You can see the Mediterranean Sea very close by from the window of Cadence Design Systems VP R&D Prof. Ziyad Hanna in Haifa. "I think it's the high-tech building closest to the sea in Israel," he tells me with a smile. Tearing ourselves away from the view, we thought it might be no accident. Hanna always had big ambitions, even for the sector in which he grew up - although the chances were against him. He grew up in a large Christian Arab family. His father was a farmer who lost his home and had to do odd jobs to feed his family. Life was a struggle for economic survival. "My brothers began working in construction from an early age. It was very hard," he says. "My parents pinned their hopes on me."
Ziyad: "Because when it was my turn to go to school, the family had already achieved economic stability. It was already less of a war for survival, and my parents were better able to invest in their children."
Hanna, the only one of his brothers to go to university, says that from a very young age, he was "very ambitious concerning technology," and loved mathematics. "My parents claimed that this was impractical, because it was a profession in which at the time, you could only find work at companies like Elbit Systems Ltd. (Nasdaq: ESLT; TASE: ESLT) and Elscint, and it was obvious that I couldn't get a job there. But I wanted a PhD in computer science.
You studied at Tel Aviv University. How was it there?
"Difficult, and not only because of the language. Unlike the students from the Jewish sector, I had no background in computer science. For example, in the first lesson in Introduction to Computer Science, they gave me a task: to format a diskette. I didn't know what formatting meant."
After finishing his BSc, as part of a job fair at Tel Aviv University, he applied for a job at one of the companies at the fair. Hanna filled out a CV ("I didn't have much to write"), came to the interview, and ran into a brick wall. "They told me, 'Ziyad, it's a mistake'."
How did you feel?
"It was very hard, but I didn't give up. On the contrary; it strengthened me. I wanted to prove myself even more."
Hanna decided that he would turn temporarily to teaching. "I went back to the high school in Rama, and built a 15-unit computer science program from scratch: five units of computer science, five units of software engineering, and a five-unit project. They called me 'Ziyad the computer'," he laughs.
Other than making a living, was your objective in teaching to help the young generation acquiring a technological education in high school, in contrast to what you had?
"Yes, that's exactly it - to give them what I hadn't had."
After a short career in teaching, Hanna tried his luck again at a job fair at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology at the stand of none other than Intel. This time, it worked, and he was accepted at Intel.
How do you explain the positive answer you got from Intel?
"Intel is an international company built on values that say you have to evaluate a person as a person, not according to religion, gender, or race. I also assume that I was more mature and had more experience than before."
Were Intel an Israeli company, would you have been accepted?
Hanna initially worked at Intel as an MSc student. Then, after marrying at age 29 ("Yes, that's a rather late age in my sector, but I had to think about establishing myself before starting a family), he was offered the chance of relocation to the US, and jumped at the opportunity. He lived in Silicon Valley for 30 months, and admits that it was not easy at the beginning. "We had culture shock, but for me, it was a challenge, and I love challenges."
Did you encounter racism?
The family returned to Israel after the predetermined relocation period, and so that Abir, Hanna's wife, would not lose her job at the school. Then, in early 2000, Hanna began taking upon himself the task of narrowing as much as possible the gap between the Arab sector and the high-tech industry, and not only by increasing employment of Arabs in the industry. "I conducted many tours of Intel and the clean rooms of its fabs."
What was the main problem then that created the gap?
"The Arab sector doesn't understand at all what high tech is, what a programmer is, and what he does. 'That's not ours,' they think. I wanted them to understand that they shouldn’t rule out working in high tech. Arab society looks up to professions with a high social status, such as doctors, lawyers, and CEOs. A high-tech worker doesn't have that label."
Then, after 17 years, Hanna decided to leave Intel, where he had a group of 40 people under him. "I left because I wanted to develop beyond Intel. Intel is a wonderful company, but in a large corporation like that, it's hard sometimes to think entrepreneurially. I wanted to work in a small company, start something from scratch, and make my mark."
That is a pretty big risk. After all, it was Intel.
"True, but the area for which I was responsible at Intel was small, and Intel is a large company. It's like a good restaurant in the Hilton Hotel, where people go because it's the Hilton, not because of the restaurant itself."
Still, weren't you afraid?
"No. The desire to start something from scratch was greater."
You didn't have the entrepreneurial bug before that?
"Not really. I believed that I had to achieve stability first, establish myself, and study before going into entrepreneurship."
It happened to you at age 40. Does it have to do with the education you received?
"That's very probable. I got quite a conservative education, in other words, I was educated to take as few risks as possible. First study, work, get established, get a family, and only then take chances."
Would you recommend this to every entrepreneur?
"It depends a lot on who is involved, but in my opinion, an entrepreneur does need experience before becoming an entrepreneur, in other worlds, becoming independent, whether by working in a large company like Intel or by getting guidance from a close mentor. I, for example, had no mentor or someone to guide me, so the right way for me was to be accepted at a large company like Intel."
Aren't venture capital investors or angels a kind of mentor for a young entrepreneur?
"An investor isn't a mentor. He has an economic perspective - he invests in order to make a profit."
Hanna left Intel for Jasper, which operated in Silicon Valley. Hanna and his family again packed their bags and moved to the US. Hanna was not among the founders of Jasper; he began there as technologist and chief architect. Jasper developed software for testing the viability of computer chips in the design stages. "I really enjoyed it, because I became open to the world. In a small company, either everyone wins or everyone loses. There's solidarity. No one is stepping on anyone else. In a large company, on the other hand, there is a personal element. The employee doesn't look at his performance with respect to the larger picture."
After three years, Hanna returned to Israel to found Jasper's development center in Israel ("that was my idea"), and the company was acquired in 2014 by Cadence for $170 million in cash.
How did that feel? The small thing became big…
(smiles) "It was a mixed feeling. On the one hand, I was glad that my dream of taking something small and making it big was realized. On the other hand, every entrepreneur thinks what would have happened to his company, had he waited a little longer."
Hanna reiterates that it was the first exit of a startup with Arab management, but this one example is not enough to encourage the Arab sector to think about a career in high tech. "Anything that happens in the Arab sector in the direction of technological entrepreneurship is amazing."
At this point, Hanna tells about a survey conducted by MasarUp – the Arab Entrepreneurship Council, led by key figures in the Arab business sector, including Hanna (masar means jump forth in Arabic). MasarUp later became a sub-group of the high-tech council in Tsofen, in which he serves as co-chairman. The council's goal is 500 Arab-led startups within five years. Last May, when the council was launched, MasarUp conducted a comprehensive survey aimed at examining the readiness of Arab society for high tech. The survey was conducted among 500 respondents, most of whom were residents of the Galilee in the 25-34 age bracket with at least 12 years of education.
The study showed that 40% of Arabs have been exposed to high tech and entrepreneurship, compared with 90% of Jews. 20% of the Arabs know someone in the industry personally. This is a troubling figure, given the clear relationship between personal acquaintance and support and a desire to work in the industry. Half of those questioned supported a focus on Arab society in promoting high tech and entrepreneurship. The survey also found substantial gaps, including status (e.g. income and education), age, gender, and area (the Arab triangular region northeast of Tel Aviv, the Galilee), had directly affected the respondents' aspirations. Together with these gaps, there were significant gender gaps in choosing from among the different forms of employment - self-employed, employee, or business owner - and in a significant preference among women for education, and among men for engineering and high tech.
"This survey revealed that there was still little awareness of high tech in the Arab sector, despite an improvement over the past 20 years. Fear still exists, and there are barriers that the sector must overcome, such as language," Hanna says. He is working to improve this situation in the framework of the Tsofen high-tech council, together with David (Dadi) Perlmutter, the other council co-chairman. Perlmutter was the highest-placed Israeli in Intel. He is acting "in four channels of action," as he explains, so that the number of Arab employees in Israeli high tech will correspond to their proportion in the population, i.e. 20%, instead of 2-3%, as at present. "The first channel is government, in other words, more investment in infrastructure and participation in government tenders without built-in discrimination (Hanna is referring mainly to the criterion of army service, T.T.). As of now, this is not on the government agenda. The second is education, in other words, investing more in technological education at a young age. The third is industry - persuading Israeli employers and foreigners in Israel to employ more Arabs, because at any given moment, there is a shortage of 10,000 engineers. The fourth is entrepreneurship, i.e. education for entrepreneurship." According to Hanna, right now, there are about 50 Arab startups supported by the Office of the Chief Scientist.
At this point, Hanna says that the lack of high-quality personnel in the high-tech industry is more critical. In view of the above efforts, he says, "There's no need to look for outside solutions, such as outsourcing to India or importing employees from Ukraine. I believe in diversity. High-tech companies are built on cultural differences and a range of talents. The gap between Israelis and Indians is wider than the gap between Jews and Arabs, so high tech can easily bridge the cultural gaps. High tech is the glue that can connect peoples and cultures."
Are you optimistic about realizing this vision?
"Very optimistic, among other things because I look at the macro, in contrast to the past, when I looked at the micro. There's a very strong demand for engineers, and the supply in the Arab sector has grown, and there is more openness.
Isn't the current political atmosphere making things difficult?
"It's difficult, but if we wait for a political solution, it will never happen. I'm a pragmatic man, so I believe that people should take their fate in their hands and initiate."
Published by Globes [online], Israel Business News - www.globes-online.com - on April 19, 2017
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