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Jewish Journal

The women of startup nation

by Simone Wilson

October 16, 2013 | 12:51 pm

From left: Kira Radinksy and Ranit Fink

From left: Kira Radinksy and Ranit Fink

Kira Radinksy, co-founder and chief technology officer of Israeli startup SalesPredict, is something of an anomaly among the leaders of Israel’s proud “startup nation.” And not just because she was a child prodigy who started her computer science career at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology at age 15. Rather, it’s that she’s a woman.

At 26, the dark and stunning Russian-Israeli entrepreneur has locked down a doctorate in computer science from Technion, built an award-winning data-mining system for Microsoft Research and started her own company, a cloud-based application that helps other companies predict customer behavior. In August, the MIT Technology Review took notice, recognizing Radinsky as the youngest of 10 women in its annual crop of “35 Innovators Under 35.”

In person, she’s petite and ultra-chatty, trading the hoodies and jeans of her eight male staffers for a ripped T-shirt and capris held up by a chunky white belt. According to Radinsky, it hardly ever crosses her mind that she’s a woman in a sea of men — but there are always those odd moments of self-awareness, like when someone assumes she’s the SalesPredict secretary or human-resources girl, or when, during a photo shoot for Israeli magazine Lady Globes, she’s dolled up in thick makeup and Dolce & Gabbana and told to “look powerful.”

“Here in Israel, no one really talks about” the absence of women in high tech, said Ranit Fink, vice president of business development for hot Israeli startup Cellrox — another rare female success story in the startup nation. “It’s just not on the agenda.”

According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, women make up about 35 percent of the nation’s high-tech workforce, a statistic that hasn’t budged for the last decade. (It also doesn’t illustrate how many of these women are filling low-level and nontechnical positions within the high-tech sector.) And although Israel’s Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor could not provide more specific data on the male-to-female ratio within the nation’s high-tech startups by press time, various company heads and investors in Israel — when interviewed by the Journal — agreed that they very rarely see a female face within the upper ranks of the Israeli tech world. 

“I see very, very, very few,” Fink said. “I go to conferences; I go to meetings — and it’s very rare that I see women.”

A review of the management teams for “20 Israeli startups to look out for” — published this spring in Israeli economic journal The Marker — shows that a mere 8 percent of team members are female. A representative for the Israeli venture capital firm The Trendlines Group said that of its 60 current portfolio companies, only about three are run by women. And over the last five years as a senior associate at Israeli venture capital firm JVP, Evelyn Rubin, now a vice president at crowd-funding venture OurCrowd, said that she “could probably count on one hand” the total number of women who have passed through the JVP offices. 

“I remember this crazy sense of having seen almost zero female entrepreneurs,” Rubin said. “Of course you’re not going to see 50/50, but you would expect to see at least 15 percent.”

At OurCrowd, too, Rubin guessed that in the last six months, the deal flow team has encountered only about seven female entrepreneurs, out of the 80 to 100 startups it sees per month. (OurCrowd, though it boasts three women on its management team, has yet to fund a female-run startup.)

Some encouraging steps for women in Israeli high tech have made the news in recent months. Thousands of female Charedi Jews, for example, are being employed as coders and software testers across Israel, and are — as touted in a Haaretz headline — “closing the high-tech gender gap in Israel.”

“The Charedi education system is geared toward encouraging women to pursue lucrative careers,” said Rubin, who works with women in the ultra-Orthodox community. (However, she added that “it’s a bit of a different model. These are mostly software development businesses, not your typical high-risk companies like Waze,” the navigation app company recently purchased by Google.)

In addition, more life-science-oriented branches of the tech industry in Israel, such as biotechnology and medical technology, are actually dominated by women: According to the online news magazine Israel21c, a full 65 percent of Israel’s biotech workers are female. 

“When I first took a position in med-tech, women felt more comfortable to come and to try, because it was dominated by females,” said Nitza Kardish, who now runs Israeli startup incubator Mofet Venture Accelerator. “It created this ecosystem where we were comfortable.”

But Israel’s most prized economy — its buzzing collection of 1,000 or more trendy tech companies, all built from scratch — is overwhelmingly male. There’s a reason that Tel Avivians often jokingly profile the stereotypical “startup bro”: because so many of them fit the bill.

Experts have presented a few different theories as to why women like Radinksy and Fink are so rare. 

One common narrative is that women are less likely to take large financial risks or make big life changes for their job, which can conflict with the traditionally female responsibilities of family and home. “Almost 100 percent of the women entrepreneurs that I meet, if they’re married, will base their ability to do what they’re doing on support from their partner,” said Lesa Mitchell, a vice president at the U.S.-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and author of a recent report on the challenges for female entrepreneurs. And Daphne Koller, the Israeli co-founder of booming U.S. startup Coursera, attested that: “For me, the biggest challenge is trying to juggle family commitments with an ever-increasing workload.”

Rubin of OurCrowd said that, in her experience, “It’s not a question of the actual time commitment, just an element of an appetite for risk. An ability to say, ‘I want to take $10 million to fund this business’ ” — not knowing if it will necessarily succeed.

Another theory is that from a young age, girls don’t see computer science and technology as subjects in which they are most likely to succeed — partly because of the low visibility of female role models in the field.

For men, Rubin said, “They see that a guy named Gil who lives around the corner was able to do it, so why can’t they do it? There are women who have built successful companies, but they’re not at the forefront.”

Radinksy, the CTO of SalesPredict, said she has observed other women shy away from the field because they are worried that they aren’t “technical” enough or as obsessed with gadgets as their male peers. She credited her own high-tech confidence with her upbringing in a Russian family that held more communist values of gender equality, wrote simple computer programs with her as a kid and valued computer science above other subjects. Radinksy said she never saw herself as less cut out for the field than any man. 

“Until I went to the army, I never knew I was a minority in anything,” she said.

Indeed, the male-dominated technological units of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have come to serve as incubators for the cliques that eventually become Israel’s hundreds of tech startups, according to Radinksy and others familiar with Israel’s startup culture.

“[Israeli] men will not be shy to pick up the phone,” said Helena Glaser, former president of the Women’s International Zionist Organization. “Men will feel obligated to help one another — and it starts in the army. Women in general don’t have this network. And this is a network of getting jobs.”

According to statistics provided to the Journal by the IDF, as of last year, only 16.8 percent of soldiers serving in technological positions in the IDF were women. And that’s a huge step up from a decade before, when the IDF reported that “the percentage of woman serving in these positions had reached 7 percent at most.”

Said Fink of Cellrox: “In Israel specifically, people are recruiting people based on the army. And in my generation, women couldn’t do everything in the army.”

From a funding standpoint, investors might also be more likely to stick with the kind of startup that has worked for them in the past. 

“Part of the issue now in Israel, is that funders tend to fund experienced entrepreneurs,” said Rubin, an experienced investor in Israeli startups. “So, because there hasn’t been a first generation of women entrepreneurs, they’re up against that barrier against men who have already [seen success].” 

Even once a woman has networked her way into the high-tech bubble, the workplace environment isn’t always welcoming.

Fink said that as a female in Israel’s high-tech sector, she has received dozens of “horrible comments — really horrible things” relating to her gender, both from outside businessmen and her own colleagues.

On blogs and forums online, much has been written about a similar male-to-male network in the Silicon Valley — a “bro-grammer” culture that keeps men in tech’s top positions and sometimes makes the workplace uncomfortable for women.

Ellen Ullman, a high-profile U.S. software engineer turned author, said that in America, she has witnessed an unhealthy “boys in a treehouse” attitude propagate itself among the nation’s techies, both at the academic and industry levels. “A woman walks into this culture, and she gets the worst of it: She’s more visible, scrutinized more closely and will not feel welcome,” Ullman said. She added that from the perspective of many venture capitalists, “Everyone’s got to be a kid in a hoodie. If you don’t look like Mark Zuckerberg, maybe you’re not right for it.”

So what does high tech stand to gain from a larger pool of female leaders?

A Dow Jones report in 2012 surveying 20,000 startups across the United States, showed that “companies have a greater chance of either going public, operating profitably or being sold for more money than they’ve raised when they have females acting as founders, board members, C-level officers, vice presidents and/or directors.”

Mitchell cited the study, saying that in order to move forward, both men and women in high tech “need to acknowledge this data and create solutions themselves by changing the networks” of entrepreneurs and investors. 

With a stronger female presence in high tech, the possibilities for modern technology are vast, said Weili Dai, co-founder of global semiconductor company Marvell Technology Group and a speaker at this year’s Israeli Presidential Conference: “We need more women to participate because technology is becoming part of our lifestyle,” she said. “I see this as a duty, to reflect the natural talent of women in the high-tech industry.”

And the startup nation may never reach its full potential without the talents of this untapped population. New research coming out of the Reut Institute, a widely respected policy group created to advise the Israeli government, suggests that the linear, non-inclusive model of startup nation as we know it — which has, up to this point, underutilized not only women but ethnic and religious minorities as well — may only succeed for so long. 

Orna Berry, famed Israeli venture capitalist and one of the original female entrepreneurs of startup nation, likewise warned that in order to remain competitive in the global market, the Israeli high-tech economy needs to see greater participation from a workforce made up of varying genders, age groups and backgrounds.

“If you team up with people who come from the same mold, and you’re choosing only people who you know what their path was and what their intellectual style is, it is somewhat restrictive in my mind … and it is a limiting factor in the scale-out element,” she said. “This is not just a matter of social justice.”

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