Networking forum eases transition for new entrants in Israel’s ‘start-up nation’

Click photo to download. Caption: New olim sample traditional fudge made by Olivia Eder at January’s Western Galilee Business Networking Forum. Credit: Michele Kaplan-Green.


By Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod/

Half of Israel’s new businesses fail within five years, according to a fall 2014 report from the French-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, but a new Jewish National Fund (JNF) initiative is helping olim (new Israeli immigrants) succeed while enjoying the lower rents and broader vistas of northern Israel.

JNF’s “Go North” initiative is helping new residents acclimate to a new country and start over, partly by boosting local entrepreneurship. The secret lies in connecting small businesses, said the Nefesh B’Nefesh aliyah agency’s Michele Kaplan-Green, who coordinates the Western Galilee Business Networking Forum. 

“If you’re going to develop a local business, you need to network,” Kaplan-Green said. “The forum is in Hebrew, but everyone speaks English. It’s very olim-friendly.”

Even olim who speak both languages fluently, said longtime Israeli immigrant Sandee Illouz, “sometimes feel more comfortable speaking in English.”

Illouz—the executive director of Erez College, a non-profit that offers work skills, entrepreneurship training, and a new JNF-sponsored program in engineering—hesitated to join the Western Galilee forum at first. Amid her busy schedule, she worried that it would be a waste of her time. That changed once she participated.

“Every time I’ve gone, I’ve met someone who interfaces with us on some level, whether it’s somebody who can help us with marketing, or somebody who’s interested in teaching,” Illouz said. “Sometimes ideas come up for a new project. I’ve never gone and not come home with new ideas.”

Michal Shiloah Galnoor, managing director of JNF partner organization Western Galilee Now, recently spoke at January’s forum meeting to offer best practices for networking as well as social media and online marketing. “There’s lots of information, but it’s easy for individual small businesses to get lost,” she said.

Galnoor’s organization includes 30 family-owned businesses, from dairy farms to kosher restaurants, to wineries and artisan shops, to cosmetics and group-tour providers. Members pool their expertise to bring more of a “wow factor” to the region in the form of festivals and events. 

“All our members help market each event,” she said.

The recent Western Galilee meeting, held in a café at the Ma’arag Arts Center in Kfar Vradim, spotlighted the area’s diversity. JNF and Western Galilee Now have supported the arts center, which is now in its fifth year, by funding special needs programs in woodworking, textiles, and computers that assist children and adults from every religious background and ethnicity.

For olim who are starting from scratch and cut off from previous clients and associates, getting to know other local businesses can be part of the “sink or swim” attitude of succeeding in a new place. Entrepreneurship among olim is three times higher than the rate among native Israelis, according to the entrepreneurship organization Gvahim. At a time when start-ups are failing at an alarming rate—even in the so-called “start-up nation”—immigrant entrepreneurs have expressed the need for more of a safety net.  

“You spin a web,” said Kaplan-Green, “and it stays connected.”

The next “Go North” forum will be held on Feb. 3. At January’s forum, 12 participants seeking insights and concrete ideas listened to a presentation by Shara Shetrit of Nefesh B’Nefesh titled, “Social Media: Reaching and Engaging Target Markets.” Participants included Olivia Eder, a fudge maker who made aliyah to Ma’alot from the U.K. in 2013 and brought samples of both traditional English and chocolate fudge; David Heller, a skilled carpenter from Mitzpe Netofa, who made aliyah from Toronto in 2012 to Mitzpe Netofa and wanted to learn how to reach potential customers effectively; and Idan Azoulay, a psychologist and coach with practices in Nahariya and Haifa who shared how he works with businesses and individuals to stay tuned into the local scene.

Shetrit’s talk focused on social networking, relationships, and storytelling—with a particular focus on the power of relationship-building.

“Know your customer, get your audience to trust you, become your brand, and be authentic,” she said.

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Posted on January 28, 2015 and filed under Business, Features, Israel.