Paz Hirschmann used to work in high-tech. During a 15-year span in Israel, he was vice president of the startup MEDISYS and held managerial positions at Ness Technologies and Clalit Health Services. In 2011, Hirschmann needed a change.
“I thought for me the most important thing for the future of my kids and Israel is to take what I know about high-tech and see how it can contribute to a shared society in Israel,” he said.
Hirschmann contacted Sami Saadi. In 2008, Saadi had co-founded Tsofen, a self-described “joint, Arab and Jewish organization that promotes high-tech in Arab society as a lever for economic development and the creation of shared society in Israel.”
Saadi, who holds degrees in accounting and economics from Hebrew University, welcomed Hirschmann to the organization. In the years following, the two men implemented a plan that they believe is a model of shared living. Last week, Saadi and Hirschmann, Tsofen’s co-CEOs, brought their vision to Pittsburgh as part of a national fundraising mission that had also taken them to Chicago, Boston and New York.
“This is my second time here. I really love this city,” said Hirschmann, seated in the Wyndham Grand on Commonwealth Place. “Everyone is very enthusiastic about what we are doing. Traveling for business is not great fun, but meeting people who are so encouraging is giving us a lot of energy.”
“It’s my first time in Pittsburgh, and we’re only here for a few hours, but I met really wonderful people here,” echoed Saadi.
During their brief stay, the executives spoke with representatives from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and area foundations, and explained how Tsofen, through its operations in northern Israel and in the center of the Jewish state, creates a shared society between Israel’s Arab and Jewish communities.
“We built Tsofen to have full integration of the Arab community into the high-tech in Israel because high-tech is the main engine of the growth of the economy in Israel,” said Saadi. What many Americans may not realize is “in Israel, Arabs and Jews almost live in 100-percent separate cities, and we study in separate educational systems,” said Hirschmann. “There is a big gap between the Jewish community and the Arab community,” added Saadi. “We have thousands of Arabs who didn’t receive an education in high-tech.”
Recognizing the need, Tsofen sought to level the playing field. Early on, the NGO worked solely with Arab college graduates and developed a training course whereby participants could fit the needs of hiring companies. Seventy percent of the course was dedicated to amplifying high-tech education, while the other 30 percent focused on “soft skills,” such as “how to write a CV, how to have a high-tech interview, how to work with a team,” said Saadi, “and after this we provided them with a mentoring program where high-tech engineers mentored fresh graduates for six months.”
In 2012, Tsofen broadened its reach by working with enrolled college students across Israel, “and not waiting until they graduate,” he added.
Four years later the organization expanded again by beginning a pilot project with high school students.
These days, Tsofen’s members of all ages are taught full stack development, automated testing and other necessary high-tech skills. Potential funders can look to the figures, which speak for themselves, said the executives.
“In 2008 there were 300 high-tech software developers from the Arab communities,” said Hirschmann. “Today there are almost 6,000. In 2012 there were only 2,000 students from the Arab communities studying STEM; today there are 5,000. That’s a quantum leap.”
There is still plenty of room to grow, but the increased number of trained and hired Arab engineers has helped lead to greater societal acceptance of Tsofen’s work. Last year, the Knesset committee for Arab affairs earmarked NIS 20 million for two new technology parks in Arab towns in Israel, reported The Times of Israel. Ripple effects from that decision include municipal and economic gains, said Hirschmann. “The effect there is much more than a few thousand jobs.”
There is also the idea of changing expectations, added Saadi.
“In our work with younger students we’ve faced difficulties because the high schools and the teachers and the families in the Arab community don’t have enough knowledge about hightech … so we have put a lot of effort into exposing them and changing the trend of the studies of the Arab communities.”
Similarly, over the past decade “high-tech companies have become more inclusive,” said Hirschmann.
Both men pointed to Nazareth as an example. “Nazareth, the largest Arab city in Israel’s Lower Galilee, is slowly becoming the Arab Silicon Valley of the north,” reported Knowledge@Wharton, the University of Pennsylvania’s online business analysis journal. Between the opening of Stef Werthheirmer’s Industrial Park and Tsofen’s activities in the city, approximately 20 high-tech companies, including Amdocs, Galil Software and Microsoft, have created an “entire ecosystem.”
Increasing the number of Arabs in hightech bodes well for Israel’s future, explained the executives. Israel needs to fill 15,000 high-tech jobs, said Hirschmann. Arabs represent 20 percent of the population but only 3 percent of the high-tech workforce. They should receive “fair representation in tech.”
We want to see “the whole ecosystem” represented, said Saadi. Whether in high-tech zones, accelerators, in conferences or at meetings, the goal is for 20 percent of the start-up nation represented by Arabs, he added.
Until that point is reached, the executives will continue working, traveling and seeking to fund their cause. Tsofen’s annual budget is $2.5 million dollars; 30 percent comes from government funding, 60 percent from donors and 10 percent from tuition fees and sponsorships from high-tech companies, said Hirschmann.
“We are working every day and we are changing the reality,” said Saadi.
“We have come a long way from having to convince Arabs to go out from their villages and towns to work in the high-tech zones in the Jewish areas, and that Jewish communities and Jewish engineers can come to Arab cities and work together with the Arab community in high-tech.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com