Women cradle newborn babies in their arms and dangle soft toys in front of older infants on colorful mattresses, all in a room in a Tel Aviv high-rise strewn with strollers and oversized bean bags.
It’s not a play facility. It’s the location of Google Inc.’s first baby-friendly school for startups. Called Campus for Moms, the program involves a series of nine weekly classes designed to give women on maternity leave a boost toward opening their own ventures in a country whose economy is dependent on innovation.
“The course helped me realize that this is who I am,” said Nira Sheleg, a 37-year-old mother of two who founded Wizer.me, a teacher-resource company, during the program. “I am an entrepreneur, not just a mom with an idea. Now I have a support group, and the mothers around me are amazing.”
Since graduation last July, she’s recruited a chief executive officer and several advisers and plans to start sales soon. Her targeted market: the U.S.
The classes –- two series have run so far -- are designed to address a dearth of women entrepreneurs in Israel, where technology makes up almost half of industrial exports. That contributes about one-third of economic growth, making staffing such companies a priority for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Yet only 9 percent of technology startups around Tel Aviv are headed by women –- about the same as in Silicon Valley.
“The biggest miss we have on talent in the technology industry is the lack of women entrepreneurs and engineers,” said Google Israel’s head of research and development, Yossi Matias, the senior company executive working with the Campus for Moms project. Google is following up with similar programs in London and in Krakow, Poland, he said.
Employees of technology companies in Israel make up less than 10 percent of the total workforce, according to figures from 2011 posted on the Central Bureau of Statistics website. About 7 percent of all working women are employed in technology, compared with 12 percent for men.
As little as 4 percent of global venture capital flows into female-initiated startups, according to Eva Ventures, a micro-venture capital fund dedicated to the promotion of women entrepreneurship. Its website uses figures from the Kauffman Foundation, an educational and entrepreneurial grant maker in Kansas City.
Eva Ventures started raising funds a few months ago and hopes to close with about $30 million in a few months before seeking candidates to invest in, said Michal Michaeli, founder and managing partner of the fund. All three managing partners are women.
“We know that having more women as start-up founders would enrich the vibrant, innovative and unique scene that is Israeli high tech,” the fund’s website says.
Orna Berry has lived in the skewed world of Israel’s technology industry for more than 25 years.
“It was always clear to me that this was a man’s society,” said Berry, former chief scientist for the Israeli government and venture partner at Gemini Israel fund. She is now a corporate vice president at EMC Corp., the world’s biggest maker of storage computers.
Along the way, she’s reached out to women in the industry. She calls it less an act of mentoring and more the “virtue of the fact that a woman leader was with them so they allowed themselves not to stop at red lights.”
Sheleg, who abandoned the first business she started due to the demands of her family life, attests to that. She was able to create Wizer.me in the nurturing environment of Campus for Moms, where conversations ranged from baby-sleeping issues to where to register a business. Wizer.me lets teachers create online worksheets and other educational tools.
Her first venture, ShellEgg, was an Internet showcase for architects. She founded it with her sister when they both had infants.
“We had lots of trouble going to the States for the long-distance trips that were necessary and we didn’t progress as we should have,” said Sheleg, who studied information technology at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. “At the time, we didn’t know how to combine motherhood with startups.”
At Campus for Moms, lecturers speak once a week about technology, give how-to lessons on forming a business and share life experiences. Leaders in the industry explain how to win investors and how to develop a market.
Women startup aspirations in Israel can be undermined by the lack of child care outside the family in a country where school and day care can end in early afternoon.
Hilla Brenner, founder of Yazamiyot, a women’s entrepreneurial group that worked with Google to create Campus for Moms, says the country’s mandatory military service of two years for women and three years for men is also partly to blame for muting female business dreams. Women often have to accommodate their husbands’ armed-forces duties or delay careers because of their own.
“To become an entrepreneur you need to be completely involved in something else besides your family,” said Brenner, a 38-year-old mother of three who raised money for her first venture when she was eight months pregnant with her first child. “This is more difficult in Israel than in other places because your partner does reserve duty, sacrificing for his country, while you sacrifice for the kids.”
Shelly Hod Moyal, co-founder of equity crowd-funding platform iAngels, which launched this month, says mandatory service also means studies are delayed. Career-building begins when women are as old as 28 and thinking about starting a family.
When they do decide to go ahead, there are prejudices to overcome.
“There was one lead angel investor who said ‘just because you have a pretty smile doesn’t mean you will be successful,’ and another told us we were missing male energy,” she said. “On the other hand, there were a lot of people who empowered us and said, ‘Just seeing two women doing this is refreshing.’”
IAngels has already raised more than $1 million for four companies with investors from all over the world, she said. The company has two employees: an associated partner and a developer.
According to a 2013 report by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Israel’s percentage of self-employed women ranked 11th from the bottom of 38 countries, better than Germany and France and just behind the U.S. Mexico and Greece took the top places.
Gender stereotypes moved Rebecca Rachmany, a 46-year-old mother of two, to co-found a startup to counter them. Gangly Sister Productions has posted a YouTube cartoon series for tween girls in English called ‘Purple and Nine’ that seeks to inspire them to explore technology.
“No one ever tells a girl she isn’t cut out to be a movie star, but they do say she isn’t cut out to be a programmer,” said Rachmany, whose team includes six founders, two of whom are men, as well as paid translators, animators and production sound specialists. Most work part-time and more than half the contractors are women.
Costs are financed for now by Rachmany and her co-founder, who left other jobs to do Gangly Sisters full time. The goal is to make money from online paid community memberships and affiliated projects.
At Campus for Moms, which is attended by about 50 women, a new session will start in May. If Sheleg’s experience is a guide, more startups will emerge.
“Once you’re in this community of mothers doing the same thing you are you don’t think it’s so extraordinary,” she said.