January 18, 2021 — New York
This piece originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post.
Samer Haj-Yehia says he did not break a glass ceiling when he was named Bank Leumi’s first Arab chairman last year. “Those who appointed me, who believed in me, who made the decision, broke the glass ceiling.”
Hiring and promoting Arab citizens lags behind the increase in recent years of Arab graduates from Israeli colleges and universities. Today, only one percent of managers in the business sector are Arab.
Finding ways to encourage companies to both hire Arabs with university degrees as well as promote talented employees is considered vital.
“Israel’s economic growth depends on the talent and integration of Arabs and haredim. The future of our economy is these groups,” says Danny Gal, CEO of Kav Mashve, a nongovernmental organization that focuses on Arab employment.
Kav Mashve was established in 2007 by the late industrialist Dov Lautman, who had noticed at the time that none of the Arab employees in his own companies were in management positions. In its early years, Kav Mashve focused on outreach to Arab high school students, to help them with preparation for higher education and, together with the government’s Council on Higher Education, operating career centers for Arab students on university campuses.
But on-campus guidance had limited impact.
“The conversion rate, that is, how many students got jobs, was not good,” says Gal, who has led Kav Mashve since 2015. “I decided to invest in leadership training. I had just come from the Kennedy School at Harvard. Why don’t we have this level of executive training for Arabs in Israel?”
Kav Mashve established “business clubs” on major campuses, including Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Hebrew Universities, to “change the ways students think about careers, provide networking with companies and help them integrate into industry early in their careers,” says Gal.
While 22% of Arab graduates get jobs in professions related to their fields of study, the rate is 75% for students who participated in the Kav Mashve business clubs. The group plans to increase the number of business clubs from 10 to 40 over the next several years, with a total of 800 students per year.
Kav Mashve also is working with Arab employees in Israeli companies. Its Lead Forward program aims to instill confidence in employees when seeking promotions to managerial positions.
Samer Abboud, who completed the program in 2017, says, “I needed to have courage to go to our CEO, and Lead Forward totally changed the way I think about community and work.”
Originally from Shfaram, Abboud graduated from the Technion with a degree in biomedical engineering and was hired by Alpha Omega. Following Lead Forward, he was sent to China, and today is the CEO of Guangzhou Alpha Omega Medical Technology.
One-third of the participants in Lead Forward are women.
“It gave me the opportunity to learn about myself, how to deal with colleagues, how to manage,” says Reem Khoury. Her employer, Osem Nestle, selected Khoury to participate in the program last year. She is the only Arab woman in the company’s finance department. She now is encouraging other Arab women to apply for positions in Israeli companies.
Some 80% of the 40 men and women who have completed the Lead Forward program to date were promoted to senior roles in their workplaces. Gal envisions expanding it to accommodate 200 per year to achieve 1,000 Arab managers in Israeli businesses by 2025.
“I want other Arab professionals to have what I did not have, relevant role models early in their careers,” says Sami Assad, who succeeded Gal as head of Kav Mashve on January 1, after serving as the group’s vice president for three years. He is the first Arab to lead the organization.
“Arab managers create an important influence within their organizations by making their voices heard by recruiting and opening doors for other talented Arab employees,” says Assad. By integrating Arab professionals at all levels of management, companies will be viewed as more diverse, and that will attract more diverse populations.”
Ultimately, career success depends on relationships. For many Israeli Arabs, the networking opportunities come later than it does for Jews, many of whom have formed personal ties while serving in the IDF before they go to university. For young Arabs, the networking potentially begins at university, but assistance, such as Kav Mashve’s business clubs, are important.
“The actual real integration for Arabs is when they go to work,” Bank Leumi’s Haj-Yehia said in his keynote address to the Kav Mashve Online Conference last month. Most Arabs live apart from Jews and attend separate schools until university.
Overcoming ingrained divisions within Israeli society is necessary, says Haj-Yehia. “The more integration we have, all the way to the most senior levels, the more stability we can have in the economy and as a country.”
Kav Mashve is “creating inspiration and success stories for the next generation,” says Gal. “For me, this is my life’s work.”
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.