In Israel Ultra-Orthodox Women Emerge as Tech Entrepreneurs

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  • Women look to bring more money home as primary breadwinners
  • In the Amish-like community, men are devoted to Torah study

While Silicon Valley is just beginning to confront decades of sexism and discrimination, female founders in Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community say their segregated gender roles have an unintended benefit -- encouraging growing ranks of women entrepreneurs.

In the haredi community, many women serve as the main caregivers and breadwinners while their husbands focus on Torah study. One result is that entrepreneurship is often a better way for Orthodox female founders to provide for their large families.

"We’re taught very early that our role as women is to be the breadwinner," said Sari Roth, 40, chief executive officer of Bontact and a mother of seven. "That means we need to fight, not give up and do everything not to fail.”

Recruiting more ultra-Orthodox into a technology industry suffering from a lack of skilled workers has become a national objective in Israel, with various government bodies enlisted to meet national goals. One challenge is that many ultra-Orthodox seek work environments that allow them to maintain their strict religious lives.

Bontact’s transparent walls.

Source: Bontact

Sitting Separately

Take office planning: Not every company wants to set up a kosher kitchen or a place where women employees sit apart from men. Bontact, which provides a multichannel messaging platform to 50,000 companies, installed transparent office walls so male and female workers can meet without violating modesty rules.

High numbers of children among haredi women can be a barrier for senior roles in secular-run companies. 

Avital Beck, 35, who has six children and a doctorate in molecular biology, co-founded her company MilkStrip so she could hold a challenging job and have flexible hours to spend time with her children. 

“Because most senior jobs in the tech industry are so inflexible, it just made sense to found my own company,” Beck said. 

Similarly, Tikva Schmidt, a software systems architect with 10 children, founded TIDE Technology, an outsourcing firm offering software architecture and development solutions, to provide high-level jobs for haredi women, while allowing them to raise their children.

In the data base of Kamatech, a venture backed by the U.S. government and private money that aims to get more ultra-Orthodox Jews into Israel’s technology industry, around 40 percent of the 1,100 entrepreneurs listed are women -- up from just five in 2012.

"I speak at a lot of meet-ups and technology events, and the only time I looked around the room and saw as many women as men was at a Kamatech event,” said Adi Soffer Teeni, general manager of Facebook Inc. in Israel.

Ancient Texts

Michal Tzuk, deputy director of Israel’s Labor Ministry, said the number of haredi women choosing to become entrepreneurs is growing faster than the number of secular women.

That isn’t surprising to those who live in the haredi community, where girls study math and science and often go to college, while boys learn ancient Jewish texts. Later, in married life, it’s most likely the wife who takes care of the finances while the husband focuses on spiritual matters.

Beyond creating a flexible and rewarding job, founding a company offers the possibility of better pay for members of a community where poverty levels are much higher than among Israel’s Jewish population generally.

Ruth Margalit, 37 with five children, studied software development at a womens’ college and got a job at a well-known Israeli technology company. When she saw her peers fail to get good jobs or sometimes any work at all -- either because of a reluctance to hire haredim or because they didn’t want to work in secular workplaces -- she created i-rox. The outsourcing company, which Margalit launched at the beginning of her third pregnancy, now has 120 employees and does work for startups as well as defense and government firms.

Family Affair

The haredi world offers more support to women entrepreneurs, especially in terms of childcare, Margalit said. 

“I absolutely needed help from the family,” she said. “My husband had to be recruited, and also my mother and sister.”

Despite the community support, being a member of the ultra-Orthodox community remains a barrier for those seeking to work or start companies in the secular bastion of technology, said Chedva Kleinhandler. Her startup, Emerj, provides software that helps companies offer confidential mentoring to employees.

"I got push-back from the secular startup world," she said. "Being haredi is the primary hurdle -- and it’s hard enough to be an entrepreneur and a woman.”

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