Hareidi men (illustration)
Hareidi men (illustration)Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90

For years, Israelis have debated the contribution - or burden - of haredi Jews on the country’s economy. Over the last few decades the community has sent more people to learn full time rather than to the office, but the last ten years have seen a major change in that trend.

Arutz Sheva spoke to Ben Wiener, Managing Partner of Jumpspeed Ventures and the Director of the Yazam BaLev Accelerator Program, who explained a new trend is visible throughout the haredi sector.

That is why he has spearheaded Yazam BaLev, the first accelerated program for training haredi entrepreneurs. This past Tuesday, the Lev Academic Center (LAC, formerly the Jerusalem College of Technology or JCT) launched the project in conjunction with Kama-Tech, another start-up training program for haredim.

“The entrepreneurs participating dream of forming their own startups. The majority of them have no backgrounds in tech whatsoever. Some are straight out of kollel or yeshiva with no formal higher education, either," remarked Wiener.

This is the latest program of many that have been launched across the country over the last decade, including Moshe Friedman’s TicTech and Kama-Tech (the latter being a cosponsor of the new program). 

But Wiener says these programs are not competing with each other. They are working in tandem with each other to promote more haredi involvement in Israeli start-ups.

"There has been nothing short of a revolution in the haredi sector over the last ten years. There is a small percentage that wants to go all the way and start companies. This would have been impossible just 15 years ago. It was a stigma to go to such programs.”

Asked what they were doing to draw people to the program, Wiener says they are simply meeting demand.

"The point of our program and other programs is not to convince haredim to join the program," he said. "The demand is already there. We are working with people who have already made the decision to enter the start-up world.”

The program includes 15 would-be business owners who, contrary to being selected on the merit of their business ideas, are chosen according to their potential.

Wiener noted "the program gives entrepreneurs the first steps for starting a business – presentations, planning, accounting, etc. So far, only one of the 15 participants owns a company. We deliberately chose people who are early in the process; 15 of the most capable people who might not even necessarily have the strongest business idea.”

He says that while good ideas certainly have merit, part of Yazam BaLev’s objective is to teach how to evaluate a business idea. Hence, most participants are expected to end up tweaking their ideas or shifting over to something else in any event, to another idea which might have more potential as a platform to launch a start-up.

Demand is unexpectedly high, he noted, and when asked if demand was outplacing supply ofr spots in the accelerator, he said it definitely was.

“Oh yeah! That’s the greatest part of the story,” he said with incredible enthusiasm. “LAC took the role in advertising Yazam. We pegged 15 or 20 spots. We got 70 applications. We were overwhelmed!”

When asked if the entrepreneurs who might not have a degree in higher education might face problems getting business loans or funding, he was quick to point out Yazam BaLev prepares participants for exactly that scenario.

“Start-ups are not looking for loans. They are generally looking for investments, to get equity and venture capital from venture capital funds. The accelerator prepares them to make presentations to investors. We also link them with potential investors, including ones we already have relationships with.”

He added that the state has also been a major help in making sure that funding was available to haredi entrepreneurs, perhaps to the point it was advantageous to be haredi entering the field. He pointed to the Office of the Chief Scientist, under the current leadership of Chief Scientist Avi Hasson, who has called haredi entrepreneurs an important target population in the past.

“The Chief Scientist has made special funding available specifically to haredi businesses. It is almost as if you have more funding available as a haredi than as someone from another sector," Wiener remarked.

When describing the reaction of rabbis in the community to these initiatives, he says it varies but is rarely negative. He also mentioned that contrary to what people might expect of the haredi sector, its would-be start-up leaders are no different from the ones participating in other accelerators across the country.

“There might be some skepticism, but the types of ideas in the haredi incubators are identical to those in other incubators. We have someone interested in solar energy, someone in e-commerce and someone else in a personal finance and banking app," he noted. "They are similar. We have to remember, anyone can become an entrepreneur.”

On April 14th, the Lev Academic Center will host a closing ceremony for the first round of the program, with participants making final presentations for their proposed companies.

Haredi incubator program leaders
Haredi incubator program leadersCourtesy