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.
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.
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.”