haredi engineers in Israel, from almost zero three years ago.
“Everyone looked at me like I was from Mars, and they were very suspicious,’’ the 37-year-old said, reflecting on the early days in 2011. “Investors said: ‘You have no education, no knowledge, no network.’ On the haredi side, everyone was angry at me. My parents wanted me to be a rabbi.”
One KamaTech initiative includes an accelerator program called Kangaroo, which places ultra-Orthodox entrepreneurs inside established companies, where they sit alongside regular employees and receive advice on building startups. Another program offers advanced courses for ultra-Orthodox women working in low-level tech jobs, allowing the community’s traditional female breadwinners to earn higher salaries.
Israel’s tech industry is investing in haredi men and women to help fill a gap of qualified software engineers, as the country experiences a tech slowdown brought by almost 10,000 vacant posts for such roles. The haredim, expected to account for 40 percent of Israel’s population by 2030, mostly depend on government stipends to support their large families as men study ancient Jewish texts full-time. Women do much of the work, though often for below-average wages.
“This is a very rare moment in Israeli history where the society sees the haredi community as a resource and the haredi community sees the Israeli society as an opportunity,” Moshe Habertal, a Jewish philosopher, said at a ceremony for KamaTech at the U.S. ambassador’s house in December.
In Tel Aviv, efforts by some of the companies working with KamaTech to lift haredim into better-placed jobs are gaining steam.
At Google’s campus in Tel Aviv, 16 ultra-Orthodox women, picked from a pool of 1,000 already working in the industry, study application development. On site, secular organizers order food cooked according to strict Jewish law and put special cups with handles next to the sinks for hand-washing rituals.
Clicktale Ltd., a 200-strong Tel Aviv-based software company, is coaching two haredi entrepreneurs from the Kangaroo program, David Weinberg, 29, and Israel Rosenberg, 26, whose startup, Pareto, employs machine learning to personalize web commerce platforms. They work alongside employees in the company’s open space and receive guidance about how best to build and expand their business.
“There is a synergy,” said Shai Rybak, a vice president at Clicktale. “We also learn from them.”
Inclusion is also important at Cisco in Israel, which already has more than 120 haredim on staff. Zika Abzuk, the company’s senior business development manager, helped start KamaTech with Friedman, and has worked to integrate Israeli Arabs into the sector.
“The industry is a step ahead of the government, that has good intentions but operates a lot slower,” Abzuk said.
Friedman has also led the establishment of a fund to seed small investments to haredi startups that participate in its Kangaroo accelerator. He aims to raise $5 million and has investors such as Adi Soffer Teeni, country manager for Facebook Israel, and executives from Microsoft Israel supporting with their personal wealth, among other local angel investors.
The money will go to companies that complete the accelerator program. The initiative drew 450 candidates vying for seven positions in November, almost double its first program in May 2015.
“We are seeing more and more haredi youth wanting to enter technology but they don’t have the tools,” said Yossi Vardi, often regarded as the godfather of Israel’s start-up industry.
Israel’s Economy Ministry has earmarked a half-billion shekels ($131.3 million) to encourage employment among Friedman’s community. Grants exist for haredi startups as well free training on tools and in R&D. Subsidized vocational courses in tech sectors are also available and 136 haredi men enrolled in such courses last year.
Part of Friedman’s success is the uniqueness of his initiative. Entrepreneurs in Kangaroo must be willing to work in a secular and less religious environments and act as emissaries who prove mixing with those who are less religious doesn’t undermine their way of life. The outcome is helping break down stereotypes on both sides.
‘‘Startup Nation is at a tipping point,” said Friedman. “Its future is in integrating the under-represented Arab and haredim communities, whose children today make up half of the children in first grade.”
(c) 2016, Bloomberg News – Gwen Ackerman