Israeli High-Tech Firm Mixes Good Intentions With Sound Business
But Khoury, an Arab, couldn’t find a job, even though she lives in Israel, where the nation’s thriving high-tech industry has been dubbed Silicon Wadi (Valley in Arabic).
So instead, she became a math teacher in Nazareth. “I tried to have a job in computers, but I didn’t find one,” Khoury, 32, said.
In Israel, the country’s Arab minority--20 percent of the population--faces discrimination in employment and has had difficulty landing jobs in the nation’s thriving high-tech sector.
Galil Software was started in Dec. 2007 to change that. Launched by leading Jewish industry veterans, the company aims to integrate more Arabs into Israel’s leading industry. The software service company provides high-tech firms with ways to reduce costs by outsourcing work to Galil engineers.
Bassel Khoury, program director for the Nazareth-based company, says cultural differences and the geographic location of many of the country’s Arabs (concentrated in the north away from the industry hub around Tel Aviv) have contributed to a large amount of highly educated, unemployed Arab engineers.
“They are raised to be more humble, so when they go to interviews at any company they try to be humble as well... and they don’t know how to sell themselves,” said Khoury (who is not related to Reem Khoury).
The choice of Arabs to not serve in the Israeli army, which has close social ties to the country’s high-tech industry, has also hampered employment opportunities by depriving Arab engineers of important connections, Khoury conceded, although he said it is lessening alongside a concerted effort to integrate more Arabs into the industry by both public and private institutions. In February, President Shimon Peres launched an initiative to move more Arabs into the high-tech field.
“I say for an Arab engineer you have to be a little bit better than your competitor in the Jewish community,“ he said, adding he sees Arabs filling a shortage of engineers in the country.
But Galil’s altruistic leanings, which include interview training as well as hiring practices, are also good business. In addition to cheaper rents and wages in the north, the company takes advantage of government grants to hire minorities, including women. That allows Galil to offer its services cheaper than other Israeli firms.
“You are serving two goals. You are making money and serving the community,” Bassel said while seated in Galil’s headquarters, the Basilica of the Annunciation rising behind him outside the window.
By hiring from an underemployed Arab workforce, the company aims to spur economic growth both in the Arab community and the overall Israeli economy by retaining jobs that would otherwise go overseas. Prices are still higher than firms in India or China, Bassel said, but Galil provides a unique advantage: proximity to Israel’s high-tech hub and a cultural and linguistic affinity bar none, which the company says decreases risk often associated with outsourcing jobs.
“The kind of relationship we build with our customers is unique,” Bassel said. “There is no way an Indian company can create the same relationship, or any Chinese company.”
Although located in the heavily Arab populated north, the company is not exclusive in its hiring. About 12 percent of Galil’s workforce is Jewish, a number that Bassel said helps it to prosper.
“Because of these guys we were able to get bigger projects, because they came with more experience,” he explained. “So they are actually enabling the new generation (of Arab workers) to grow into this profession.”
In recent months, political developments have threatened to strain the relationship between the country's Jewish and Arab citizens. New laws have drawn condemnation for potentionally discriminating against Arabs. One law fines publicly funded entities who commerate Nakba Day, when some Arab citizens decry Israel's establishment because it caused many Arabs to lose their homes and land, unable to return. In the past few weeks, Israeli forces have also killed Palestinian refugees who have attempted to cross into the country.
Despite such developments, work has not suffered, Bassel said, citing good relationships between employees of different backgrounds.
"Such incidents have no effect on the regular work course in the company," Bassel said in an email. "We are ... professionals, and we understand clearly that at work it is all about business."
In addition to its Jewish employees, Galil also employs a significant number of women. Reem Khoury, for example, is no longer teaching.
The mother of two became Galil’s first woman engineer and is one of 140 engineers at the company, the vast majority who are Arab citizens of Israel, individuals and their descendants who remained in what is today Israel after the 1948 war that resulted in the Jewish state’s establishment. About 15 percent of Galil’s engineers are women, Bassel said.
“I think they don’t accept that a woman wants to manage them, but there are skills,” she said with a chuckle, coyly refusing to divulge her secret.
While she is working longer hours than most Arab women do—in 2008 only 21 percent of Arab women were in the Israeli workforce, Reem says more of her peers are ready for full-time employment.
“We are afraid ... that always the women should stay at home or work until one o’ clock,” she said. ”But no, they should also go and work and face the world.”
Reem described her attempts to gain employment after graduating from university as “frustrating,” often receiving little explanation beyond “no” after sending in her resume.
Now, finally with a secure job in her field of choice, she isn’t satisfied.
“I want more. I hope to be a team leader, and more and more. And then, infinity,” Reem said, giggling once again.
Reach reporter Andrew Khouri here.