- Israel is often called the “Startup Nation” due to the sheer number of entrepreneurs and tech companies in the country of 9 million people.
- While Arabs make up 21% of Israel’s population, they currently only make up about 3% of the tech workforce.
- Itzik Frid, a longtime Israeli tech entrepreneur and the CEO of a startup incubator focused on Arab-led startups, thinks increasing Arab participation in tech could have huge benefits for Israeli society by getting Jews and Arabs to work together towards common goals. There are many in Israel that share his philosophy.
- This post is part of Business Insider’s series on Better Capitalism.
Israel produces an impressive number of highly successful tech companies for a country with just 9 million people, from social navigation app Waze, which sold to Google in 2013 for $US1.15 billion, to autonomous driving company Mobileye, which sold to Intel last year for a whopping $US15.3 billion.
Israelis have long lovingly referred to the Middle Eastern country as the “Startup Nation,” thanks to the sheer number of entrepreneurs building businesses there, particularly in cities like Tel Aviv.
But, there’s one group in Israel that hasn’t truly benefited from the red-hot tech industry: Arab-Israelis. While Arabs make up 21% of Israel’s population, they currently make up 3% of the workforce in the tech industry.
Itzik Frid, a longtime Israeli tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist, is trying to change that. He is the CEO of Takwin Labs, a venture capital firm and startup incubator focusing on Arab-led startups.
Frid told Business Insider that he thinks increasing Arab participation in the tech industry and getting Arabs and Jews to work together on mixed startup teams is “the future of Israel.”
Outside of a few mixed cities like Haifa, the northern Israeli city where Takwin is headquartered, Jews largely live in Jewish towns and attend Jewish schools while Arabs live in Arab towns and attend Arab schools. And, given that Jews in Israel must serve in the military for 2-3 years after high school while Arabs generally do not, the two populations could have little to no meaningful interactions well into their 20s.
“At the end of the day, all you need to do is get people together,” Frid said. “This is the classic way of opening prejudices.”
Tech, startups, and entrepreneurship, Frid said, presents an opportunity to get Arabs and Jews to work together towards a common purpose. Many of the companies that Frid advises or that work out of Takwin Labs have mixed Arab-Jewish teams.
“If you walk around the office … I will ask you who’s an Arab, who’s a Jew, you will never be able to tell,” Frid said. “They work togther and it’s not because we’re singing Bob Dylan songs, wearing white, and playing guitars. It’s because they know this is the best chance of their lives.”
Takwin Labs is the latest in a long line of efforts to unite two communities through tech
Frid is far from the only person in Israel with that idea.
Arab-Israeli Fadi Swidan has worked with tech entrepreneur and Unit 8200 graduate Ron Aviv to co-found Hybrid, an accelerator program that helps startups with mixed Arab and Jewish teams, in the Arab-majority city of Nazareth.
In August, nonprofit Tech2Peace brought together 30 Arabs, Palestinians, and Jews for a two-week seminar that included programming, entrepreneurship, and design classes alongside peace-building and conflict resolution activities.
“We want to create a collaborative network of future tech leaders who will support each other, personally and professionally, and also be role models of coexistence in their communities,” Omer Segal, a medical student and the director of seminars at Tech2Peace, told Haaretz.
Moona, a nonprofit technology incubator, brings together Jewish and Arab students to work on emerging technologies such as drones, robots, and 3D printing, among others. Around 750 students graduate from its workshops every year. Apple partnered with Moona earlier this year to launch an augmented reality innovation lab.
“In Israel you don’t have many places for Arabs and Jews to meet … There is no real interaction,” Aya Manaa, the head of the robotics and drone program at Moona, told The Times of Israel.
Manaa added that while politics some time come up, the need to reach a common goal like winning a competition forces students to work together and overcome stereotypes and fear.
The idea dates back to the early 2000s when New Generation Technology, the first state-supported tech incubator bringing together Jews and Arabs, was founded. Another early example, Tsofen, was founded in 2008. Based in the predominantly Arab city of Nazareth, the nonprofit trains and helps find employment for Arabs and Jews seeking to enter the tech industry. It has helped place 30% all new Arab engineers in Israel since its inception.
The government has similarly made moves to improve Arab integration in the tech industry. As part of Resolution 922, a $US4.3 billion five-year plan for the Arab sector passed in 2015, funding was increased for Arab business centres and accelerators and the government plans to invest $US25.6 million in small and medium-size Arab businesses.
The government has also pledged to fund 30 months of salaries for Arab employees if a company hires five or more people from that population. The Innovation Authority, the office charged with developing the science and tech industries, said it was expanding grant and support programs for Arab entrepreneurs.
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