Personal: 31 | Married with a son | Translation diploma studies at Beit Berl
An enterprise tool, based on an artificial intelligence algorithm, that enables employees to ask questions anonymously, in real time, and receive responses and support from anyone in the enterprise. The tool, which she calls democratization of mentoring, also facilitates analytics, instead of the enterprise having to rely on employee surveys. This year she started to work with international cosmetics company Estée Lauder.
It is hard to find a free hour in Chedva Kleinhandler’s tight schedule, but she will do anything to find that hour, even if it means having a conversation at midnight in a taxi on the way home at the end of a workday. The meeting with her in the café is a part of a series of meetings with not a moment wasted; if she is already in a given area, there are undoubtedly some loose ends to tie up. "The truth is that I never decided to found a startup," she says. "To this day, it sounds weird to me. Why should I have a startup? But mentoring was very meaningful in my life."
Kleinhandler comes from a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) background, and it was clear to her from a very young age that she would be self-employed, first of all because she had no academic degree, and she discovered that without one, it is hard to find a job. "I’m sure that people talk behind my back, but I don't care," is her comment about being one of the pioneering high-tech women entrepreneurs in the haredi sector.
That same need for mentoring, and the realization that her future lay in entrepreneurship, are what eventually led here to found Emerj.
It all began with a survey containing 30 questions that Kleinhandler used to check out the territory. "I worked on it for three weeks, and distributed it to women’s Facebook groups. I sent it to colleagues and asked them to share it. 500 women from 56 countries, including even Saudi Arabia, answered it within a week."
Did you already realize that you had a startup on your hands?
"I was afraid that that would happen, and I was afraid that it wouldn’t. I put my all in it. All I could think was, ‘Shit, I have to do something with this.’ A lot of adrenaline was flowing in me, and I didn’t know how to channel it. I made a lot of mistakes. For example, at the beginning, we developed a mobile app. I contacted people, and I didn’t really know what to ask them for. I burned a lot of energy on things with no results."
You needed mentoring.
"Exactly. I also didn’t know how to contact the relevant people. There are things they told me at the beginning that I understood only after two years. What helped me a lot was getting to know other women entrepreneurs."
Kleinhandler began in the Kamatech accelerator (for haredi startups), and raised money mostly from small funds (micro-VC funds) and angels. Emerj was originally meant only for women, but it occurred to Kleinhandler that this was a mistake.
"I realized that although we wanted to help women get ahead, we might be making a ghetto for them, especially because mentoring was gathering steam in enterprises."
What was the hardest thing to do at the beginning?
"At the initial stage, when there is no financing, it’s very hard to find development people – they’re the ones whose salary is worth more, because they’re doing the work. There was a developer who helped me as a volunteer at the beginning, and eventually left. At a certain point, a woman was recruited to help with technology, and today she’s a partner in the venture.
What did you discover about entrepreneurship?
"That you just have to start and make loads of mistakes. My first six months, other than the survey, was all mistakes. You start from a place that leads to a place from which you get smarter. The second thing is that you have to always make sure that the startup won’t be the only thing in your life. I feel lucky that I came to entrepreneurship when I already had things that were higher on my list of priorities, like family. That really helps you.
"A third thing is that you have to listen to other people all the time, and learn even from meetings with the most obnoxious people. You don’t have to accept what they tell you, but you do have to listen. You have to develop your intuition - remember that you make the final decisions, even though it’s easier to let someone else decide. But who says entrepreneurship is easy? It's just the opposite."
Was there any point at which you felt that it was all going to fail?
"I fail all the time. For example, there was a customer I wanted to get to. I met with the CEO, and it all eventually fell apart because of something technical that couldn't be overcome. That taught us that our market was 45 degrees from there. How could I have known? It was a big Israeli company with an enterprise culture that I still dream about working with, but I found out that that’s not the market. I discovered that I'd been blind to companies that were our market - fast-growing companies."
"I was never trained to be a CEO, but I realized that I had many strengths. No one expects me to invent our next algorithm, but it’s possible to use creativity to solve technological problems. It’s also important not to stick too closely to the job definition. A 10-minute conversation with a woman who doesn't think the way I do will sometimes enable me to see things differently."