First haredi high-tech accelerator opens

Aur Saraf and Michael Mashian

220 start-ups are competing for six places in the Kama-Tech accelerator.

The integration of haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) in the high-tech industry is gathering steam. The Kama-Tech haredi accelerator is being officially launched today. The figures for the accelerator indicate a welcome trend: 224 startups by male and female entrepreneurs from the haredi sector submitted their candidacy for the project, and the six most outstanding companies will be presented tomorrow.

Business commenced at an event held today at the Diaspora Museum. Those attending included former President and Prime Minister Shimon Peres, investor Yossi Vardi, Mobileye(NYSE: MBLY) chairman Amnon Shashua, venture capital maven Izhar Shay, who headed the accelerator's panel of judges, and others. The competition between the startup candidates for the Kama-Tech program (which includes a NIS 20,000 grant, offices in a high-tech company, a trip to New York and London, meetings with investors, and professional guidance, of course, among other things) took place for the second straight year. Kama-Tech managing director Moshe Friedman says, "20 haredi startups registered for the competition in 2014, and this time over 220.

"The number of haredim seeking to take part in high-tech is growing rapidly, and we'll make every effort to help as many of them as possible succeed in the field." The list of startups competing includes entrepreneur Meirav Hadad, developer of Brillianetor, who has a PhD in artificial intelligence. This technology tries to instill social characteristics mainly through computer games. "In order to make a computer socially friendly, it has to be programmed that way," Hadad explained in a "Globes" interview. "There are a lot of theories and modules that translate psychology into computer science and mathematics, but what we're trying to develop is real social capability that will improve the game. We already have a patent for the technology, and we're now in the process of moving forward and looking for investments. Three haredi women are working with me, and we lack investors who will for the vision - not just the technological vision, but also the haredi vision." Hadad, who has seven years' experience in high-tech companies, asserts that the current atmosphere in technology companies is unsuitable for haredi employees, especially for women.

"Globes": There are more than a few large companies recruiting groups of haredi women and creating a suitable atmosphere.

Hadad: "True, but then it's hard for them to get ahead in the company. Beyond the nuances of a male environment, there are haredi nuances. When someone who has been going to kindergarten with girls since she was four years old and has continued on that path, it's hard to be exposed suddenly to a world of men. It requires combating this aggressiveness and prejudices. One of the good things that happened to me is that after I founded the company, I heard about Kama-Tech, and there I heard about other startups by haredi women."

How did the people around you react when you started studying something technological?

"I admit that because it was so interesting, it was easier for me. I have no salary now, because I stopped working and focused on founding the company. My only income comes from teaching at the Open University, and I don't always have that. I'm with my company because I enjoy it."

The beginning of a common path

While Hadad is a symbol of the inclusion of haredi women, the EnglishOn startup, which is also competing, presents an arresting combination of a young non-observant entrepreneur from Tel Aviv and a slightly older haredi entrepreneur from Bnei Brak. The haredi, Michael Mashian, 44, and north Tel Aviv-based Aur Saraf, 26, have jointly developed a chrome extension for studying and practicing English conveniently and accessibly. Words are marked in the text for the user to explain in English, and immediate feedback is provided.

"I thought about the fact that of all the core subjects, the most important is English," Mashian explains. "That's the key to knowledge and business. In the haredi schools and yeshivot (schools for teaching Judaism), there aren't enough teachers who can teach English on a high level, and of course there's no one to practice with. Before I immigrated to Israel from the US, I managed a kosher Mexican restaurant in Miami, and the Israeli waitresses there told me that they had learned English from television. The haredim don't have this option, either. What there is now are news websites - general news, and of course haredi news websites. Our extension is aimed at adult surfers, and enables them to practice, do exercises, and learn words, without having to initiate their studying."

Mashian met Saraf, who, despite being non-observant and a veteran of the IDF 8200 Intelligence Corp, sports a longer beard - a matter of fashion - at entrepreneurship meetings, and told him some of his ideas. "A five-minute conversation kept on going," Mashian remembers. "They had to throw us out at midnight, and that was only the beginning of our working together." Saraf: "We saw that it was easier to improve arithmetic lessons, but English was hard. The worry in a startup is of course that people won't like it. So we went to Kama-Tech after doing half the development ahead of time, so that we'd be able to talk with a new website editor and be able to cooperate with him. The development itself is done after he says, 'Here's a check, but do this feature and that feature.' We're on the way to close the first deals, and we have a demo now." Mashian: "Schools for teaching English are also interested, because we provide them with a comparable solution. We have three business models: private customer subscriptions, a school or website, and content that pays. One of the schools we asked to film a movie on its premises, for example, said, 'What movie? I'll go with you to a meeting with investors.'"

Are there other special characteristics of a haredi startup?

Mashian: It's interesting, but there's something important in the Gemara (Jewish religious text). The high-tech leaders say that analytic learning is important, but the ordinary core lessons don't give this, unless they compress information that in any case changes every few years. Gemara lessons put the emphasis not on the content and the details, but on thinking analytically from all sorts of angles. All the arguments between the rabbis it's all brain exercises, and that's exactly what the high-tech industry needs. Even in South Korea they're studying Gemara now. The non-observant people are missing more than the haredim are. This possibility is sitting in Bnei Brak, and it has to be brought out. The Gemara is our mental advantage. It's important for us to explicitly thank the Kama-Tech accelerator, which is enabling us to express this."

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on April 20, 2015

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2015

Aur Saraf and Michael Mashian
Aur Saraf and Michael Mashian
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