A month ago, Chedva Kleinhandler, founder and CEO of Emerj, a startup, received an intriguing e-mail. The senders, representatives of the Intentional Futures (IF) consultant company located in Seattle, said they were representing Bill Gates in innovation matters. They asked Kleinhandler whether she would be interested in taking part in a video conversation in which she would explain her company's product to them, so that they could present it to Gates as part of a routine market review they were conducting for him.
Kleinhandler saw the e-mail at two in the morning as soon as it landed in her inbox. That is not at all unusual when you work late at night.
"Globes": Were you suspicious that it was not genuine?
Kleinhandler: "I was surprised. I decided not to answer immediately, and in the morning, I showed it to the team: CTO Hannit Cohen, creativity director Daina Reed, and mobile developer Elit Maoz. They were all as excited as I was. The same night, I checked them out on Google. I was glad, but I also had a fit of anxiety. When there's a big opportunity, it brings a burden of proof with it."
Kleinhandler, 31, an ultra-Orthodox woman from Bnei Brak, founded the startup two years ago. She has quite an impressive resume of ventures and blogs behind her. The startup was originally name Lean On, but has matured and developed since it was founded and has been through several changes, the least of which is its new name.
"I answered them that I would be glad to schedule a video meeting. They explained that they were helping Gates keep his finger on the pulse, and that the subject that interested him was professional networks. He selects topics that are not standard and they carry out research and market surveys for him. At the same time, they also select a some startups that seem interesting and different to them. They were enthusiastic in the conversation we had, but you know how it is - Americans are always enthusiastic. Actually, they thought we were at a much more advanced stage, and were a little disappointed to find out that we hadn't even raised any money. I was already convinced that that would be the end of it, but they got back to me after a week and said that although it was a really early stage, they still wanted to continue the process."
How did they find you?
"To this day, I have no idea. They knew I was in the KamaTech accelerator (an accelerator focusing mainly on haredi entrepreneurs, S.D.) now, but I know that that's not how they found us. It wasn't through the Microsoft offices in which we were then located in the accelerator framework, either."
"The future of work"
Kleinhandler says that Emerj is part of a sector "that can be conservatively referred to as HR tech, but we're more in a segment that includes the future of work. In the initial version of the product, we built an app aimed at promoting women in the workplace and connecting them to mentors who would help them 'on demand' in a private chat. After a lot of hesitation, we switched to the B2B sector. We realized that enterprises use a lot of resources in implementing 'diversity,' not solely for moral reasons, but because they understand that that's where the future of work lies.
"Today, you can no longer rely on a profile of 25-40 year-old white men. We realized that we had an opportunity to make a change from inside, and to reach more men and women, rather than just gathering women users. The further we went, the clearer it became that in order to make a change, we couldn't just focus on women. Instead of creating another ghetto, we'd have to make it available to everyone. This is a tool that can be adapted to all employees in a company: relatively old ones and young employees who have not yet been promoted, and still have no suitable networking to give them opportunities. We're making mentoring accessible and creating a place for an employee where there are more people who believe in him or her. After all, most of the decisions about somebody's career are made when they're not even in the room."
At this stage, Emerj is a mobile app adapted for enterprises "painted in the enterprise's colors." The user can use it to look for a mentor immediately, or settle for tips that someone has already saved anonymously. The algorithm analyzes the text of the questions, prioritizes and locates the most relevant people for answering in the enterprise, and finds out which of them are available now. It can even be the CEO. "A large part of the process is anonymous, but in order to create mutual responsibility, the mentor being asked knows who has asked. We may add anonymous options in the future," Kleinhandler explains.
The labor market is projected to change. People will sell services and work from home. Won't that make your product superfluous?
"On the contrary. That's exactly the place to be: people working from home and in small offices, and it's a bigger challenge to create an orderly enterprise culture like this. In addition, what enterprises now find alarming is the high turnover in employees. 91% of the Y generation do not plan to remain more than three years in their place of employment. Some of the reasons are the lack of opportunity for development and personal growth. We checked, and saw studies showing that effective mentoring will help here.
"This week, we met with an enterprise that told us that its challenge was the open talent economy - in other words, a new enterprise structure of talents. They told us that if a solution were found for this, it would be worth billions of dollars to them. They said that every employee who leaves costs them an average of 90-200% of his or her annual salary. In general, when employees leave, the brand name of the place is damaged. In one meeting with an enterprise human resources department, I casually mentioned that we have a great deal of data on employees, but data that does not expose them or harm their privacy. That was a game changer in the meeting. It's worth a lot. After all, enterprises conduct employee reviews that aren't really effective. Just by using the app, we can provide a perspective - how many consulting questions were there about conflicts with colleagues, how many about flexibility in working from home, and so forth. It's not just data from the use itself - it's an algorithm, but it's not a bot or a robot - it's data about people. Traditional mentoring, in which a senior employee advises the employee, helps, but experience shows that it's hard for people to commit and persist. The people involved are usually very senior. We want, and I apologize for the buzz word, to democratize the process."
"Significant exposure to customers"
What's the next step? Haven't you raised capital yet?
"We're about to start a pilot in one of Israel's biggest technology companies, and are in advanced processes with giant companies in the US. Thanks to the KamaTech accelerator, we have reached many enterprises, and in this framework, in March, we'll fly in for a demo in New York and Silicon Valley. We don't have any investors yet. We're going to raise money, and I can say that angels have expressed interest. There is also interest from Bill Gates. After the second talk with IF, they said that there are cases in which he asks for a follow-up, and it's usually for purposes of an investment, but you can't really know. As of now, it's mostly our money and a NIS 20,000 grant we got from KamaTech.
"Right now, we're getting organized for a trip to the mobile conference in Barcelona. Right next to it is the YFN4 international conference for growing startups, whose chairman is Yossi Vardi. We got invitations to both of them – we were one of the six finalists in the competition held by YFN4 for young startups seeking to make workplaces more equal. Startups from 16 countries submitted their candidacies, and we reached the final hurdle. That means that we'll make a pitch there, and get a stand. It will be more significant exposure to our potential customers."
Published by Globes [online], Israel Business News - www.globes-online.com - on January 22, 2017
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