There is no doubt that COVID-19 is a gamechanger in terms of its impact on governments, the economy and society, and this has a lot to do with the equalizing factor of the global pandemic – it affects all people, everywhere, in the same way. From mask-wearing to adhering to social distancing restrictions, if COVID-19 does anything, it definitely puts us all in the same boat.
The question is whether the pandemic will have the same equalizing effect on Israel’s high-tech sector: Will coronavirus create new employment opportunities for a more diverse workforce, and narrow existing social and economic gaps between the various cultural and ethnic sectors of Israeli society?
Attempting to answer these questions, Start-Up Nation Central’s recent New Digital Age conference hosted a panel discussion with Naomi Krieger Carmy, Head of Societal Challenges at the Israel Innovation Authority; seasoned investor and entrepreneur Dr. Yossi Vardi; Director General of the Ministry of Science and Technology, Shai-Lee Spiegelman; and Alan Feld, founder and managing partner of Vintage Investment Partners.
They discussed the implications of the pandemic on the Israeli economy and society. Overwhelmingly, panel participants agreed that the Israeli high-tech sector is faced with a unique call to action to diversify its workforce and generate digital solutions to address the basic needs of populations that need them most. This topic, among many others, is also examined and analyzed in a research report recently issued by Start-Up Nation Central.
“Diversity will bring the country together and help build trust and confidence in one another”
Aside from putting us all on the same playing field, COVID-19 has done a great job of challenging the meaning of the “social contract,” which, according to Feld, should really be called a “social covenant,” as “parties are contributing to a common goal,” and not just waiting to see if their interests will be fulfilled.
According to Feld and other panel participants, diversity in the workforce (and the high-tech workforce in particular) has a huge role to play as “bringing in diverse communities, besides making economic sense, is the right thing to do because it’s where we’re going,” Feld said. “It will bring the country together and help build trust and confidence in one another.”
However, more sectors of Israeli society would join the high-tech workforce given better access to opportunities for education and skill acquisition, which still disproportionally favor certain sectors of society, Feld pointed out, adding that hiring a more diverse workforce begins with educating the employers: “There needs to be a cultural shift, and if it’s not going to come from the government, it should certainly be coming from the industry.”
“The composition of the tech workforce is still predominantly male, Jewish and secular”
Krieger Carmy said that “one of the issues we’ve put a lot of emphasis on in recent years is the human capital of the tech industry, and we know that before the COVID-19 crisis, the tech industry needed people, as SNC and the Innovation Authority pointed out in a joint research report.” While the coronavirus crisis has “definitely changed that, and reduced some of the demand, we still see this as one of the driving industries for the future, when we’ll still need skilled human capital,” she said.
Krieger Carmy asserted that “we’re not tapping into all the talent that we have. The composition of the tech workforce is still predominantly male, Jewish, secular, from the center of Israel. We are putting a lot of focus on increasing diversity in the industry.”
Vardi, who has worked with hundreds of startups over the years, largely concurred with Feld and Krieger Carmy in stating that educating the workforce at both ends (employers and employees) has the power to “unite the narrative” between the various cultural and ethnic sectors of Israeli society.
“Now, every company is a tech company”
Just as much as telemedicine is now giving more people access to healthcare, additional services are rapidly changing to meet the needs of our new COVID-19 reality. “If two years ago, Israeli high-tech companies aimed to pilot their products overseas, COVID-19 has instituted a change in their thinking,” Spiegelman said, “and now more Israeli startups are working with the government and the Israel Innovation Authority to develop better digital services that will serve various needs during and after the pandemic.”
This accelerated process of digitalization forces companies to change: “If companies weren’t tech companies before, now every company is a tech company,” Feld said.
Technology has an important role to play in ingraining diversity and multiculturalism in the Israeli ecosystem. According to Feld, “diversity in teams leads to a better quality of product,” namely because individuals from different backgrounds are able to share their perspectives on what works, what is needed, and the real role that technology should play in our lives.
Panel participants agreed that this will result in better technologies and services that are able to cater to the needs of more people everywhere, while also closing the high-tech workforce gap, therefore benefiting the Israeli society.
Granted, the impact of COVID-19 on Israeli society and its high-tech sector is only just beginning to set in. But thanks to the equalizing impact of the pandemic on our society, it represents a unique opportunity to act and diversify not only the high-tech workforce, but also the innovative products and services it provides. As Spiegelman put it, “let’s make lemonade out of this lemon; let’s take up the opportunity for new, diverse talent, and realize the benefits of living in a digital era.”
Other steps, beyond increased diversity in the workforce, are needed
According to a research report entitled The New Digital Age, recently published by Start-Up Nation Central, The pandemic has given us the opportunity to reimagine the relationship between Israel’s high-tech sector and the rest of the economy.
The three avenues outlined in the report should be the first steppingstones on this path: directing Israeli institutional investors’ funds to the high-tech sector; connecting traditional Israeli industries to advanced tech solutions, and strengthening tech companies’ efforts to hire underrepresented populations.
To read more about the “social contract” between Israel’s high-tech sector and its society, explore our interactive research report entitled The New Digital Age.