Safaa, 25, works in finance in Morocco. She wanted to pivot to information technology but didn’t know how until she took part in Israeli career-advancement program FemForward.
“Thanks to FemForward, I was matched with a mentor and am on my way to getting a job in the IT sector. I now have a clear plan how to do it,” Safaa told ISRAEL21c at the Jerusalem gala celebrating the end of FemForward’s first MENA cohort encompassing participants and mentors from both countries.
“FemForward provides women in junior high-tech positions with the tools, network and personal mentorship to advance,” explained cofounder Rachel Wagner Rosenzweig.
Since 2020, more than 100 Israeli women have participated in FemForward. About half received a salary raise and/or job promotion immediately after the three-month program.
Hoping for a more global impact, Rosenzweig worked for six months with her staff and partners to bring FemForward to the MENA region, specifically the Abraham Accords countries.
Morocco was chosen as the first location. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain will soon follow.
See you in Casablanca
“Together with the US Embassy, the Jerusalem Development Authority and the UAE-Israel Business Council, we built FemForward MENA basically from scratch, scouting out Moroccan participants and planning our in-person seminar in Casablanca,” Rosenzweig tells ISRAEL21c.
“We condensed the first month of our program into three days for 23 women ranging from a computer vision algorithm engineer to a business analyst.”
Israeli and local lecturers led workshops on mindset, communication skills, and topics such as how to have difficult discussions at work.
Presentations were in English, and the Israeli team also included two French speakers – Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum and Gila Tolub, an independent business development growth adviser with 11 years of experience as a partner at McKinsey & Company.
“Two managers of the McKinsey branch in Casablanca spoke to us at a kosher breakfast they hosted,” says Rosenzweig.
“We also had a cultural walking tour led by the Moroccan participants, and a Moroccan and Israeli dancing night. It was unbelievably special,” says Rosenzweig. “In just three days, everyone felt connected and mindsets were already changed.”
Hassan-Nahoum, cofounder of FemForward and of the Gulf-Israel Women’s Forum within the UAE-Israel Business Council, said that as the technology industry in the Abraham Accords countries grows, “so do the opportunities for women to expand their careers and become managers and leaders. By providing them with the tools they need, we are helping to increase the numbers of female leaders in the region.”
Following the kickoff in Casablanca, participants and mentors met online one-on-one and for weekly group workshops until the Moroccans flew to Israel on July 30.
ISRAEL21c met with the group at the North African Jewish Heritage Center in Jerusalem, a beautiful Moroccan-style meeting space and garden.
Like the others, Safaa said she learned about FemForward through a Facebook group, Opportunities for Moroccans, “where young people share information on programs and internships.”
“Relations between Israel and Morocco have been reviving recently, and I always wanted to discover the country and culture. I was excited to see that the second part of the program would be in Israel,” said Safaa.
“During the first part in Casablanca, the experts and facilitators helped us work on many skills, especially soft skills. We had to learn how to stand up for ourselves, because as women we tend to give up when we are in a negotiation phase. It’s interesting to have synergies with other women in the MENA region because we face the same challenges.”
She noted that the Moroccan cohort included women with and without the hijab head covering, while the Israeli facilitators and mentors included diverse Arab and Jewish women – including Jews of Moroccan heritage. The women quickly let go of fears and stereotypes on both sides.
“The Moroccan community in Israel is big, and in Morocco we preserve the Jewish heritage, so I wasn’t surprised that we each felt comfortable in each other’s country. Everyone was warm and welcoming,” said Safaa.
FemForward mentor Maissa Ballout, an Israeli Christian Arab who is vice president of finance for Dollar Shave Club, told ISRAEL21c that mentoring Moroccan women was no different than mentoring Israeli women.
“For me, mentorship is a real relationship and it doesn’t matter who the woman is. We learn from one another and it’s a fascinating process,” she said.
“When you put a mirror up to the woman you are mentoring and show her the real challenges and strengths she has, it gives her the ability to take actions — small steps I can check as she goes along. When we take off our masks, we see that we are all the same; we have the same challenges and aims. The solidarity is just amazing.”
Ballout’s Moroccan mentee, Selma El Antari, 31, is cofounder of a company in southern Morocco that produces certified kosher argan oil and almond butter for export around the world, including Israel.
“I joined the program to learn how to manage my team and develop my company in a better way,” El Antari told ISRAEL21c. “Maissa focused on my business plan and the steps needed to develop the company and negotiate with potential investors.”
She said she felt at home in Israel. “I have distributors and customers here, and I have wanted to visit for a long time. It was a huge opportunity for me to come and meet different people.”
A priceless experience
Software engineer consultant Houda, 26, said when she saw the Opportunities for Moroccans post on Facebook about FemForward, “I felt it was very much what we needed for women in tech looking to move to the next step. The program helps her reach that step by giving her the skills she needs, even a simple thing like being a little more aggressive rather than waiting for opportunities to come your way.”
Houda said that the value of “an amazing diverse community of successful women guiding us and sharing experiences” is priceless.
“Personally, I am a reserved person and wasn’t planning ahead and seeking mentorship in my company or industry. I really learned how impactful a mentorship is and how to seek the right person that will mentor me and be more proactive,” she said.
“You need someone to say, ‘Hey, it’s okay to ask questions, it’s okay to ask for that raise, you have a right to do that if you’ve proven yourself with your work ethic and what you’re able to achieve.’ That was a big click for me.”
Rosenzweig started FemForward with Hassan-Nahoum and Meirav Atun Amiry as an outgrowth of her involvement in MadeInJLM, a nonprofit organization that connects and provides resources for the tech and startup ecosystem in Jerusalem.
“I joined MadeInJLM in 2016 and ran networking events and international tech tours of Jerusalem, and I noticed I was often the only woman in the room,” she said.
“After a few years I knew enough strong women to start FemJLM locally but it wasn’t enough of an impact, so we cofounded FemForward [in 2020] and opened it to all of Israel. And now we are entering the MENA region together with US Embassy in Jerusalem and UAE Business Council.”
Rosenzweig said that in addition to building cross-cultural business relationships, her personal goal is to build friendships between women from the Abraham Accords countries and between women within Israel from different backgrounds.
“We have already succeeded. Many of the participants have already traveled together outside of the program timeline — as friends. This is not something that you see everyday in Israel and I am proud and humbled to have been a part of building this multicultural family.”
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