Inspiring Women | Taking On Tech With 7 Children
Sometimes it feels like we are saturated with bad news. We obsess over what’s wrong, who’s wrong and how wrong they are. It can be… debilitating. And yet, there are great people doing great things, people we know and people we don’t. This series will explore women in Israel. You’ll meet women from politics, tech and theater, Jewish and Muslim, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, volunteers and career women, all different, all doing their part to make their part of the world a better place.
Tech is a famously male-dominated field, and Israel’s hi-tech sector is no different. But one woman has managed to climb to the upper echelons without sacrificing a traditional Orthodox family life. If Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did but backwards and in heels, Miriam Schwab has worked her way to the top, founding two companies of her own — in a headscarf and with a brood of seven at home.
Born and raised in Canada, Schwab moved to Israel with her family when she was in 9th grade. She hated it, and returned to Canada to finish high school, coming back to Israel for a gap year in yeshiva. She didn’t last long there, either.
“I prefer not to have too many rules,” she told me recently.
She left school and spent a year volunteering and learning Hebrew. She got married, and started having children. And after getting a degree in Bar Ilan University, she took a job in patents and intellectual property. But while pregnant with her fourth child, she made a big change.
“I had something inside that needed to be free… to learn, to explore and to make decisions,” she told me. “With four kids, you really need flexibility. I thought, ‘Why do I have to be in a physical space when I can work online?’”
As she thought, so she did, founding illuminea, a company that provides websites, content, and management systems, expanding the services she offered to clients as she went along.
In what would become a theme throughout her career, the company provided a solution to Schwab’s own problem that also provided solutions for her clients.
“I wanted to create a business that would employ people in Jerusalem,” she explained. “People in Jerusalem shlep to Tel Aviv to be in hi tech. But they want to be close to home, close to their kids, that’s how people are. I want them to be able to have a great workplace and I want to be part of innovation in Jerusalem.”
As she grew her family, she grew her business. She fast became known as a WordPress expert and found herself building customized WordPress systems for major clients.
“It was hectic, but being my own boss still allowed me to be a mom and manage my family while building my skills, business, and network,” she said.
Schwab refused to compromise, either on her career or on her family, juggling both and excelling at both. “I always feel like my life is a dichotomy,” she told me. “I just went to a cocktail party where they were serving champagne, and now I’m cleaning soup off my baby. My kids don’t see me in that world and [my colleagues] don’t see me in my hectic home life, and it’s so amusing to me.”
She also didn’t compromise on her religious values, going to tech conferences with a trademark headscarf.
“When I started, I read a lot about the need to dress for business and I considered wearing a wig,” she recalled. “But it’s just not me. I’m not going to wear a suit or heels.” What helped her decide was an incident at a tech conference. “It was totally packed and someone was weaving through the crowd straight toward me. ‘Miriam,’ he said, ‘I wanted to meet you and I knew I’d be able to find you if I looked for the woman in a scarf!’ I realized, maybe I don’t need to blend in, maybe there is an advantage to looking different. I am who am I am and people can take it or leave it.”
“I have feminist tendencies,” she went on. “I think it’s important that women are in business. I do it with my scarf on my head and hope it helps shift the way people see things.”
Shifting the way people see things is crucial for Schwab. “I grew up in a kind of shtetl,” Schwab explained. “Totally Jewy. Everyone was like us. I want to learn from people who aren’t exactly like me.” And business is a great way to do to that, she says.
But it’s also part of her mission. “I moved here when Yigal Amir killed Yitzchak Rabin,” she told me. “The hatred towards religious people was intense. I remember standing in line for a movie with other religious students and a woman starting yelling at us because we were religious. We need to meet other people, get out of our bubbles, and meet and learn from people not like us.”
Eventually, Schwab started to notice flaws in the way websites work, problems she was constantly solving for her clients. She wanted a larger solution to these problems, which lead her to found her second company, a startup called Strattic, which converts WordPress websites to a format that makes them faster and safer.
As of this writing, Strattic has raised pre-seed funding from investors in Palo Alto, New York, and Israel. The company is now a team of seven.
“Having a big family was important to me and my kid bring me as much or more [joy] than my work,” Schwab said. “A lot of what I do is for them, especially since I have six daughters. I want them to see what they can accomplish.”
Shoshanna Keats-Jaskoll is the co-founder of Chochmat Nashim, an Israeli NGO dedicated to battling extremism and raising the voice of women in the Jewish conversation. Follow her on Twitter, @skjask.