Mixing babies with high-tech

At Campus TLV for Moms, enterprising young mothers learn business tips from the pros while nursing, burping and changing their babies. By Karin Kloosterman

 

It may look like back-to-school night, but it’s actually Google Moms. Photo by Niv Kantor.

It’s a Sunday night at Tel Aviv University and 10 women entrepreneurs are eagerly listening to Elena Donets, the passionate CEO of starTAU entrepreneurship program. She is giving a DIY guerilla guide to founding a startup.

As Donets explores the ins and outs of UX and UI, we hear a dull thud of a breast pump in the background. Sharon Solomon, an entrepreneur creating a coupon aggregating and comparison site called Coupick,  is extracting milk for her infant son Raz, now at home with Dad.

This class is called We Dream, and it is targeted to help women make it in the predominantly male world of high-tech companies. Women found only nine percent of Israeli startups, and a smaller percentage get funding.

At We Dream, a pioneer course in Israel operating for a couple of years, three of the women were pregnant, and most of the rest had young children at home. Three of them were also graduates of Google’s baby-friendly startup workshop in Tel Aviv called Campus TLV for Moms, or more colloquially “Google Moms.”

Google Moms veterans include Solomon and her Coupick cofounder Maya Holtzer, a mother of three.

Holzter, 40, and Solomon, 39, met when they started their Google Mom classes last October, the second round of the course. One day a week for 10 weeks, from 9:30am to 2pm, they and about 50 other women met at Google’s panoramic office in Tel Aviv –– with their small kids, if they chose.

A venture in the park

Google furnishes the women with expert seminars as they sit on poufy cushions and mats where the babies can roll around at leisure, getting nursed, burped and changed as needed.

 

Coupick cofounders Maya Holtzer, left, and Sharon Solomon.

Google Moms was created by successful Israeli entrepreneur Hilla Brenner, founder and past CEO of Whitesmoke. She worked with a friend, Google Israel Product Marketing Manager Tal Sarig-Avraham, to get the idea off the ground.

The two friends were walking through the park one day with their kids when it dawned on Brenner that she could take skills from her women-only high-tech network, Yazamiyot, to give other women who wanted to start their own ventures. Sarig-Avraham pushed to get the concept accepted at Google.

For Solomon, the timing was perfect, she tells ISRAEL21c. She was pregnant, had a toddler, and was looking for a productive way to use her three-and-a-half-month maternity leave.

During the first leave, she says, her days were spent meeting with girlfriends and talking about their babies.

 

Future business partners? Photo by Niv Kantor
With Raz, there has been a change: “I do the same things now with my girlfriends,” says Solomon. “Except this time it’s not just talk about pee-pee and ca-ca. Now it’s pee-pee, ca-ca and startups,” she smiles, while packing up her breast pump.

She attempts to juggle Raz’s nursing and sleeping schedule with her husband, who is also trying to build a startup.

“I knew I would have an opportunity and time to work on a startup during my maternity leave. My mission was to learn about startup goals and to meet people who were at my stage of development,” says Solomon, who has been working at startups and tech companies for 15 years.

The pressures of Israeli women

At the end of their Google Moms session, Solomon and Holtzer won the demo day competition, earning $20,000 worth of Google Cloud services and a slot in the esteemed Google Launch Pad program – which unfortunately is not open to babies.

Before they met, Holtzer had been trying to get a startup going through Facebook.

“I wasn’t wasting my time, but I was working needlessly and not going anywhere and felt stuck. I felt I needed a direction and framework and some new tools to take me forward,” she tells ISRAEL21c.

She’d heard of the women’s venture support network Yazamiyot, and they let her know about the program starting at Google.

Maybe the babies will pick up some tips, too. Photo by Niv Kantor

Maybe the babies will pick up some tips, too. Photo by Niv Kantor

“I thought, ‘Why not?’ I am a mom. Let’s take advantage of my gender.”

Women in Israel have, in some ways, a harder time starting up ventures. The social norm is to marry young, and have a career and children by age 30. Life plans are usually delayed by two or three years or more, because of army service, the almost “compulsory” post-army trip, and university.

Google Moms and other programs like We Dream offer the right framework, while not compromising on any of the perks offered in the usual networking channels.

Based on the resounding success in Israel, Google is now launching moms-only programs in London, Berlin and Moscow, says Brenner, whose own new company is called Keydownloads.

Commenting on the second session, as a third session of Google Moms is poised to begin in May, Brenner says, “It was nice because women got together and heard important lectures on business development and finance. They saw role models as the babies were crawling around.”

Integrated school for students with and without autism

There’s nothing else quite like Jerusalem’s Yad Hamoreh, where children with severe to moderate autism are integrated into a mainstream public school. By Abigail Klein Lachman

 

Visit Yad Hamoreh elementary school on a Friday morning and you’ll hear Shabbat songs, smell pizza and challah rolls baking in the oven, and see autistic children enjoying both activities with “regular” peers.

“This school has been incredible,” says Alana Goldstein, whose autistic fourth-grader recently won second place at a peer-judged “A Star is Born” talent show at Yad Hamoreh. “These are low-functioning kids with behaviors that are not easy to deal with. And the regular children actually grow up with them. They learn to see the autistic children as part of their society.”

Yad Hamoreh (“Teacher’s Hand”) is a one-of-a-kind Jerusalem public elementary school. Founded in 1998, today it integrates 187 normal first- through sixth-graders with 49 severely to moderately autistic peers. Mostly separated for academics, the kids do everything else together, from eating to swimming. Regular kids even join in therapy sessions involving games, sports, music, animal care and horticulture.

Because hers is a model school with no exact counterpart anywhere, Principal Ana Goren often hosts visiting educators from other Israeli municipalities as well as Eastern European countries, South America, China and the United States.

Zvi Shamir, uncle of an autistic niece and father of three normal daughters who have all attended Yad Hamoreh, explains that the first- through sixth-grade school was a parent-led initiative.

“It was based on a system developed by a kindergarten nearby that merged regular and autistic children,” Shamir tells ISRAEL21c. “This is a unique experiment in the world, we believe.”

Judging by the enthusiasm of his second-grader, Lia, the experiment is a success. “What do you like about your school?” ISRAEL21c asks, and Lia Shamir breaks into a grin. “Everything,” she says.

Like a private school

Goldstein’s son cannot verbalize quite as well, yet his mom can tell he’s happy and she gets daily written reports from his teachers.

“When our son was in his last year of [special] kindergarten, this was the only offer we had for him,” she says. “We were assured it would be the best place for him.”

The Education Ministry handles placement for the autistic children at Yad Hamoreh. Normal children, however, must apply for acceptance, and demand exceeds availability. You might not think parents would want their children exposed to the sometimes scary screeching and head-banging behaviors severely autistic children may display. But Goren’s behavior-modification approach appears to work wonders.

“Having regular children around makes the autistic children more aware,” says Goldstein. “The regular children also gain because they have so many unusual things going on here. The facilities are like what you’d expect in a private school.”

It’s not magic, stresses Su Narodowski, an educational instructor who works with special-ed teachers, pupils and parents at Yad Hamoreh.

“It doesn’t work easily or without hiccups. Our teachers have to be very flexible. The regular and special-ed teachers have to think of activities that allow both populations to participate, and behind that is a belief that this is worth fighting for.”

Shamir says that his girls learned respect and tolerance not only for kids with autism but also for people with a range of differences. The school includes religious and secular, Jewish and Arab pupils along with a multi-ethnic staff of administrators, teachers, therapists and community and National Service volunteers.

“It’s monumental that kids who leave this school have a value system, a social understanding, that is not an innate expectation,” Narodowski tells ISRAEL21c.

“At first they may be a bit wary of this kid who’s wiggling his fingers and making weird noises. Then suddenly they realize, ‘I want to go on stage and hold his hand.’ When you grow day by day with someone for six years, you learn to see very clearly what a person is made of.”

A community that benefits families

Shamir explains that the social modeling provided at Yad Hamoreh leads to remarkable achievements for the special kids.

“When [autistic children] learn with regular children, they have to adopt the modes of behavior of the regular society,” Shamir says. “Based upon research at the Hebrew University, we have the basis for our assumption that these children reach much, much higher levels of participation in society.”

Yad Hamoreh parents and siblings are welcome at school trips and events. “One of the main problems for autistic children’s families is their participation as a unit in the community,” says Shamir. “The community created by this school is very good for both kinds of families.”

The past two summers, Goldstein was pleasantly surprised when both autistic and regular classmates came to her son’s birthday parties. “Even though it was in the middle of the summer, more than half the regular children came,” she reports.

Inclusive extracurricular activities are critical to the school’s culture. A student choir of 43 kids includes four autistic children. When regular fifth-graders go for mandatory swimming lessons, their autistic classmates come along, although they have their own weekly hydrotherapy sessions. Narodowski says it took some persuasion for the Education Ministry to allow such an arrangement.

With everything going on at Yad Hamoreh, its school day is longer by two hours than most other Israeli public schools. But Lia Shamir doesn’t mind at all.

“What do you wish will happen today at school?” ISRAEL21c asks the second-grader. “That the day won’t finish,” she replies with a giggle.

 

mh- New York Jewish Parenting Guide.com