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How to smash through the glass ceiling: Tel Aviv’s women tech entrepreneurs

Tel Aviv has the world’s highest concentration of high-tech startups outside of Silicon Valley and, for the first time, women are ruling the roost in a traditionally man’s world. Florence Derrick reports from so-called ‘Silicon Wadi’ on how this change has come about

A weekday morning on Tel Aviv’s beach promenade. Bronzed 30-somethings jog under brilliant sunshine, preened dogs scurrying at their ankles. Baristas steam lattes and young guys in wetsuits ride the turquoise surf. But behind the pleasure-seeking surface, a quiet revolution is brewing, driven by young entrepreneurs, tapping on laptops and smartphones.

So far, so London or Berlin, you might think, but Tel Aviv differs from its rival tech hubs in one fundamental way (apart from the weather). There are currently over 1,000 startups in the city – fledgling businesses, usually internet based, and often nomadically run from cafés and workspaces around the city. Israel’s tech-obsessed financial centre is the most concentrated startup ecosystem outside of Silicon Valley in California and it’s growing fast: up 40% between 2012 and 2014. What’s more interesting, however, is that 20% of these are now run by women, according to the Compass Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2015 – the highest number of any city outside the USA and beating every European commercial capital. It begs the question: is Tel Aviv one of the best places on Earth to be a woman entrepreneur?

The city has come a long way. In 2012, only 9% of Tel Aviv’s entrepreneurs were female. Israel’s education system and the compulsory military service that all school leavers complete has played a big part in this. Among the various paths these conscripts pursue, the army’s cyber intelligence units are a popular choice and have proven to be a fertile breeding ground for some of the city’s most successful startup entrepreneurs. But with fewer girls studying hard science and maths at school, these units end up being largely male – and many who serve in them also go on to become board members on some of the city’s most influential tech investment bodies. This has, unsurprisingly, caused a powerful old-boy network to be formed – often to the detriment of female entrepreneurs who lack the connections to secure funding.

Enter Hilla Ovil-Brenner, who decidedto build similarly strong networks to give businesswomen a leg up. In summer 2013, she launched a ground-breaking programme called Campus for Moms, at Google’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, in partnership with her friend and business partner, Tal Sarig-Avraham. On the 34th floor of Electra Tower, the Campus is kitted out in Google’s trademark urban design, with vintage lamps spotlighting shared desk spaces.

“The idea came to us when I was on maternity leave and missing intelligent conversation. I kept meeting women who only wanted to talk about diapers,” Ovil-Brenner explains. “Babies are most welcome at Campus for Moms, but here women are encouraged to talk about their startup as well as their baby.”

The 10-week course hosts one meet-up per week, primarily for women on maternity leave who are looking for practical business guidance. As it’s grown in popularity, so has the diversity of applications. “We also have some dads on paternity leave, which is very encouraging,” says Ovil-Brenner. Industry experts and mentors hold workshops and lectures within the cheerful chaos that comes with a room full of infants. “Having major entrepreneurs as speakers changes the way female entrepreneurship is perceived and raises awareness to their need for support,” she says.

At the end of the course, the six most promising graduates pitch their business models to investors. “They are asked some tough questions, but they rock it,” says Sarig-Avraham.

For Ovil-Brenner, watching them develop is an emotional experience: “I cried on the first pitch night, I was so excited,” she admits. And, in less than three years, some 300 entrepreneurs have graduated from the Campus for Moms – and they sing its praises.

“Everything I learned here increased my confidence and success,” says Inbal Miron-Bershteyn, who founded KidkeDoo, a children’s online encyclopaedia. “To be an entrepreneur is like riding a roller-coaster. Having a supportive community that encourages you and believes in you is like the seatbelt that keeps you safe during the ride.”

Orly Shoavi, CEO of SafeDK, already had two young children when she began the programme. “I was concerned about being both highly involved in my kids’ lives and running a demanding business,” she says. “But seeing other moms build their companies and never look back gave me the confi dence to do it. I quit my job soon after.”

It helps that funding bodies are now becoming increasingly aware of the importance of investing in women’s ventures. “If I can help other women, I should. I see it as an obligation,” says Michal Michaeli, who worked her way up in high-tech for 15 years before setting up Eva Ventures in 2012 – a micro venture capital that invests in startups with at least one woman in a leadership role. “The more women there are in business, the easier it becomes to recruit more.”

Michaeli notes how the absence of women in business has its roots in childhood. “The sense you get is that you have to be beautiful and well behaved, not daring and smart,” she observes. “If a young girl is climbing a tree, she is usually told to be careful. If it’s a boy, he’s encouraged to explore and see what his limits are.”

Networking and funding are key, but the third ingredient for a successful startup is available workspace. Entrepreneur Merav Oren opened WMN last summer – a co-working space, which provides a temporary office for predominantly female-led startups. Five main meeting rooms are separated by soundproof glass, with notes scrawled over them in marker pen. The Mediterranean sun floods the desktops with natural light and weekly workshops and networking events are held by lawyers, tech experts and established entrepreneurs.

“It started because, as an entrepreneur myself, I felt alone working from home. I wanted to be surrounded by other women like me,” says Oren. “The only difference between WMN and any other co-working place is that I reach out and look for these women.” And they are happy to be found. During the first six months the space was open, it received over 100 applications from brand-new businesses needing desk space.

What of the women using WMN? “It makes a huge difference,” says client Limor Shilony, cofounder of a new app called Pauzz that helps dieters to manage cravings. “We inspire and help each other. It’s nice to see so many working towards their dreams.”

Ovil-Brenner also believes the environment fosters the different skills that women bring to the table, compared to their male counterparts: “Sensitivity, emotional intelligence, intuition and lack of ego.”

It’s easy to understand how quickly these powerful initiatives can shape the narrative in a small city of 400,000 residents. “We’re inside a revolution at the moment,” smiles Ovil-Brenner. “One day, someone will look back on 2015 and 2016 and say, ‘What a change those years made in women’s lives’.”

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