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Kira Radinsky, Israeli wunderkind at top of Startup Nation, on succeeding in a male industry

by Simone Wilson

October 18, 2013 | 1:05 pm

In the third quarter of 2013, Israeli startups raised a collective $660 million — the highest heap of investments since the dot-com bubble burst in 2000. The Startup Nation is officially on top of the world.

And it just so happens that one of its lone cover girls, Technion alumna Kira Radinsky, PhD, had an equally slam-dunk summer: Her startup, SalesPredict, reached the $1 million mark in seed funding, and the MIT Technology Review recognized 26-year-old Radinsky as the youngest of 10 women in its annual crop of “35 Innovators Under 35.” All that recognition then caused global media outlets to dig up her fascinating PhD project from last year, in which she and a mentor at Microsoft Research wrote a program that can predict major natural disasters and disease outbreaks by sifting through decades of news reports and other Internet data.

I sat down with the gorgeous young Russian-Israeli at her SalesPredict offices for my print story this week on the absence of women in Startup Nation, hoping to find out how she came out so far ahead in an overwhelmingly male industry. Below, all the juicy bits that didn't make it into the story proper.

On being surrounded by strong, geeky females through her formative years:

I grew up with my mom and aunt. My mom was a math teacher, and she studied computer science, and my aunt is an architect in Amdocs. Because it's a Russian family, they want all their kids to know math. So it's just like math and playing the piano. Also playing different kinds of games — there were computer games where you have to solve riddles and stuff. But some of the riddles were super hard. And we would get them wrong five or six times and couldn't pass to the next stage. So my aunt told me, 'Let's not solve that, let's just write a small computer program to do that.' So we just wrote a really small one. And after that, I really liked [computer science].

To tell you the truth, before I went to the army, I never knew I was a minority in anything. I grew up in a family with only women, and they all were into computer science. And even in my high school, that's the funny thing — the computer science class was like only girls. We only had a few boys: 30 students, 27 girls. I don't know what was special about that specific class, because in any other classes it didn't happen, but they even sent some researcher to study us. It was kind of funny actually. This is what happened: In the 1990s, a lot of people from the U.S.S.R. came — a lot of immigrants settled down. I grew up in Nesher; it's next to the Technion. So a lot of people who had parents from academia or that type of background came there.

Things changed a little bit when I went to the army. The first time I came, I went to this programming course, and there were like three girls, which they barely could find in all of Israel, and like 27 other guys. And then when I came to where I was supposed to work, I was again approximately the only woman. There's one toilet and you have to share. One shower, one toilet. It becomes awkward. Even for them, it's awkward. That's the first time I noticed that I was a minority.

On women who avoid the computer-science field:

One of my friends, she's like, 'I don't know if I'm good enough to do that.' And I'm just like, 'Why? What's the difference?' And she's like, 'I don't know, I see other guys doing it, and they're super technical.' But a programmer is a combination of different characteristics. You don't have to be crazy about gadgets. Who cares about that? There's so many other things that you can do. I think that in general it's true: If you treat yourself as a victim, you become one. In my case, nobody every treated me as a victim — I was only a minority.

When I got to the university level, the ratio was 50/50. I was a minority only in the fact that I was younger than everybody. But I never thought about [being a woman]. And in first degree, in bachelor's, it's about 40/60 men to women I think, so it's unnoticeable. And then it changes a lot in master's and PhD degrees. In the PhD, again you have a lot [of women], but if you look at the professors — like in the Technion, you have three women professors and the other 47 are men. And it's mostly because you need to do the post-doc abroad. You have to move all your family. I think a lot of women don't want to do that or think about that, or don't have enough support to do that. In my case, I went through my PhD, and my husband said, 'Hey, if we need to go, we need to go.' So for me, when I was working in Microsoft Research in Palo Alto, because I did my PhD abroad, he left his work and came with me.

When I was young, I never saw certain families where the woman only played one role. Not even our neighbors — everybody was equal, totally. And I was really surprised when I saw families that were not like that. Like in my relationship, I never think that it's my role to raise the children. I think it's half-and-half at least. 

On the incentives for women in high-tech in the U.S.:

At Microsoft, I think it was like 10 percent women. They even told us, 'If you have a woman friend, we're going to give you money if you bring her to Microsoft and she gets accepted.' Or, for example, they said that for the vacation you get after birth, they're going to give you six months instead of three months — just come to Microsoft, you know? I don't think I was promoted because I was a woman, or anything like that, but I do feel like workplaces work super hard to make it appealing for women. Like special meetings only for women, like Mother's Day, where only we get presents.

Strangely, there are even scholarships only for women. And then you're just thinking, 'Why not?' But the thing is, it serves a negative side as well, because then somebody tells you, 'Oh, you got an offer from this university. You're a woman, that's why.' And it's the same thing at work: 'Oh, she got accepted because she was a woman.' It becomes exactly the opposite [of progress].

On walking into a room full of potential investors:

I fall into the category of the young and ambitious, so they don't care about my gender. There was one that asked what I was planning about my family — the issue was raised. And that was kind of weird, and well it's inappropriate, but it's a fair question after all. Even for me, as a manager, when you hire someone and you know that she's of a certain age, she just got married, and she's going to go on vacation for six months... I'm trying not to make it an issue, but especially in a startup, you have this amount of money, this amount of people. If one is missing, that's an issue.

I never experienced [sexism from venture capitalists] while I was in the States, where someone would raise the issue and make me feel uncomfortable about it. Here [in Israel], they are more open to say it. They're not going to ask you parallel questions and try to figure it out. Just like, somebody asked me — I told him I got the Google Anita Borg prize, which is a big prize for female researchers — and he's like, 'Aren't you offended about getting a prize only for women?' And I was like, 'No, there are prizes for geniuses under 40, is that insulting just because you're in the category of young?'

On Israel's male army cliques:

Most of the startups here start from the army, and most of the technology units are only young men. I was in those interviews. You get women who are less interested in taking a computer and looking at what's inside, less interested in technical things. They're more interested in the intelligence side, to be more social, things like that. 

Usually [startups are formed by] guys in the army who program together for two or three years, become really good friends and they're set.

On the perks of a female presence in the office:

Female managers are much better than male managers. Especially when you get high-tech people, and they have problems with social communication. And then you have someone who can mitigate that. I see a lot of really good female managers. I was nicer than many other people — it was easier to work with me than many others. And I think that many women are less ego-driven, and it's easier to work with someone who doesn't have a lot of ego. When you need to clash, if you do it really aggressively, it really hurts the ego of the other person much more if it's a guy. You need to find more subtle ways of getting [what you want].

The thing is, if you're a successful man, people are like, 'Oh, he's successful.' If you have the same characteristics as a woman, they're like, 'She's too aggressive. She's bitchy.' In Microsoft, there were a lot of female managers, and you see directors as well, and project managers. In startups — I actually don't know any woman in a startup.

On gender-role reinforcement at a young age:

If you grow up with someone all the time telling you, 'Oh, you're a girl, you're not going to be good at that,' then you're going to believe in that. When you start studying, no one actually knows whether they're going to be good or bad in something. So you usually go to where the people who are most like you go. So men naturally go where there are more men, and women go where there are more women. Because you don't even know if you're going to be good at math, right? So you don't even try.

On sexual harassment in high-tech:

There are always cases when someone hits on you or something like that. It never happened to me until I was like 23, 24. In the army I worked with people in very crowded places, and we had to share everything, spend days and nights together, and it never happened to me. When I was 23, 24, I was with much more adults. I didn't even know that they were hitting on me until my friend told me, 'Didn't you notice he was doing something wrong?' And I was like, 'No, I thought he was kidding.' Just like remarks about different things — at the beginning I thought those remarks were just like, laughing. I don't usually take those things seriously. But she was sitting next to me and she was like, 'Listen, those things tend to develop.' Which was good. Because that's not fair. This is business. If you want that kind of relationship, go have fun with somebody else. 

On the strategy behind her company, SalesPredict:

We're in the business of sales automation. So currently, each company that sells something has a sales department. And the way they work today, they get huge lists of people, and they start calling them, like: 'Hello, do you want to buy our computer?' And then a huge process of maybe 12 steps starts — 'Oh, you agree, maybe bring your manager,' or 'Oh cool, do you want to see our demo?' — until you get to a point where he actually buys. [Before SalesPredict], this field of automation was actually the point where the only thing salespeople have is data storage. They can document what you did, what you said in the conversation, but nothing to do with anything smarter or more intelligent.

This is where we come in. So instead of calling and talking to all the people who are going to hang up on you, or drop the sale just before they pay, we're going to bring in our predictive analytics and try to predict who's the person that's trying to buy from you; whether it's good for you to invest your time in him; what are the actions that you need to do to make him actually buy. Because they already document so many other previous sales, we take that, we mine that and we try to find patterns. We try to find the DNA of the perfect customer, based on different characteristics of the people who completed the sales in the past. Plus, we add to that information we find about the person on the web.

We get information like: Where did this person work before, what did he do on our website, things like that. We take all the prompts we can get, and our algorithms are actually smart enough to select the ones that have correlation with whether you're buying or not. So for some people, it's not interesting what they like on Facebook or not. But for other customers, it is important.

We're not going into people's houses and stealing their stuff. Whatever we have is public, and some of those companies already have information about you. Maybe they have a trial version, and you played with it a little bit, so they have some information about the interactions you had with the system. Are you a smarter user, a simpler user, things like that. Here's the thing: There's so much information, and nobody's using it.

I see our stuff as the brain on top of the sales system. We actually help the salesperson make more sales. We tell them exactly the actions that they need to take.

On her company's recent move to a hip, modern office building in Herzliya:

Before this, we worked in a cowshed. Like, where you grow cows. It was an abandoned cowshed — one of my founders owns a community [farm] in Kfar Haim where they grow vegetables and cows. So we were there, and then we moved here just like a few months ago. It's just totally different.

On being mistaken for the SalesPredict secretary:

All the time when I need to do all this bureaucracy of passing money from one place to another, people always think I'm the secretary. If [SalesPredict CEO Yaron Zakai-Or] is doing that, he's the CEO. If I'm doing that, I'm the secretary. And I'm getting it especially from women, not men. I was going to get this discount for lunches when we were living in the cowshed, and I was going to the kibbutz, and I was like, 'Maybe you can give us a discount, let's talk about that.' And the lady was like, 'What is your role in the company? Are you the secretary, or managing the money?' And I was like, 'No, actually, I'm the CTO, I'm doing the technology kind of stuff.' And she's like, 'Oh.'

On why so many female techies in Israel have Russian roots:

I think that a lot of people who come from a communist environment, there was no difference between men and women — everyone has to work. And because Israel was established on traditional [gender] roles in the beginning — people who came from North Africa, and even from Europe, are more traditional in that sense — I see a lot of moms who don't work. In the States, you see it all the time. How can it be that you don't work? What do you DO?

[In Russian families], nobody expects less. You're not required to do less. That's the thing. And in Russia, engineers are more respected, especially in Jewish families. It's considered something more stable. You're not going to go into literature because engineering is something very concrete. You can make a career out of it. There's very pragmatic thinking about that kind of thing. If your parents tell you, 'Don't go too far,' then why try? I was always encouraged, and told that being mediocre is the worst thing you can do.

On her glamorous new life as a startup celebrity:

I'm a simple dresser. I was interviewed by Lady Globes, and they brought like a stylist, and a makeup artist, and a photographer and all of these clothes. They brought Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana. I can show you the images — it was insane. I didn't recognize myself. And they were like, 'I want you to show power in your face.' And I thought, 'What does that mean, power in your face?' 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Simone Wilson is a 26-year-old journalist from Northern California currently living in Tel Aviv, Israel. She served as editor in chief of UC San Diego’s student newspaper, the...

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