Fin-tech isn’t just for men anymore. Image via

No glass ceilings for this female fin-tech exec

Fin-tech isn’t just for men anymore. Image via

Fin-tech isn’t just for men anymore. Image via

Barely past 30, Ruth Polachek has earned her place as one of Israel’s hottest high-tech honchos.

As head of Citi Accelerator Tel Aviv –where the top global bank nurtures Israeli financial-tech innovation — and chairing founder of the rapidly growing She Codes community of female Israeli software developers, this former Wall Street trader and serial entrepreneur personifies the potential for women in a predominantly male field.

“My goal is to have females make up 50 percent of developers in a decade,” Polachek tells ISRAEL21c.“It’s really possible, and I try to convey that to the participants of She Codes and also to the startups in the Citi Accelerator. There are no brick walls; it is just a matter of persistence.”

One could say that “persistence” is her middle name.

Before joining Citi Accelerator in January 2015, Polachek founded several startups in partnership with notable Israeli tech visionaries Dov Moran and Saar Wilf. If a venture wasn’t ultimately successful, she moved on and applied lessons learned.

 Ruth Polachek: “There are no brick walls.”

Ruth Polachek: “There are no brick walls.”

 Born in 1983 and raised in Rehovot, Polachek explains that her parents are American immigrants involved in the technology field. “They taught me to program when I was six,” she relates.

While doing a year of National Service at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem following high school, Polacheck managed the national youth group Noar Chovev Tanach (Youth who Love the Bible).

Several months before she turned 19, she went to New York and earned her trader’s license, scoring her first job as a proprietary equities trader for Wall Street firm Worldco. The youngest and only female member of her group, she rose to the number-three spot but decided to leave after two years to go to college.

Instead of following in her mom’s footsteps to Princeton University, she came back to Israel to earn her degree in economics and philosophy at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “I’ve lived in the US three times, and although I love it there, after a year and a half I always got a strong feeling to go home,” she explains.

Though she had been interested in the medical field, Polachek realized she craved a larger focus. “I like doing things in scale, and I like to see innovation,” she says.

eClub founder

Polachek did her senior year at Brown University’s entrepreneurship program as part of an exchange program for honor students. Having met some Lehman Brothers associates in Israel, she was hired by the global financial services firm while still at Brown.

“At Lehman I worked on large mergers and acquisitions, and IPOs of technology companies. That connected a lot of the dots for me from economic theory all the way through to trading and understanding how large corporations operate,” says Polachek. “After a year, I got jealous of the entrepreneurs and executives because they were actually building the economy, so I decided to take the seeds of entrepreneurship and do something with them.”

Turning down an offer to continue working for Lehman Brothers, Polachek spent the next eight years building companies. At Brown, she had seen the early growth of Facebook and determined that the digital space was the next big thing. “My first company had several products in web and mobile. Then I moved to the US again [temporarily] to be close to the market.”

In 2008, the year she was named one of Israel’s 40 most promising people under 40 by The Marker magazine, Polacheck founded the Hebrew University Alumni and Student Entrepreneur Club (eClub) and ran it for six years.

In late 2013, she established She Codes. It has 11 branches, the most recent of which opened on March 31 at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. Every week about 200 women participate, and overall the group boasts more than 6,000 members.

“We have branches at all the universities and at Google Campus TLV and many other places. We have 15 Facebook groups and 10 meetup groups,” Polachek says. “Once a week, each branch has activities to enable women to develop their skills and build their own startups in a supportive environment. We feature guest lectures by inspirational role models. Companies call us all the time looking for women to hire. I’m surprised by the vast response we’re getting.”

She says that many of the members tell her they are the only women in their company. “Being alone is really hard,” she says. “It can be uncomfortable even if only subconsciously.”

As for herself, she had no qualms accepting Citi’s offer to preside over Citi Accelerator Tel Aviv, which was founded in July 2013 as part of the Citi Innovation Lab TLV, one of Citi’s global network of innovation centers. (Her predecessor, Ornit Shinar, also is female.) Polachek says the job merges her interests in entrepreneurship, innovation and fin-tech.

“I wanted to do fin-tech because the growth now is really incredible and I realized that fin-tech should come from, and together with, the banks,” she explains. “Citi is at the forefront of this. The accelerator enables entrepreneurs to work with banks and understand their needs. Citi understood that taking the best of the best minds enhances our entrepreneurship and growth as well as theirs.”

Like many successful Israelis, she encourages startups not to fear failure.

“Failure is an extremely important part of entrepreneurship. In some way it is one of the building blocks of it,” she says.“Entrepreneurs that go through failure and have the perseverance and endurance to cope with it can handle anything that is thrown at them. Not trying and not working hard and giving up is failure. Working hard and achieving things that may be considered by some as failure should be regarded as a badge of honor.”

Oxana Yablanskaya teaching during a recent video production for the website "Master Classes with the Stars."

Acclaimed pianist relocates to Israel

Oxana Yablanskaya teaching during a recent video production for the website "Master Classes with the Stars."

Oxana Yablanskaya teaching during a recent video production for the website “Master Classes with the Stars.”

World-class pianist Oxana Yablonskaya fulfilled a four-decade dream when she officially became Israeli in November, just before her 76th birthday.

“I always wanted to be in Israel, and I am very proud and happy to be a citizen,” says Yablonskaya, who has been teaching, playing and recording piano music since the age of 17. She has earned an international reputation for “her powerhouse virtuosity, exquisite sensitivity, and deep emotional drive,” as the Yamaha Artists website describes her.

Yablonskaya recalls crying tears of joy when she saw the “Welcome Home” sign at Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport as she and her husband, piano-maker Alexander Volchonok, arrived on November 9. They followed eight months after her son, cellist and Grammy-nominated conductor Dmitry Yablonsky, made aliyah with his family.

Yablonskaya first requested to leave what was then the Soviet Union in 1975. As a result, she lost her job as a professor at the Moscow Conservatory.

Through the intervention of 45 American celebrities and politicians — including conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein and the actress Katharine Hepburn – she finally won permission to go to Israel in 1977.

By that time, however, she had despaired of attaining her goal and had made arrangements to follow her sister to New York. She burst onto the cultural scene with appearances at Alice Tully Hall and Carnegie Hall, and went on to teach at Juilliard School of Music in New York for 25 years, as well as giving concerts and master classes in about 40 countries.

Yablanskaya will continue teaching and performing in Israel.

Yablanskaya will continue teaching and performing in Israel.

Throughout those nearly 40 years,Yablonskaya visited Israel every year to participate in music festivals, concerts and classes.

“But now, with anti-Semitism reaching a level I have never seen before in my life, we decided we want to do everything we can for Israel,” she tells ISRAEL21c.

Her debut performance as an Israeli, earlier this year, was with her daughter-in-law, violinist Janna Gandelman, under the baton of her son at the helm of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. The three musicians are appearing together several times this April in South Africa with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra.

Since making aliyah, Yablonskaya has participated in juried piano competitions in Rio de Janeiro, Norway and China; and appeared in music festivals in Spain and South Africa. Next she’ll perform in Kiev.

Dmitry Yablonsky – Yablonskaya’s son with her first husband, Russian oboist Albert Zaionz – also organizes the annual Gabala International Music Festival and the Wandering Stars Festival that travels from country to country.

Welcome home

Before settling down in Israel permanently, both families are temporarily based in Spain while juggling a full calendar of concerts, teaching and judging. Yablonskaya and Volchonok are still in the process of scouting out a forever home in Israel. During frequent visits, they stay in Tel Aviv but could imagine living anywhere in the country.

“I just need to have a garden for our four dogs and a large enough living room for all our pianos,” she tells ISRAEL21c on a Skype call from South Africa. “Meanwhile we’re in Israel as much as possible. I gave master classes in the Tel Aviv Academy of Music and in the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, where I also had a solo recital.”

Her ambition is to continue giving master classes in her new homeland, not only to natives but also to students who come to her from countries including Japan and Portugal. “I give classes all over the world anyway, so now I want to do it in Israel,” she says.“I feel it is my duty. My son and husband and I all want very much to be active in Israel.”

Yablonskaya relates that she first visited Israel in 1979.

“My aunt helped build Kibbutz Afikim near the Kinneret [Sea of Galilee] and she lived there all her life, so the first time I came to Israel she met me and we drove there. I didn’t go to any of the famous places. I played concerts on the kibbutz. Back then, there was maybe one orange tree, and now there is a forest full of flowers and trees and bushes. It’s really incredible — like a big garden.”

Over the years, Yablonskaya and Volchonok have purchased many trees to plant in Israel through Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, in memory of loved ones. “Now I hope to buy 100 trees to celebrate that we are Israeli,” she says.

The grandmother of two and great-grandmother of two says she is “full of energy” as she begins this new Israeli chapter of her life, and has only one unfulfilled wish: “I hope there will be peace.”

For more information, click here.

Nir Kouris photo by Max Digital.

Who is this guy shaping Israel’s future?


Nir Kouris photo by Max Digital.

Nir Kouris photo by Max Digital.

Nir Kouris  is one of those hyper-accomplished young Israelis who cannot be described in a single phrase. Digital brand manager, tech evangelist, growth hacker, startup mentor, technology conference organizer, wearable-tech adviser, IoT enthusiast – these are all apt labels, but he prefers to call himself simply “a person who loves the future.”

He does not only mean that he loves futuristic technologies, though he really, really does. His passion is nurturing Israel’s future tech leaders by connecting them with peers and experts across the world.

In addition to NK Corporate Digital Strategy, the business he started in 2003 at age 20, Kouris got the ball rolling with eCamp, cofounded in 2008 to bring Israeli and overseas kids together for an American-style summer experience in technology.

He founded Innovation Israel  – a community for Israeli startups, entrepreneurs, investors, venture capitalists, angels and developers – together with Ben Lang, an American eCamper who moved to Israel five years later at age 18.

Kouris has organized Hackathon Israel, Tel Aviv Hackathon Day and World Hackathon Day, all attracting hundreds of young programmers. In 2014 he helped launch Israel’s first Wearable Tech Conference, headlined by Silicon Valley trendsetters.

Perhaps Kouris’ most ambitious endeavor is Tomorrow Israel, a movement to boost technology education and opportunities in Israel through worldwide collaboration.

Being a good person matters most

“When I was 12, I read a book that changed my life, Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty,” Kouris tells ISRAEL21c. This bestselling guide to networking taught him that “if you want to be somebody, go to tech conferences.”

And so he did.

“I was always the youngest person at these events, and at one of them, a Microsoft marketing manager asked me what I was doing there; I was only a kid. I promised myself to treat people equally, to listen to people of all ages, because nobody did that for me. That’s why I always dedicate time to young people,” says Kouris, who turns 33 in May.

At the Israeli Presidential Conference “Facing Tomorrow,” held annually from 2008 to 2013 at the behest of former president Shimon Peres, Kouris was dismayed to see no young faces among the distinguished presenters and few in the audience.

“I proposed creating Tomorrow Israel to take Peres’ vision into reality, a global movement connecting Israeli teens to others using the universal language of technology,” he explains.

Nir Kouris speaking at a wearable technology event at Google Israel in February. Photo by Tomer Foltyn

Nir Kouris speaking at a wearable technology event at Google Israel in February. Photo by Tomer Foltyn

 “I don’t believe in waiting for government officials and people with titles to take responsibility. I believe in regular people taking responsibility for our lives — not for fame, but because we really care and we love doing it.”

At first, Kouris rented venues to present workshops and lectures, and then Google Campus in Tel Aviv offered free space. Global technology gurus began accepting his invitations to Tomorrow Israel meetups, and he started sponsoring local and national conferences and hackathons for kids from Israel and elsewhere.

The Tomorrow movement has spread to Holland, the UK, India, America and Australia. Though there’s no official age limit, most participants are under 21.

“It’s not an age, but a way of thinking. We attract people wanting to make their countries better through entrepreneurship,” Kouris explains. “It’s like a VC for people. Tomorrow is all about smart and good people because being a good person matters most.”

The Amsterdam municipality, Google for Education and other entities have approached Kouris about collaborating with Tomorrow. Members are forming teams and launching projects together via national and international Tomorrow Facebook groups. Kouris is proud that Israel is the nexus of this activity.

“Before Tomorrow, everybody heard the negative stuff about Israel and now they all want to come here to see our startup culture. We’re proving we can find new channels of communicating with the next generation of leaders and empower other nations to be startup nations,” Kouris says. “We have something strong and solid in our hands.”

Creating the future

When Kouris was a teen in the early days of the Internet, he’d sit at the computers in his school library in a village near Afula, earning money by registering and selling domain names.

During his military service, Kouris was sent to work in American Jewish summer camps. “I was inspired to make something like that in Israel, combining the American camp experience with the Israeli tech story,” he relates.

He cofounded eCamp after dropping out of college (“What I was learning in class was about the past, and I had to deal with the future”) and working briefly at a high-tech startup. Now called Big Idea, the camp is still going strong but Kouris left after a year to build his branding consultancy and organize for-profit conferences supported by corporate sponsorships and ticket sales.

“Israelis usually don’t pay for conferences, so it has to be something exceptional you can’t get anywhere else,” explains Kouris, who says his favorite hobby is “meeting people smarter than myself.”

Nir Kouris addressing a Tomorrow Israel gathering.

Nir Kouris addressing a Tomorrow Israel gathering.

He’s persuaded big names like Robert Scoble, a top American tech evangelist, and Prof. Steve Mann, “the father of wearable technology,” to come to Israel along with participants from China, Europe and the United States. “They come on their own budget because they feel these conferences are the best,” Kouris says.

He’s planning two international confabs in Israel for 2016, one to present outstanding technologies to the world on behalf of Innovation Israel; the other a free Tomorrow gathering to introduce the established global tech community to the next generation.

The single Herzliya resident says he is “having great fun and traveling the world” as he helps shape the future of Israel.

Click here  to listen to ISRAEL21c’s Viva Sarah Press speak on TLV1 to Nir Kouris about Israel’s role in this revolutionary trend.

The RespiDx team (Ian Solomon is second from right).
Behind the scenes at ISRAEL21c

ISRAEL21c coverage helps RespiDX advance

The RespiDx team (Ian Solomon is second from right).

The RespiDx team (Ian Solomon is second from right).

Last month, ISRAEL21c reported that two Israeli startups – RespiDX and NanoVation GS — won seed grants from Grand Challenges Israel for their product ideas for diagnosing childhood pneumonia in low-resource regions.

We recently received word from RespiDX that our coverage proved critical in promoting its concept to key organizations and corporations working to reduce childhood deaths from pneumonia in developing countries.

“The article ISRAEL21c wrote describing our Respimometer project has been very helpful to us, and was used by Grand Challenges Canada to create connections for us to the relevant UN bodies, UNICEF, and a range of potential industrial partners,” says Ian Solomon, VP business development for the Profile Group of Companies  in Jerusalem.

“Following this, the company we established for this project, RespiDx Ltd., is already in discussions with several of these bodies, so the article has been most useful.”

He adds that ISRAEL21c’s article was the only one circulated to potential partners by Grand Challenges Canada, and that it came to their attention from an outside source.

Respimometer is envisioned as a cross between a pacifier and a digital oral thermometer. The mouth stop just under the child’s nose would be embedded with sensors to measure breathing as a way of detecting pneumonia immediately.

“We filed a patent and now we’re looking to use the grant to make a prototype and test it against existing means of measuring respiration rate to prove it’s good enough to be out in the market,” Solomon told ISRAEL21c.

RespiDX has applied for a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant and is seeking matching funds to run a test project in Africa in order to identify cultural and field conditions that could impact the final design of the reusable product and the training protocol for healthcare workers.

“We also made contact with a researcher who has experience running trial projects with community health workers,” says Solomon. “The idea is to simply diagnose and also simply treat children right in their villages.”


This dresser was the first item in the Street Capture series.

Furniture for a graffiti age

This dresser was the first item in the Street Capture series.

This dresser was the first item in the Street Capture series.

From their studio in South Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood, industrial designers and best friends Ariel Zuckerman and Eran Shimshovic watched as the old-time carpentry workshops closed at the end of the workday and the streets gave way to lively nightlife in the gathering darkness.

Month by month, more carpenters were closing shop permanently amid the changing character of Florentin. Zuckerman and Shimshovic realized they could combine the vanishing world of furniture-makers with the emerging vibrancy of street artists.

Street Capture, their resulting line of high-end, one-of-a-kind furniture, is a hit in Israel and abroad. Now the pair has expanded into tableware and is contemplating a road show in America.

“Taking something two dimensional from the public space and make it into a three-dimensional piece of furniture for your house preserves both the craft and the culture, Zuckerman tells ISRAEL21c.“It’s like taking a stone from the Berlin Wall and making something new from it.”

 Eran Shimshovic mounting a blank board in Florentin.

Eran Shimshovic mounting a blank board in Florentin.

They began by attaching blank wooden boards to the walls of Florentin’s alleyways, knowingly supplying a clean canvas for graffiti artists. Some of the boards got stolen, but most of them were soon covered in bold graphics.

“We didn’t say anything to anyone, as we were curious to see how it would evolve in the most ‘natural’ manner,” says Zuckerman, speaking to ISRAEL21c in his new studio in the Neve Tzedek neighborhood.

“Each morning we discovered something new. Sometimes the boards remained untouched, sometimes just a few penciled lines or letters were added. Finally, layer by layer, a ‘whole’ work was created.”

Street artists gradually filled the boards with artwork.

Street artists gradually filled the boards with artwork.

They then took the boards to their studio, transforming random night-time inspiration into a sort of artistic time capsule. The artwork is protected with acrylic and fused onto HDF, a dense, smooth fiberboard that can be cut, drilled, painted or processed.

“The first product was a dresser we called Zerifin 35, which is the street address where we hung the wooden board. Then we did a cocktail table,”says Zuckerman.

“These were very authentic. Then, as people started finding out about what we were doing, street artists asked us how they could participate,” he explains.

Each Street Capture piece is unique.

Each Street Capture piece is unique.

“So now we are doing collaborations with street artists. It’s less authentic because we control the process, but they are free to paint what they like — all in one day. We pay them and give them the credit.”

The unique Street Capture line gained popularity swiftly. “Mostly it’s being used as office furniture, but also some individuals have bought it,” says Zuckerman.

Orders started coming in after they exhibited their creations at Tel Aviv’s contemporary art fair, Fresh Paint, and at Saga Gallery in Jaffa.

A Street Capture cocktail table.

A Street Capture cocktail table.

They recently had an auction of Street Capture items at Tiroche Auction House in Herzliya Pituach, where they hope to pursue a collaboration with Israel Prize-winning designer Dan Reisinger, who’s responsible for some of Israel’s most classic business logos including that of national airline El-Al.

The design website Touch of Modern may soon begin selling Street Capture online. The dresser costs about $4,000, while a four-table cluster goes for about $2,000. Items in a new line of tableware, such as fruit bowls, will be priced at around $300.

Zuckerman, 37, worked for 10 years as a freelancer for Keter Plastic, designing many of the company’s extruded-plastic furniture and housewares for sale at North American chains including Costco, Loews and Home Depot.

In 2010, he opened Studio Ariel in Florentin with his childhood buddy Shimshovic, and initially created lighting collections that met success in Israel and abroad.

This Street Capture set costs about $2,000.

This Street Capture set costs about $2,000.

Street Capture has caught the attention of leading museums and galleries in San Francisco, New York, Toronto and Tokyo. But Zuckerman and Shimshovic do not intend merely to ship their products. They want to make them specific to each city.

“We got the crazy idea to do a road trip to five or six locations in the United States, getting local mural artists in those cities to paint on the wooden boards, and then after a month or two,we would make furniture out of them. We want to do an exhibition of them all together, showing which one was made in Chicago, which one in LA, and so forth,” says Zuckerman. “We just need to find local art producers and workspaces.”

Street Capture obviously is striking a chord. “People want to feel unique and to be part of a community, and this is a way to do that,” says Zuckerman.

For more information, click here.