Friday, November 6, 2009

Jasmine conference for business women

On November 4, 2009, I attended the annual conference of Jasmine, the Association of Businesswomen in Israel . Long-time readers of this blog may recall that I also attended this event last year. It was held at the Dan Carmel hotel here in Haifa, the conference venue I have been to more times than any other hotel.

The conference was presented by journalist Iman Elqasem Suliman, who introduced the speakers and made announcements in Hebrew, Arabic and sometimes English, very competently and calmly, even when there were changes to the schedule.

The morning started later than scheduled. First there were thanks to the sponsors and organizers of the event and of Jasmine, including the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development, the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, and Bezeq, Israel's largest telecommunications company. Particularly interesting among the opening comments were some statistics quoted by Dr. Lars Hansel of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. He spoke briefly about the importance of the growing role of women in politics, particularly relevant for Germany, where the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is female. He noted that among countries with elected parliaments, ten have no female members of parliament, and fifty have 10-15% female representatives. In the Arab states there are 9-10% women, and in Israel 15%.

Then there was a panel about small and medium-sized businesses in Israel. The panel was led by former MK Nadia Hilou (who also spoke at last year's event). She mentioned a government debate last week that focuses on small business and the employment of women, and also noted that the Minister of Minorities, MK Avishay Braverman, is investing in promoting women's employment in the minority sectors. Then Hilou interviewed the panel members.

Galit Hemi, editor of Calcalist, one of Israel's leading daily economics newspapers, spoke about the problems of under-reporting of both small businesses and business women in the media, and stated that she supported positive discrimination in order to increase the media exposure of both sectors.

Dalit Raviv from Bank Hapoalim, Israel's second largest bank, spoke about the increasing role of women in banking. 70% of Bank Hapoalim's staff are female, but only 50% of management level staff, and only 30% of board members are women. In the banking sector in Israel, there are two female CEOs of large banks, who are among Israel's most influential business people.

Daniel Mazliah from the Israel Small and Medium Enterprises Authority spoke of the suitability of entrepreneurship for women, since they can work at something they love, enjoy flexible work hours and work from home.

Iman Sef from the Arab Sector Economic Development Authority described plans to invest in business projects of Arab women. A new fund is being set up to support businesses in the Arab sector, with a fund of NIS 160 million, half from the Authority and half from private investors. He also announced plans to require Israeli government tenders to guarantee fair representation of the Arab sector.

After this panel, there was a presentation by Tareq Bashir, manager of the Sulam Loan Fund, on obtaining loans. He noted that the Arab sector has difficulty in getting credit, and presented the Sulam Loan Fund, aimed specifically at businesses owned by Arab entrepreneurs, or by a 50-50 partnership of Arab and Jewish business people.

Nissim Douek of Unik spoke about public relations and how to promote businesses and products. Then Yair Carmel of Agent Interactive spoke about Internet marketing. Unfortunately, as time was short, he was given less time than originally scheduled, but managed to provide useful information about promoting websites and search engine optimization.

Then we had lunch. Even though the conference was already behind schedule, the lunch break took longer than expected and it was difficult to get participants back into the lecture hall.

The afternoon session started with some success stories. Sara Shemer, founder of the Arcaffe chain of coffee shops, described how she applied what she termed "female values" of quality, relationship with customers, intuition and creativity, into her business model, and hoped that women would introduce new management styles instead of adapting to the existing "masculine" model. Liat Timor, a journalist and editor in Maariv, suggested it was important to start with one product, but make it the best product possible. Three short films about women's success stories were screened, including the story of Iman Zuebi, owner of the Al-Mutran guest house in Nazareth, who spoke last year.

The organizers then launched the new Jasmine portal, a website covering all the activities and services of Jasmine, where members can build their own mini-sites. Since many businesses in Israel still have no websites, the provision of this free service to Jasmine members is very useful, and I plan to build my own mini-site there soon.

The main panel of the afternoon included Jasmine president
Ofra Strauss, Chair of Strauss-Elite, Israel's second largest food company, the VIP guest Cherie Blair, in her capacity as founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, and Rim Younis of Alpha Omega, a Nazareth-based company producing electrodes and neuroscience technology. This panel was conducted in English, and simultaneous interpreting into Hebrew and Arabic was available. The presenter was television anchorwoman Dana Weiss of Channel Two television.

Cherie Blair mentioned the current economic crisis, and hinted that it was caused mainly by men. She then spoke about the importance of women for the world's economy. She noted that 70% of illiterate people are female, and 70% of children who do not attend school are girls. Women are always among the poorest people. The aim of her foundation is to change this situation. She mentioned a recent statistic, that Israel is in the 45th place out of 130 countries in the gender equality ranking. The barriers facing women include: not receiving equal pay, low representation on boards of directors (only 10% in Europe), and low political representation. The keys to changing women's role: education, economic participation, confidence, supportive partners and children. She also noted that men are changing too.

Ofra Strauss spoke next, explaining that women in the work place are a global issue, and focusing on diversity in businesses. Although her company, Strauss, is one of the largest in Israel, she is a supporter of women setting up small businesses and considers this to be one way of overcoming the recession. She said, interestingly, that women's employment is important for men, so that both partners in a relationship are equally responsible for supporting the family.

Rim Younis seemed nervous to be in the company of these famous women, but spoke passionately about the importance of following one's dreams and the support she received from her family. She noted that the traditional extended family in Arab society can be an advantage to business women, as there will always be someone available to help with the children.

When this panel finished, there was a rush of reporters to photograph Cherie Blair and Ofra Strauss with some of the other participants, and this delayed the start of the final lecture.

Hava Doron of Copyhouse explained how participants could build their mini-sites on the Jasmine portal. Unfortunately, there were a few technical problems with the presentation, and some people had to leave as the conference was already running late.

During the conference, there was a trade fair in another room, with stalls presenting some of the businesses, mainly those related to arts and crafts. These included jewellery, natural toiletries, basket weaving, fabric weaving, bags and various artists.

Participants in the conference received, in addition to user names and passwords for the free mini-site on the portal, a free book written in both Hebrew and Arabic about setting up a business, with very useful practical information and also success stories to inspire the readers.

Unlike last year's conference, when the schedule was changed by many cancellations, this time there was only one cancellation of a planned speaker, the Minister of Industry, Trade and Labour, MK Binyamin Ben Eliezer.

The conference suffered from delays in the schedule, which was somewhat unprofessional and forced some speakers to cut their presentations short. One reason for this was that many participants were more interested in networking than in the lectures. The seating arrangement, around round tables, encouraged people to talk during the lectures, and there was an almost constant buzz of background conversation and of other people trying to silence it. Some people kept their phones on, which was annoying. Also, despite the provision of simultaneous interpreting during the English panel (into both Hebrew and Arabic), very few people took the headphones, and many seemed to rely on their neighbours at the tables to explain what was being said, which I considered rude both to the speakers and to the interpreters (one of whom was a personal friend), as well as contributing to the background noise level.

I believe that future conferences could be better organized in several ways. First, the seating in the lecture hall should be in rows facing the stage rather than around tables (though, admittedly, the table seating made it easier to take notes). This would contribute to the audience concentrating on the lectures. There could be different sessions aimed at new businesses and at more experienced business women. Also, since there seems to be a great need and desire for networking, there should be structured networking sessions conducted in another room. The organizers should make every effort to start on time, and to get the audience back into the room after breaks on time.

I enjoyed this conference and found it more useful than last year's event. I will read the book I received and set up my mini-site. I look forward to seeing how Jasmine develops over the coming years.

Update (November 23, 2009): Here's a short video clip about the conference.

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