Matchmaker to start-ups that need a helping hand

Matchmaker to start-ups that need a helping hand

Stephen Oryszczuk meets the Arab-Israeli helping British companies find commercial common ground with Israeli innovators

Founders & Coders opened its first international branch in partnership with the UK Israel Tech Hub
Founders & Coders opened its first international branch in partnership with the UK Israel Tech Hub

Dona Haj is a business match-maker with a long list of shidduchs to her name. As part of the British Embassy’s UK Israel Tech Hub, she has spent the past few years making matches from Tel Aviv. But late last year, the Hub expanded. Welcome to London’s new shadchan.

Before arriving, Haj led the Hub’s work the Arab sector, helping Israeli-Arab start-ups go global with British firms. An Arab Israeli herself, she retains a keen interest, having begun her career by helping entrepreneurs and small businesses in Nazareth take off.

The Hub – started in 2011 by then-ambassador Matthew Gould – aims to give British companies a “competitive edge” by accessing Israeli technology. Hubbers work out what UK firms need, then “scout” Israeli start-ups that can help.

Sectors include banking, retail, healthcare, insurance and pharmaceuticals, and examples of matches abound: British drugs giant GSK got smoochy with Technion University; bank RBS got down and dirty with Tel Aviv innovation centre The Floor; and Oxford University Press found love in an Israeli start-up able to digitise its publications in a more engaging way. Macho British innovators, such as Dyson, just can’t get enough of their petite Israeli peers.

Dona Haj
Dona Haj

It’s not just firms that want in on the action, says Haj. UK Government agencies are also interested, and want the Hub’s help in fields such as cybersecurity. Why?

“A lot of factors went into creating a [cyber-security] success story like Israel,” she says. “For example, how the government intervened, how the chief scientist intervened, how the academics helped, how they scaled up companies in this sector. That’s why they come: to see how they can duplicate the model.”

She’s just back from taking a delegation of UK-based auto manufacturers to Israel, where they toured tech hubs, visited companies such as Mobileye (just sold to Intel for $15 billion) and saw the sights. Who pays for all this? It’s part-funded by private donors, she says, but won’t tell me who. She also won’t tell me what the Hub’s financial key performance indicator is either.

/Likewise, she’s cagey on her age and status, but does, eventually, tell me she’s “over 30” and a Muslim Arab, but that she’s not religious. She finally discards the corporate speak, telling me how she grew up in an Arab town near Acre, worked with Tsofen in Nazareth, helped get Arab-Israeli women into high tech, and how she is passionate about overcoming the challenges the Arab sector faces.

“If I’m an Arab entrepreneur, even though I’m in the start-up nation, I don’t have connections, I don’t have the access,” she says. Because Israeli Arabs don’t serve in the IDF, they lose out on the networking this gives.

“Besides this, most Arab towns are not near Tel Aviv, where everything’s happening. Most can’t access tech firms, or foreigners who invest in start-ups. Most don’t have uncles or cousins already in tech. That’s why there’s this disconnection. Also, Israelis travel; they spend time in Europe or America then come back and start a company. But for Israeli Arabs, their international experience is very limited.”

This makes her unusual, she says. “You don’t see many Arab girls living abroad. My background was different to that of my Jewish friends – my education, environment, values, opportunities… When you’re born an Arab Israeli, it’s an amazing culture, but there are also challenges. That’s why we’re here. We want to help them accelerate this talent.”

When the Hub brings Israeli-Arab entrepreneurs to the UK, it’s usually their first time abroad, certainly in a major Western city. Most don’t know how to navigate a modern city, and many get lost. It’s a steep learning curve.

The British companies choosing which Israeli partner (Arab or Jewish), to smooth-talk are “colour-blind,” she says. The patter’s working; more than 80 partnerships worth £600 million equate to dozens of notches on the Hub’s bedposts.

And what of Haj? She’s in love – with the Brits! “It wasn’t easy, I had a good life in Israel, but I love it here. They’re open to doing stuff. The British are dreamers and doers. For me, this is the best environment.”


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