A New Approach for Diversifying Israel’s Tech Sector (and Why I’m so Excited About It)

Launch ceremony; photo credit: Yanai Rubaja

By Ruth Salzman

During the ten-plus years I’ve served as CEO of The Russell Berrie Foundation, I’ve never been quite as excited about an investment as I was earlier this fall, listening to President Reuven Rivlin of Israel announce a new initiative, designed by RBF in partnership with Start-Up Nation Central, that addresses two of Israel’s most pressing problems with one elegant, meticulously thought-through solution.

The pressing problems: First, the growing shortage of qualified, highly skilled workers that is threatening Israel’s future as a “start-up nation.” Second, the fragmentation of Israeli society into what President Rivlin has described as four tribes, with huge disparities in education and participation in the modern economy. In particular, Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox are significantly underrepresented in the tech economy, widening the socioeconomic gap.

The initiative: A totally new approach for bringing Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) women and Arabs into the workforce, in which we worked with industry partners like the Jerusalem-based driverless technology company Mobileye to reverse-engineer a targeted training program for high-potential talent. While traditional job training programs are often not aligned with companies’ real-world human capital needs, the breakthrough change here is industry’s lead role in specifying the “end product,” ensuring that participants have the right skills and aptitudes and are, upon graduation, set up for success.

The initial pilot program, the “Excellenteam” boot camp, will train 240 Arab and female Haredi computer science graduates over a three-year period. Training is underway with the first cohort from each group, and so far, the signs are promising.

So why, after the hundreds of grants I’ve been so proud to help bring into being – in Israel and in domestic mission areas like diabetes care and research, interfaith bridge-building and our Northern New Jersey community – am I most excited about this one? Upon reflection, it boils down to three reasons.

1. LastMile Focus and FrontLoaded Investment

As philanthropists, we often favor initiatives that seek to maximize the number of people reached per dollar spent. This instinct is understandable, and in many cases it makes a great deal of sense. In this case, where there is so much that we do not know and such a complex interplay of technical, cultural, educational and religious issues, we decided to take the opposite approach – investing heavily in the so-called “last mile.”

We intentionally zeroed in on the subset of female Haredi and Arab candidates who already possess many of the skills and personal attributes that could make for a successful career in Israel’s innovation sector. First, we identified candidates with undergraduate degrees or prior coursework in computer science and engineering. Then, working with the Feuerstein Institute, we identified those who possess aptitudes that are conducive to success in the world of high tech. My favorite illustration of this is the person who thinks it’s fun to be dropped in the desert in the middle of the night with no map or compass!

As the selection process itself indicates, we are paying close attention to each step of the last mile – providing candidates with supplemental technical training, enhancing their “soft skills” like interviewing techniques, acquainting them with tech culture, helping them find jobs after graduating from the program and supporting both graduates and their employers as these diverse candidates make their way into the workforce.

We hope that this up-front investment will pay off with successes that we can learn from and ultimately spread to a growing pool of talent. If we crack the code with this initial group of candidates – who have many of the necessary qualifications but are still not landing career-track jobs in Israel’s high-tech companies – we can iterate, learn and widen our ambit.

2. Industrys Lead

None of the work described above would make any sense if we did not start with industry at the center. Only the companies themselves know what they need.

Before joining The Russell Berrie Foundation, I spent 15 years as a community development banker. It was a period that coincided with the welfare-to-work era, and we financed multiple nonprofits operating job training programs funded with government contracts.

Time and again, I saw people being trained for jobs that no longer existed on computers that were already obsolete. Many training programs tended to focus on low-level entry positions, and no investment was made in teaching people how to be lifelong learners in an economy where acquiring new skills is essential to ongoing employment.

The nonprofit training organizations varied in how actively they sought out and learned from potential employers, with the most successful organizations being those that prioritized knowing what employers were looking for. What I learned from this experience is how crucial it is to design training programs from the perspective of industry. If you can fill a real need – and in this case, the need for a pipeline of R&D talent is undisputed – industry has a natural incentive to be a partner and an ally.

For this project, we partnered with industry every step of the way. Our industry partnerships would never have been possible without Start-Up Nation Central, a pivotal Israeli organization founded by The Paul E. Singer Foundation that connects Israel’s innovators and high-tech entrepreneurs with global corporations, sovereign entities and large NGOs in need of cutting-edge solutions.

SNC’s CEO, Professor Eugene Kandel, has been a leading voice on the urgent need for tech talent. Thanks to SNC’s intimate knowledge of industry needs and close ties, our partners were best-in-class – starting with Mobileye, which Intel bought for $15.3 billion last year, in what remains the biggest acquisition ever of an Israeli high-tech company.

Other industry partners include Lightricks, Ex Libris and 40Nuggets. Although I can’t overstate the importance of corporate leadership in achieving an inclusive society, corporate social responsibility is not the leading motivation. These firms are pursuing their business objectives by helping to create the talent pipeline they so desperately need, while bringing the energy, creativity and power of the private sector to address a societal problem at the same time.

3. Laying the Groundwork

This project didn’t arise in a vacuum. Our Foundation engaged in a months-long process of research and deliberation to hone in on strategic priorities for our work in Jerusalem. We consulted extensively with our own grantees, colleagues, experts and the Municipality of Jerusalem to ensure that we had the perspective of the people on the ground. Our board participated actively, consistently emphasizing innovation and execution.

One issue that rose to the top was the importance of building a stable middle class amongst the Haredi and Arab communities. We opted to focus on access to 21st century employment as a lever because we had laid the groundwork and understood the issue, thanks to years of close partnerships with Jerusalem-based organizations like Hadassah Academic College, policy partners like the Israel Democracy Institute and national organizations like Tsofen and Collective Impact that are building the supply side of the talent pipeline (as well as multiple others).

Jerusalem, as we all know, can be tricky terrain in which to operate. Our relationships with the Municipality, other funders, NGOs, policy experts, Jerusalem grantees and many valued colleagues gave us the confidence that this initiative can succeed. We are taking risks, but the greatest risk of all would be not to seize the momentum of the Jerusalem tech sector and the talent of people who have so much to offer.

The announcement of this initiative made a splash in the press, with English articles appearing in The Times of Israel, The Forward and The Jerusalem Post. In the Post’s article, Professor Kandel, a deeply respected economist who served as chairman of Israel’s National Economic Council before leading Start-Up Nation Central, described the program as “game-changing,” saying, “It is not simple, but it is doable.”

“The industry,” he pointed out, “knows what kind of people it needs and the skills they should have.”

Complicated but doable, and potentially game-changing? As a philanthropy executive, that sounds pretty great to me.

Ruth Salzman serves as Chief Executive Officer of Russell Berrie Foundation.