German Chancellor Angela Merkel inspires female Israeli entrepreneurs

German Chancellor Angela Merkel inspires female Israeli entrepreneurs

Following the leader's visit to the Jewish state - a group of women hatched a plan to make sure they have a growing role in the innovation nation

Joe Millis is a journalist

Tel Aviv Women inspired by Angela Merkel
Tel Aviv Women inspired by Angela Merkel

Earlier this year, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Israel with a business delegation, she had a photo-op with local and visiting entrepreneurs. The problem was that, apart from Ms Merkel, they were all pale, male and stale.

In response, a group of Israeli women entrepreneurs had a plan: they Photo shopped images of Ms Merkel with themselves – and a few male supporters – outside Israeli landmarks. The results went viral, in Israel and globally.

For Merav Oren, the founder of the WMN network of Israeli women entrepreneurs, this marked a turning point since it showed their growing role in making Israel the Innovation Nation.

“I need to wake up feeling passionate about my job,” said Ms Oren, a serial entrepreneur who had her first job at the tender age of eight, as she spoke in the 28th-floor offices of Amazon Israel in Tel Aviv’s Sarona district.

Merav Oren

She had her first break when she told a male friend that she wanted to be a partner in the company she worked for. “I told him I was going to ask for a 15 percent share. He said: ‘Why not 50 percent, take it or leave it?’ The boss decided to take it, I bought 50 percent of the company and then bought him out.

“I became chief executive officer [CEO], but still people thought I was the secretary.”

She said WMN’s goal is for companies in the network to have at least a woman founder or a CEO.

WMN helps women to start their own businesses, and to not be afraid of failure – a common theme among Israeli entrepreneurs, male or female. Failure is not stigmatised in Israel, as long as you learn from your mistakes.

“WMN is a game-changer for women entrepreneurs. Our mission is to have more women-led ventures. We do this by providing our community members with a co-working space, professional events and workshops, along with mentors and networking opportunities with profound and leading men and women in the industry who want to pay it all forward.”

Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara with Angela Merkel during her state visit to Israel. Credit: Israeli PM / Benjamin Netanyahu on Twitter.

Ms Oren gives the example of Maya Gura, who sold her first company to eBay. “She called me and said she wanted to mentor the group. I said, I’ve heard of [Israeli entrepreneur] Ron Gura, but not of a Maya Gura, how come I have never heard about you?

“It turns out that Ron is her brother in law, and Maya just didn’t want to be in front, even though she was behind some of the ideas of the company that was sold. I told her: ‘That’s the last time I hear you talk that way. You have to take your place at the top table and say what you are doing out loud.’”

Women in Israel, Ms Oren noted, made up only five to seven percent of founders or CEOs of start-ups, “but we want to change that through our networking”.

One of the problems Israeli women entrepreneurs face is the fact that unlike their male counterparts, they have not networked in military units that have formed the base of the country’s high-tech boom, such as the ultra-secret 8200 intelligence unit.

Neta-Li Meiri

Fighting that issue is Neta-Li Meiri, an 8200 alumna – she was an English-language analyst and liaison with foreign counterparts, who is managing director of the 8200 Social Program. The programme, which is made up of 8200 alumni, is the first of its kind in Israel for social technology (social impact) ventures.

“We are seeking solutions from the bottom up, and we have 60 mentors, most of them female,” said Ms Meiri.

“We have raised more than $35 million (£27.3 million) for social projects since 2012. We are a not-for-profit, and we insist that in the companies we support, the financial bottom line and the social bottom line do not contradict each other. We also ensure that we partner the companies we support, not just donate funds to them.”

Among the startups, the social programme has backed are: Novotalk, which provides a full therapeutic solution for people who stutter; SmartAir which helps asthma patients who struggle to assess their health condition and prevent disease exacerbations; and Voiceitt, which aids the millions of children and adults who find verbal communication a nearly insurmountable task.

Do’a Khreish

In Nazareth, lawyer Do’a Khreish faces additional problems to those encountered by her Jewish counterparts in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. First, there’s a need to overcome the male-oriented bias in Arab society, and second, the women themselves have to believe that they can be entrepreneurs.

Ms Khreish, who studied Biology at the Technion and taught before becoming a lawyer/entrepreneur, said: “About 60 percent of women with academic degrees in the Arab sector are unemployed because they want to be teachers in order to fit in with the families’ lives.

“However, because of a surplus, they are left waiting for the Ministry of Education to give them jobs.”

One of the main problems is that in the Arab sector, there is “risk-aversion, so they don’t want to start up small businesses. Many also think that making money is the man’s role in the family. And finally, they really don’t want to be seen competing with males”.

Despite the problems facing women entrepreneurs in Israel – both Jewish and Arab – there have been remarkable successes.

One of the three companies that won the Israeli Prime Minister’s Award for Innovation went to a firm founded and headed by a woman: Emedgene, which has developed an artificial intelligence-based system for automatically managing, analysing, and interpreting vast amounts of genetic information.

The other two prizes went to Unbound Tech, which develops cybersecurity technology that protects cryptographic keys and passwords and DouxMatok which has made a food supplement that makes sugar taste sweeter and therefore cuts a consumer’s need.

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