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June 3, 2022 10:00 am

Meet the Israeli Entrepreneur Behind the First Tech Accelerator for Ultra-Orthodox Women

avatar by Sharon Wrobel

(Illustrative) Two Orthodox Jewish women walking in the Old City of Jerusalem. Photo: Peter van der Sluijs

After building a network of over 1,000 ultra-Orthodox women in the tech industry, Rivka Zafrir is launching Israel’s first-ever accelerator program for female, Haredi startup entrepreneurs.

“There is no accelerator built by ultra-Orthodox women exclusively for female Haredi entrepreneurs,” Zafrir told The Algemeiner in an interview this week. “This is an untapped market right now, which no one speaks to directly.”

While there are several existing tech accelerators for Haredim in Israel, they are built by men and largely populated by them, Zafrir said. Female ultra-Orthodox entrepreneurs will not necessarily feel comfortable engaging in those programs, she asserted.

Zafrir, 32, an ultra-Orthodox woman living in the city of Bnei Brak, just east of Tel Aviv, began her professional path as a computer scientist. After searching for a job on LinkedIn, she fell in love with the networking platform and transitioned to helping startups, entrepreneurs, and investors manage their brands there.

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“I interviewed for many companies and sometimes I was a great fit, but something stopped them from hiring me, maybe because I was different. I was Haredi and they were not, and sometimes the company was male-dominated and I was the only woman and the only ultra-Orthodox,” Zafrir recounted. “I guess it was difficult for them to accept me.”

It was these experiences, which Zafrir described as exhausting, frustrating, and at times humiliating, that prompted her to start a community for ultra-Orthodox women in tech. She quickly found a bevy of Orthodox women above the age of 30 who, having raised their children, were seeking to bolster their careers and pursue an entrepreneurial path.

“I had a dream to build a safe space, a startup house for ultra-Orthodox female entrepreneurs in tech, and help them get their idea out there and turn it into a business reality,” she said.

Tech has become a major engine of economic growth in Israel, which spends more on R&D as a ratio of GDP than any other OECD country, according to the Israel Innovation Authority (IAA). The high-tech sector is responsible for more than half of the country’s exports and employs more than 10 percent of its workforce, according to the ministry.

Yet the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities have remained conspicuously underrepresented in the sector. While Haredim make up about 12 percent of the Israeli population, they only account for three percent of high-tech employees. In 2021, the number of Haredim in high-tech dropped by six percent, as 1,200 women in the community left the industry while 500 Haredi men joined it, according to the IAA. The Israeli government last month set a goal of integrating 2,800 Haredim into the industry by the end of 2023.

Teaming up with serial entrepreneur Avital Beck, Zafrir founded Nera Ventures to service a largely untapped market of an estimated 1 million Haredi female entrepreneurs worldwide. Less than seven percent of high-tech entrepreneurs in Israel are women, and only a tiny fraction — 0.1 percent — are Orthodox, according to Nera. Overall, less than 10 percent of startups are women-led, while less than 1 percent are helmed by Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox females.

Nera’s three-month accelerator program is tailored for Orthodox women between the ages of 30 to 35, who already have a family with an average of five children, as well as an idea or solution that they want to grow into a tech business. It seeks to provide these entrepreneurs with the tools to raise funds for their startups.

“We want to close the socio-economic gap between the ultra-Orthodox sector and other sectors in Israel,” Zafrir said. “There is also a cultural gap between us and other sectors in Israel, and we need to bridge this gap because it is a pain point in the industry.”

Nera hopes to run the nonprofit program twice a year, with a total of 10 female Haredi entrepreneurs. Participants will have face-to-face meetups for an entire day once a week, including lectures and follow-up sessions guided by mentors and experts who already went through the process of building a tech company.

“We will have mentors in the tech field, in the business field, in the customer journey, and in all those aspects of business to help them get on their feet and be ready to be funded,” Zafrir remarked. “The women in our program will know, for example, that when they are going to raise funds, they will probably speak with secular men who were in the army and they will know how to communicate and bridge this cultural gap.”

Additionally, the accelerator program will also include sessions about work-life balance, time management, and building a supportive environment.

At the program’s launch event, which was sponsored by Google for Startups Israel, 20 ultra-Orthodox women shared ideas in fields including health, education, image processing, fashion, and home design.

While Zafrir and her team don’t have a start date yet for the accelerator program’s first round, they hope to kick it off before September.

“Right now, we are still raising funds for the operational part of this program and up until now, we do everything voluntarily with a passion to make a difference in this field,” Zafrir said. “We also want to give a grant for each female Orthodox entrepreneur who will come to the program, so they can work full-time on their idea and provide for their families.”

Zafrir and her team already brought a venture capital fund on board that will provide space for the program. They also connected with one of the biggest law offices in Israel, which will support the program’s legal aspects pro bono, she added.

“We hope that this program will scale and more and more women would be able to join,” Zafrir shared. “The idea is also to go global and help women from all around the world, from Europe and the United States, and have a program for each country, possibly in an online format.”

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