A group of ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) Jews arriving at a meeting recently at Facebook’s Israeli headquarters were initially barred from entering by the security guard. “He couldn’t believe we actually had a business reason for being there,” said one participant. “He thought we wanted to hold a demonstration”.
The altercation was a sign of how rare it is to see black-garbed Haredi Israelis in the shining development centres of the startup nation. Some 300,000 people, or about 8% of the Israeli workforce, are employed in the country’s burgeoning high-tech industry. The industry has sucked in talent so quickly that it is now constrained by a shortage of qualified engineers and programmers and is looking abroad. Yet a large and almost untapped pool of talent lies close to home. Only 2% of Israel’s tech employees are ultra-Orthodox Jews, although the community makes up nearly 10% of the population (similarly just 3% of tech employees are Arab, despite making up about 20% of the total). And of those ultra-Orthodox Jews who are employed by tech companies, about two-thirds are women who work mainly in call centres for low pay.
The main reason there are so few Haredi techies is because most ultra-Orthodox men have only a very rudimentary education in mathematics and English. Although they spend years in a yeshiva, a religious seminary, most of their time goes on studying the Torah. Those few yeshiva graduates who do have the right skills to get tech jobs still struggle to hear about them or get recommended for jobs because they are not plugged into the networks of developers and entrepreneurs who often know one another from their days in the army or university, two institutions that have very few Haredis. Another impediment is that many senior rabbis have forbidden their followers from having internet in their homes or owning smartphones because of the temptations to sin that they may be exposed to.
The barriers are highest for those who want to fulfil the Israeli dream of founding their own startup company. “Even when I succeeded in getting a meeting with potential investors, they looked at me as if I was an alien,” says Moshe Friedman, who at the age of thirty, left his yeshiva and, with friends, developed an app to simplify video-editing. After seeing how tough it was for religious Jews to get a foothold in the tech industry, he went on to set up Kamatech, a company working to place Haredi employees with some of the largest tech firms in Israel, and to create a network for entrepreneurs from the community.
So far he has connected eight Haredi startups with established tech firms. The startups have raised more than $6m in initial investments and employ seventy people. That might sound like an impressive start, but when compared to the $4.5 billion raised by Israeli startups in 2015, it shows how much ground Haredi entrepreneurs still have to make up.
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