Silicon shtetl: Orthodox Israeli startups are headed to New York

The startups will take part in Calcalist’s third annual Mind the Tech Conference, taking place in New York next week.

By Naomi Zoref, CTech

Among the Israeli startups selected to participate in Calcalist’s third annual Mind the Tech conference in New York are several Haredi startups – companies led by ultra-Orthodox tech entrepreneurs.

The Haredi population is underrepresented in Israel’s booming technology ecosystem. According to a 2017 study by the Israeli Ministry of Finance, ultra-Orthodox Jews make up around 10 percent of the population but only 0.7 percent of those employed in the tech sector.

This discrepancy is partially attributed to a focus on religious studies by many Haredi men and to a network-based recruitment process that favors veterans of elite military units, leaving out Israel’s marginalized groups, including ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs with Israeli citizenship.

Seven Haredi startups which will take part in Calcalist’s New York conference on April 10-12 are members of an accelerator program run by KamaTech, a non-profit organization working to integrate Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population into its technology industry.

“When we launched five years ago, there were no Haredi startups in Israel,” KamaTech CEO Moishe Friedman said in a recent interview with Calcalist. “We couldn’t find a single ultra-Orthodox startup that managed to raise venture capital or grow into a big company,” he said.

“I realized there was a big opportunity here – on the one hand, to bring forward the talent and creativity of the ultra-Orthodox community and on the other hand to do something crucial to Israel’s economy. There are some million ultra-Orthodox people in Israel and there is great talent here. If we can build a bridge between them and Israeli tech, miracles could happen.”

According to Friedman, KamaTech provides tech training programs to Haredi men and women, in addition to operating a startup accelerator program. In its five years of activity, Friedman said, KamaTech had more than 1,300 applications from Haredi entrepreneurs and supported more than 40 startups that employ some 500 people and have raised a cumulative investment of more than $150 million. 40 percent of these companies are led by women, Friedman said.

“It really is the Silicon Shtetl,” he added.