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Where Are the Israeli Female Small Business Owners?

Renee Ghert-Zand // Israeli women network at the business conference

Israeli women, like their counterparts in the United States are, in parlance popularized by Sheryl Sandberg, leaning in. However, although Israel is “start-up nation,” it is no leader when it comes to women and business. I got a chance to learn more about this at a conference I attended last week in Jerusalem.

Onlife, an Israeli news and content website for women, partnered with the Jerusalem Municipality to bring an annual conference on small businesses owned by women to the Jerusalem. It was held at The First Station, Jerusalem’s old train station, which has been renovated in to a culture and entertainment venue, and was attended by 1,000 women from around the country.

As might be expected, the conference involved welcome addresses (by Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat and deputy mayor Rachel Azaria, among others), a keynote speech by chairwoman of Strauss Group, Ltd., Ofra Strauss, panel discussions and workshops. The usual topics were covered, such as work-family balance, gender imbalance and discrimination in the workplace, and the importance of networking and of overcoming the fear of failure.

Nothing said by any of the presenters, many of them highly accomplished executives at some of Israel’s leading companies and social ventures, surprised me… except for the dismal statistics regarding women’s ownership of businesses. Although women make up more than 50% of the Israeli economy’s workers, only 20% of Israeli businesses are owned by women — and only 8% of them are independently owned companies. In the US, women own 30% of all enterprises.

In both countries, businesses owned by women are primarily small ones. “Small businesses are the drivers of the economy. We need to get more women in to business,” Michal Shalem, the Jerusalem Municipality’s chief of staff told me.

Einav Bar, Jerusalem city council woman in charge of business advancement, said she got fed up of being the only woman in the room at business conferences. It’s been getting better recently, but “it’s a daily battle to remind people that women have a major place in everything,” she asserted.

Strauss would like to see entrepreneurship more broadly embraced as a value and way of life by Israeli women. She said Arab women are opening more small businesses than Jewish women, but overall, she’d like to see more Arab women, Haredi women and female new immigrants becoming entrepreneurs.

I was particularly pleased to see Racheli Ibenboim, founder and director of Movilot, a program that gets Haredi women into business and the workforce, profiled in a short video shown to the audience. Rather than being inappropriately grilled about her sex life, as she was in a piece for the Forward by Tuvia Tenenbom earlier this year, she was held up as a leader among women in business in Jerusalem.

Rachel Azaria spoke about how she is constantly banging her head against the glass ceiling, and the she is certain that if enough women bang their heads against it, it will break.

Batya Kenanie-Bram, a real estate entrepreneur and member of Jerusalem’s committee for economic development and employment, thinks differently about the proverbial glass ceiling. “There is no glass ceiling for women in small business and entrepreneurship,” she told me.

According to Kenanie-Bram, who educates Haredi women on how to start businesses, the problem is that women entrepreneurs are not getting the support they need to get started, let alone succeed.

“Our culture and legal framework need to change. Women need to be given breaks when it comes to taxes and regulations,” she argued.

Women will not start businesses if they can’t earn enough to cover daycare and afterschool care costs for their children. They may have entrepreneurial ideas, but they will not act on them if them unless they know their income will be more than a wash against their expenses.

“Israeli women pay the price,” says a frustrated Kenanie-Bram. The bigger issue is that all of Israel will pay the price if a way is not found for more women to become entrepreneurs and help Israel’s economy grow.

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