July 6, 2009, Updated September 13, 2012

An Israeli high-tech entrepreneur has set up a non profit organization designed to help Israel’s Arab citizens enter the country’s lucrative high-tech field.

Tsofen. It translates roughly from Hebrew to a “secret code.” That’s Smadar Nehab’s vision –– to find a secret code, a “da Vinci code,” she says, to solve the Jewish-Arab separation in the Israeli high-tech scene.

After a successful career in high-tech, Nehab founded Tsofen, a non-profit organization to help Israel’s Arab citizens enjoy the same benefits she got out of the country’s high-tech boom. Her two partners, Yossi Coten a high tech expert, and Sami Saadi, an accountant and social entrepreneur, share her vision of helping Israel’s employable Arab engineers find gainful work in the high-tech industry.

The long-term vision is to strengthen Israeli society from within. And there is also Middle East peace, of course.

“We are located in Nazareth and are facilitators to enable industry to come to Nazareth, and help Arab academics come close to the high-tech industry. It’s not technical training that we give, but more cultural and hands on,” Nehab tells ISRAEL21c.

With government support, private donations, and a push from the Israel Venture Network, Tsofen offers a three-month intensive training program to teach Arab engineers all the ins and outs of making it in the high-tech world in Israel, and abroad. As Jewish Israelis already know, before breaking into Silicon Valley 15 years ago, it’s a tough world out there.

Helping them access the boom

“The big jump was in the ’90s,” says Nehab. “We’ve been in the industry since the ’70s,” she tells ISRAEL21c. But the landscape in Israel changed when big American companies like Intel, National Semiconductor, and Motorola started operating in Israel.

“I grew up in this industry,” she says. “It started very small. Then the big boom exploded.”

For a number of reasons, mainly cultural, the Arab minority in Israel –– Israeli citizens who should have equal rights –– are not accessing the same opportunities as their Jewish counterparts. While some 75,000 Jewish Israelis are employed in high-tech, there are only a few hundred from the Arab community.

Nehab could probably talk for hours on why the disparity is there, and it’s not because Arabs don’t join the army, and its brotherhood she says.

“I think one of the reasons is the homogeneity of high-tech society. High-tech is not open to [Arabs], not that it’s intentional, it’s just a very tight society where people are working together; and it’s easier to accept people who are like you,” she tells ISRAEL21c.

Don’t be Jewish, but promote yourself

What Tsofen does is give these young Arab engineers a crash course on how to make it working for high-tech, Israeli style. To be ‘like’ the other: “We are not telling them to try and become Jewish. We are showing them that they shouldn’t be afraid of promoting themselves and the kinds of basic things required when getting the interview, when you start working, like being outspoken,” she says.

In Arab society, the Arab way of business is not competitive like in the Western world, Nehab explains. The Arabs are gentler in meetings, and the consensus among them is “you are not supposed to promote yourself. You are part of society,” says Nehab, who has no intentions of taking that away from them –– just in helping them integrate and get the jobs they deserve to be in.

Founded in mid 2007, Tsofen began official operations about a year ago. “Our goal is to add a significant number of Arab academics to Israeli tech,” says Nehab, who works in Nazareth, an unusual move for a Jewish woman. She now finds herself being an ambassador not only for the young engineers from there, but for the city in general, populated by Arab Muslims and Christians.

Nehab hopes to reverse any misconceptions anyone might have, and turn the Galilee city of Nazareth into a high-tech center of excellence. With 35 Arab engineers already placed in jobs, Tsofen is getting there.

Taking about 20 people per course, going to study at Tsofen is a full time job from morning to evening without subsidies. Arab engineers from all over Israel are looking to get into the class. The second one is now running.

Peace at home first

Tsofen isn’t the first social venture project to integrate Arabs into the high-tech world. There is G.ho.st, a company which outsources programming jobs to Palestinian engineers.

Tsofen is different, first because they are working with Israeli citizens only, and second because they are putting them on a career path which could turn them into entrepreneurs. “It’s very different from G.ho.st,” says Nehab who believes Israel should, “do peace inside first.”

She’s chosen the right team: Coten, her partner, has experience training a workforce in periphery communities. In 2000, he opened an Amdocs branch in Sderot, near the Gaza border, which now employs about 500 engineers.

“For us his experience is relevant. Sderot is not exactly the place for high-tech in Israel,” says Nehab. “Instead of trying to move every Arab who wants to have work to the center of Israel, we say let’s build industry in the Galilee.”

Tsofen in Nazareth will be the pilot, and Nehab has no plans to stop there. After Arab cities in Israel, she would like to open Tsofen to the Palestinian Authority as well. “Our way is unique. We are overcoming barriers by opening industry in Arab communities,” she says.

“The main barrier to the Arab engineer is being accepted. By building high-tech in Nazareth with Arab and Jewish leaders here, Arab Israelis will feel at home and will flourish.”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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