NERA – taken from the ninth verse of Eishes Chayil – alludes to a woman whose endeavors are good, and whose candle is burning bright even though the hour is late. According to Rivka Zafrir, one of NERA’s founders, the name was chosen because it signifies women successfully enterprising for their families.
Zafrir, with partners Avital Beck and Priel Manes, started NERA a year ago. NERA’s goal is to help Orthodox women-led tech start-ups be the next unicorns. NERA is committed to providing Orthodox women with the support and know-how to turn their dreams into reality without compromising their ideals. NERA is the only organization in Israel predominately focused on the female Orthodox tech entrepreneur.
Born and raised in Bnei Brak, Zafrir is an Orthodox entrepreneur with a tech background. Having worked for HP, Intel and start-up companies as a software developer, she understands the needs of Orthodox women with entrepreneurial ambitions who desire to grow in the tech industry. She came up with the idea for NERA after the start-up she’d been working at closed. As she job-searched, she noticed a void in the tech world.
“There is no place for ultra-Orthodox women to get support, brainstorm and get advice on their ideas,” she says. “While there are places in the ultra-Orthodox community that help male tech entrepreneurs, or male and female tech entrepreneurs, they are built by men with mostly male participants. There was nothing specifically geared towards women. I had a vision to build a home for female ultra-Orthodox tech entrepreneurs.”
While in the secular world, one can find women-only tech associations, Zafrir notes such organizations do not exist for Orthodox women in Israel, and many people from outside the community believe the organizations servicing both frum male and female entrepreneurs are enough.
“Orthodox women have many more obstacles on their entrepreneurial path, and many don’t understand that,” she says. “If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, you can’t get rid of it. It’s in you. These women face a double glass ceiling. They don’t have a like-minded women’s support circle, so they have to go through the secular world or through men in the Orthodox world. So I had to do this; build something for Orthodox women built by Orthodox women who are very much connected to key people and organizations in the Israeli tech ecosystem and understand the needs of Orthodox women in this environment.”
Zafrir acknowledges that the Orthodox community has a long way to go to integrate into the Israeli start-up culture. Connections are paramount. Networking and understanding tech entrepreneurial jargon is crucial for success. And that’s where NERA comes in.
NERA focuses on making the tech start-up world more accessible to Orthodox women and hosts events, meet-ups and webinars on topics such as raising money from VC (venture capital) funds, legal aspects for tech start-ups, and market research. NERA’s core community is comprised of women who are already in the process of developing their business concepts. In addition to creating their own programs, NERA connects members to other industry programs and helps with mentorship opportunities.
NERA is currently working on the first accelerator program for Orthodox women. It is aimed at taking the initial business concept and turning it into a full-blown minimum viable product (MVP). The participants will meet weekly and NERA will help them through the business development process, including the investor pitch.
Zafrir tells me the program will be free, although participants must be dedicated to and passionate about their business ideas. Grants are also available to them to develop their ideas and support their families during the process of building their companies. It will be a five-month program, and Zafrir expects it to begin in late 2022 with three to five women founders.
NERA has grown in many ways since its launch. The organization has managed to secure some powerful partnerships. For example, one of Israel’s largest legal firms is working with NERA pro-bono, as is PriceWaterhouseCooper. NERA also has support from Google Start-Ups, Microsoft, Amiti Ventures, AnD Ventures, the British Embassy in Israel, and more.
Zafrir is quick to point out that NERA’s success is much bigger than its partnerships. Women feel free to ask advice from other women in NERA’s Whatsapp group, and women with more knowledge or experience respond with camaraderie.
“We help women build companies, and lead those companies,” Zafrir explains. “We help them create employment for other people, so it’s good for the economy. It makes families less impoverished, and closes the socioeconomic gap. It also helps bridge the cultural divide between ultra-Orthodox and secular.”
Zafrir admits that finding funding for this initiative is challenging. As a non-profit, NERA relies on donors for capital to create programs and provide its participants with services. Most of its donors are individuals or philanthropic organizations supporting equal opportunity ventures or promoting entrepreneurship for women or marginalized sectors. Still, it’s difficult.
“We need to meet people who have the same vision and are eager to promote ultra-Orthodox women,” Zafrir asserts.
Zafrir and her partners are using grassroots methods to make female entrepreneurs in Israel’s Orthodox communities aware of NERA’s services. Zafrir often posts content about NERA on her personal LinkedIn and Facebook accounts. She also uses Level UP, an online community of about 1,200 Orthodox women in tech which she founded in 2019, to advance NERA’s vision.
NERA currently consists of a community of about 30 Orthodox women at various stages of start-up development, and while some are still at the idea phase and others are much further along, Zafrir is immensely proud of what the organization has become and the work the women have done so far.