It’s 8:30 AM in Palo Alto and I’m skyping with the CEO of Lean On, Chedva Kleinhandler, who is telling me about her new mobile mentoring app for women. On the screen appears an elegant, well-spoken, dark-haired woman dressed for business even though it’s already nighttime at her home near Tel Aviv. Fully bilingual in English and Hebrew, with a background as a translator and social media marketer, Ms. Kleinhandler is ready to connect.
The Lean On demo she shows me is impressive. With a crisp, easy-to-use interface, you can search the app to find women mentors to advise you at work. Choose to either search for a topic (like “speaking up” or “work-life balance”) and get community-curated tips, or — write your own question and get a list of mentors who are both available right now and relevant to your specific question. After you pick one of them, you’ll jump into a 1:1 chat conversation with her — immediately and privately.
When I try my questions about assembling a team, working on pitches, and asking for raises, I find there are a dozen mentors in my timezone who would be available to chat with me immediately and in real time.
I mention to Chedva that this app will be particularly helpful for women in tech fields, where a sizable gender gap remains. Ms. Kleinhandler agrees, but envisions a much wider more global reach to include women in all industries:
Lean On offers confidential, secure, on-demand advice whenever you need it.
The landing page encourages visitors:
“Be Heard: Voice your work-related concerns, challenges, and wins.”
“Get Unstuck: With the perspective of a mentor, solutions become simple and attainable.”
“Be Smarter: Good advice helps you turn almost any problem into a win-win situation.”
“Take Action: Sometimes you know what to do, but you need help getting there.”
“Do it Now: Get expert advice whenever you need. You’re worth it.”
A savvy social media marketer and blogger, Ms. Kleinhandler, has arrived in Israel’s start-up scene from somewhat unusual circumstances. Not only has she jump-started her writing career on the strength of her own writing and blogging, it’s also rare for a woman from an ultra-Orthodox background to become a high-tech entrepreneur. Her community is supportive, if somewhat bemused by her ambition to work outside the house. Her husband and family are highly enthusiastic about her venture and have been assiduously helping her as she moves forward toward her April launch date. When she prepares presentations for women within her community, she includes passages from the Torah to help her better reach her audience. Indeed, the Torah offers quite a bit of inspiration for women who aspire to connect and support each other. But Chedva’s sources are not only religious. She draws from great literature around the world and shows displays her gifts as a writer with a uniquely personal style of communication and a keen sense of design. Lean On aims at building a community in Israel and around the world.
Chedva was kind enough to answer some questions:
1) Tell us how you came up with your idea for Lean On:
Lean On started from a conversation with my now-partner Nadav about how hard it is to be a woman in advertising — an industry he worked in for more than a decade. I then shared my own experience as a self-employed woman, and how approaching and finding mentors has helped me throughout my career — especially since I had a less than traditional career path, coming from a religious background where women usually didn’t work.
But then I started doing research — first talking to friends and then conducting a survey. Within eight days, I got more than 500 responses from women in 56 countries. It was crystal clear: It’s still often very challenging to be a woman in the workplace, no matter the industry and location.
We looked at what’s out there — and we realized there is so much in the sense of inspiration (books, blogs, and other content) and networking (both online and off — Facebook groups, meetups, conferences). These are two very important components, and we’re lucky to have them, but what’s still missing very much is a go-to tool women can use whenever they need advice and support with an experienced, professional perspective. We realized the three key elements that are missing were: timeliness, professional relevance, and privacy.
After analyzing the results of the survey and arriving at the above conclusion, we started designing our solution, which we called Lean On and then found our CTO and our Creative Director and started developing it. It’s an app women use when they’re facing a work issue (whether a problem or a challenge, negative or positive). A woman can submit her question and will then get a list of suggested mentors — all available online right now. She can filter the list by location, industry and other parameters and then pick the most relevant mentor and go into a 1:1 chat. If she doesn’t have a specific issue or isn’t ready to chat, she can also search for top mentor tips by topic.
We feel women from all industries need and deserve a tool like this. However, while conducting the survey and even more so while working on the startup and becoming a woman in tech myself, the subject was and still is very present. A recent survey on women in tech in the Silicon Valley presents some devastating numbers, and there are some employer review sites that are focused on the gender-equality of companies like Doxa and Inhersight that show that even in the seemingly diverse and women-friendly companies, the gender pay gap still very much exists.
At Lean On, we’re trying to change that from within – both making it possible for women in STEM to find mentors within and without the industry and hone skills like negotiation, speaking up, etc., so they can better navigate in this challenging industry and change it for the better from within. We are also working on an enterprise solution. Employers are realizing more and more that it’s not enough to hire for diversity and inclusion — they also need to support the women that are inside the organization. Because otherwise what happens is they lose their best female talent. We’re trying to change that, and were already approached by a few companies, including tech companies, which are interested.
2) Can you tell us more about how Lean On ensures security and privacy?
All mentors go through a screening process before approved. Users log in/sign up through Linkedin Connect — which means:
1. Only women can get in.
2. Both we at Lean On and mentors see a user’s name, her title and her current company. We designed the app this way, so mentors can feel safe knowing whom they are advising, and users feel accountable for their actions on the app.
3) What special insights does the Israeli startup world have for women elsewhere? What about in Silicon Valley where women are still way outnumbered?
A very interesting fact that we learned during our survey is that Israeli women have it better than American ones regarding being a woman in the workplace. I’m not sure this is right when talking about the pay gap etc. — but being a less formal and hierarchical does help. However, there is still a bit of the “boys’ club” feeling, especially with men entrepreneurs who went to the army together. But there are surprising and refreshing initiatives taking place inside the startup scene, which are worth highlighting and maybe learning from:
KamaTech, an accelerator for the ultra-Orthodox that started very much as an underdog, just completed their demo day/roadshow in Tel Aviv, London, and New York. It was really refreshing to see that half of the founders were women — especially since women are often under-represented in the ultra-Orthodox world due to concerns of modesty.
Ranky, a startup marketing agency, has opened their office for one female entrepreneur to both works from and received mentorship.
What’s interesting about all of the above efforts is that they’re not another secluded event/program for women, but are there to support women within the existing eco-systems.
There’s still a long way to go, but it’s great seeing more and more awareness.
3) Have you gained your insights into community building from being part of an ultra-Orthodox community?
Yes of course, but even more so, having a special relationship to my parents has influenced the model I’m developing for my mentorship app. In the ultra-Orthodox community, one often goes to a rabbi for advice as well as one’s parents. There’s a tradition of being able to be vulnerable and present your dilemmas while also feeling safe. My parents have taught be how asking for advice makes you stronger and more open to others who may need you as well.
4) What advice do you have for women entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
My best advice would be to surround yourself with people you can learn from and never shy away from asking to learn or asking for help. When you’re an entrepreneur, you’re working on a grander vision, something bigger than yourself, and it’s 100% necessary to be vulnerable and open for advice. Find mentors and ask them hard questions, but don’t become dependent — it’s you who started it and at the end of the day, your intuition is probably right.
5) In your opinion, what are the best skills women students can acquire before trying to enter industry.
I would say, just get your feet wet. Be an entrepreneur even before you graduate – start new things, create, invent and maybe sometimes fail. It’s the best way to learn. Oh, and pay attention to everything finance.
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Are you a woman in industry? Thinking of starting your own business? Working at a company? Want to feel ready for new challenges?
Lean On is launching a closed Beta in the States this spring. Women interested in becoming users, mentors or both can sign up online to get notified once the app launches widely.