Becoming Unique and Valuable

How Zoë Cohen hacked her aliyah story

Since starting this blog, I shared many of my thoughts about careers in the new world of work, why an entrepreneurial approach is key to survive and thrive, and how thinking like a business unit is the best way I know to operate in today’s work and business environment. And especially during the current COVID-19, how to take advantage of the Corona crisis opportunity.

Working with many international talents in Israel, and especially with “Olim” (those who made “Aliyah” – new immigrants) and participants of programs such as Masa Israel Journey, Onward Israel and others, I directed many of my tips for this community – from how to better look for a job to leverage your unique added value, how to discover hidden opportunities at work, and more.

But, nothing beats hearing it from others. This time, I am happy to have Zoë Cohen, who moved to Israel from South Africa, finished a Masa internship program, and moved from business development to becoming a full-stack developer through Israel Tech Challenge <itc>.

Zoë, what’s your story?

I am originally from South Africa, nowadays live in Tel Aviv and work for Dualiti Interactive as a software engineer. I came to Israel for a 6 month “Masa” program in 2018, and worked as a business development intern. I then decided to stay in Israel and signed up for Israel Tech Challenge Hi-Tech Academy <itc>, for the Full-Stack Development program. That’s how I got into becoming a developer in high tech, and that’s what I do today.

What was your original motivation to move to Israel?

To be honest, my original intention was not to make Aliyah and move to Israel permanently. The first half of 2018 was an absolute whirlwind for me – I was writing my final semester exams for a Bachelors of Commerce in Financial Management, I was also writing the CFA Level 1 exam and I went through the trauma of losing someone close and very important to me. Losing someone close to you highlights how short life is – in many ways the passing of this person inspired me to pack up and leave. I had realized that I had spent so much time trying to find myself in the professional world, so I made a very sudden decision to sign up for Masa. It made sense because I would have the opportunity to intern, and when I realized that I’d be living with 5 other people, the appeal quadrupled because I was starving for an experience that would challenge me across the spectrum. 

And how was that experience?

During the program, I learnt a shocking amount about myself, the world I live in and the industry I was totally disinterested in. I fell in love with Israel too, and the person I had grown into while living here. And so, when the program ended, I did not want to go back to South Africa permanently. 6 months of the Masa program, in Israel, pumped me with a feeling of life that I had never felt before – that is the honest truth. Why would I want to let that go? So, I had to choose between either studying or finding a job in order to justify my extended-stay. My train of thought went “Israel… Start-Up Nation… Coding!” That’s why I decided to apply to <itc>. I figured it would either work out, or it wouldn’t – you never know unless you try. I’d taken a gamble by extending my stay permanently, so two gambles made way for two possible gains. 

What was the hardest moment in your professional journey in Israel, so far?

The hardest ‘moment’ in my professional journey has been my ongoing, daily struggle with adapting to an entirely new language in a new culture. Even though <itc> was a 100% English environment, at work – communicating with fellow employees and managers is oftentimes difficult enough in our native languages, let alone in a new language – Hebrew in by case. I was constantly miscommunicating and relaying information incorrectly due to my intermediate Hebrew. Further, as a web developer I was learning new coding languages in Hebrew: Learning a new language in a different language was tortuous. 

What helped you the most to overcome this challenging moment?

Fortunately, learning a new language and gaining the confidence to speak in a new language gets better in time. So, while I do still make mistakes when I speak and while I do not always understand every single word in a conversation, I am able to adequately do my job and feel confident in my speaking abilities. Time truly is the ultimate healing power. And of course, my company was very understanding of my struggles with Hebrew and made an extra effort to make sure that I was coping well with all the new changes in my life.  

In a recent post on <itc> blog, you mentioned how recently you coped with COVID-19 implications at work, would you mind re-sharing that story?

The COVID-19 Crisis presented me with a window of opportunity. At Dualiti, we began developing a solution for a specific need related to the Corona crisis (a platform that connects buyers and suppliers of COVID PPE – Personal Protective Equipment). At some point, I ended up on the project by myself, which was crazy for me. I literally did not sleep for consecutive days, and had no work-life balance. 

As I started pushing this project to launch in the US market (which it was indeed initially designed for), I literally saw a post on Facebook that presented an opportunity for us in South Africa – my home country. After confirming with my supervisors, we took a decision to launch in South Africa… Within four days! This meant intensive product and project adjustments on my side – as well as making the business side work. But I decided I am “all in”, took charge and deployed a lot of “Chutzpah.” And so, as a junior developer who has only been working in this company for 6 months, I suddenly found myself as a lead developer, and in a way a project manager as well, doing business development back with my home country. 

Sure thing, the product was launched in South Africa as GotPPE, and I call it my “Corona baby”.

What is your best advice for young professionals who want to make it in the Start-Up Nation, in today’s Corona crisis environment?

Beyond my experience so far, since I am effectively still new in this industry and trying to “make it”, I feel like the right thing to do would be to share my beliefs – and I’ll aim it at those around my stage who also generally feel overwhelmed, have a moderate case of Impostor Syndrome and are generally going through the stresses that come with a career change.

Impostor Syndrome is truly natural especially in the programming and Hi-Tech industry. I would say that rather than trying to fight it off and ‘win’ the battle, embrace it!. The presence of impostor syndrome can be deconstructed into a burning desire to be better – turn that noise in your head into a voice of encouragement. It will always be there – obviously, because you’re human and humans can never be perfect. 

Something that has driven me through this career change (and that kept me going through three months of job-search) was an investment I made in Human Connections. I am naturally an introvert and a bit of an empath – so some bits of this investment came naturally and other bits I had to work on. At the end of the day, the Start Up Nation is made up of people, companies are made up of people. Maybe advice that I can give is to invest in Human Connection – realize that the value you bring to any table is not only skill, but personality and general experience too.  This means networking, placing focus on who you are as a person, and noticing the wealth of information that every person you come to meet holds. 

And so, ‘making it’ in the Start Up Nation as a young professional means making it in a turmoiled society of humans – maybe using Impostor Syndrome, human connection and the ability to move and shake as catalysts to ‘make it’ as an individual who holds that sense of stability and trust. I believe in being a person whose value is not only in being a great employee, a hard worker, having fantastic skill, or just being able to learn fast. I believe strongly in being relatable too, and if I ever had to get the point of having ‘made it’ in the Start Up Nation, I would definitely hold that as the secret.

About the Author
Assaf is passionate about promoting business in and with Israel, helping and mentoring entrepreneurs, advising young professionals with career planning and self-fulfillment, and more. Assaf acts as a brand ambassador of Israel as 'Start-Up Nation', speaking to thousands of businessmen, investors, entrepreneurs, young professionals, students and others, both in Israel and around the world. Assaf also works as a business development and marketing consultant to Israeli start-ups and others.
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