Sophia Tupolev-Luz
Founded The Reboot, welcoming displaced professionals to Israeli Tech

Can Fresh Tech Ideas Stop Israel’s Brain Drain?

Nevo Network judging ceremoy - Photo credit: Nevo Network
Nevo Network judging ceremoy - Photo credit: Nevo Network

I spent last weekend at an event where an NGO convened local and immigrant high-tech leaders to create new solutions to the problems unique to immigrants in Israel, with prototypes created overnight for new apps, chatbots, and platforms. Spoiler alert- many were AI-powered. 

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Abbey Onn, CEO of Nevo Network – Photo credit, Abbey Onn

Today, immigration to Israel is at a 23-year high, yet many talented immigrants from around the world aren’t finding professional growth in Israel. We see many disturbing stories of just how many fail to thrive in the Startup Nation, leaving to contribute to other countries. My friend Abbey Onn, CEO of the NGO Nevo Network, calls it, “A national concern, because this brain drain is simply alarming.” Onn’s non-profit organization held a weekend-long event that generated solutions by teams of Israeli local and immigrant professionals from 18 countries and 110 companies. I took a closer look,  asking if technology, in fact, had the answer. 

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Nevo NGO Hackathon organizing committee, photo credit Fabio Zon

For 281 million people worldwide, living outside of their home country often brings challenges in crossing the dark chasm on the way to becoming a local. For immigrants everywhere, their ability to integrate is hindered by loneliness, economic disruption, and information gaps.

For many immigrants to Israel, the challenges are simply too much, especially when combined with local ‘bugs’ like Hebrew-only banking and healthcare app interfaces, a low level of digitization in local infrastructure, and of course, the high cost of living vs. low average earning ability. There’s simply too much friction in the user experience if you think of the country as a product. But, beyond the daily struggle, many immigrants have told me that the final straw is their challenges with their sense of belonging. 

Hunter Weinsheink, photo credit Fabio Zon

Maya Hanan, an Israeli immigrant in human resources at a financial technology company Bluevine, told me this weekend at Nevo’s all-nighter, “Solutions for immigrants need to address both functional and emotional needs. No matter who they are, after they arrive, every immigrant needs that first person that will extend a helping hand through a Shabbat dinner invitation, which in turn enables them to build friendship or networking opportunities.”

Coding all night at the event, Aviva Fort’s team made a working prototype of a mobile app for immigrants to ask for and get help with the speed bumps in daily life, and for locals to respond to requests. Pitching at the end of the event, an enthused, exhausted Fort said, “Olim leave because they don’t have the support, they are exhausted from fighting.”

What can be done to stop Israel’s brain drain? There’s (going to be) an app for that.
At the Nevo Hackathon, 25 teams stayed up all night of immigrants and locals creating new platforms, apps, and chatbots to improve Israel’s user experience across several practical and emotional areas. 

1. Using AI for Learning Conversational Hebrew: 

Creators of AI Hebrew app Niklat, Photo credit: Fabio Zon

“We learn Hebrew in Ulpan, but when it comes to the small interactions like meeting by the water cooler, or when your teammates default back to Hebrew, immigrants miss out,” said Shira Sneg, who works in user experience writing at HiBob. Her team coded a working app called Niklat, the first AI-powered tool for practicing conversational Hebrew. It runs on WhatsApp, and relies on a combination of technologies to respond to an immigrant’s voice or text inputs. The day after the event, Sneg and her teammates Kevin Hanna, Guy Gavergun, and Leonardo Rosenberg launched the app publicly, completely free for users with funding from Nevo Network. 

2. Tech for co-living and family life:
“Parenting is hard. As an immigrant, it’s even harder. And so much of the immigrant experience is connected to the stories we tell ourselves,” said Daniel Rubin, CEO at Keese, whose team came up with a 3D-animated family experience to document immigration stories using generative AI for text and images, like the DaVinci3 model Dal-e. Meanwhile, Maria Yurkovskaya, a digital marketing manager at SimilarWeb, pitched an idea for a chatbot to help immigrants find better roommates, faster.

3. Streamlining access to local knowledge access:
“All immigrants know the feeling of ‘Who do I ask?’” said Perri Finkelstein to the crowd, an advisor to Playground NY who moved to Israel three years ago. “Most knowledge exchange in Israel goes through peer-to-peer interaction. And you don’t want to have to ask your father’s second cousin’s Israeli wife.” Finkelstein’s team developed a platform to share local knowledge from local volunteers. In the next room, another team had gamified the immigration process to improve the user experience and make it both more functional and fun. 

Belonging – Can there be an app for that?
“A sense of belonging is why anyone stays anywhere,” said Rachel Kastner, Chief of Staff of OneStep, animatedly pitching a partnership with local municipalities to immerse immigrants on trips to new cities where they might later settle. She continued, “Not every problem can be solved by an app. We want to co-create solutions with Israeli society.”

Avital Tzubeli teaching how to pitch, Photo credit: Fabio Zon

In the last year, there has been a raging debate in Israeli society about whether or not the government should help immigrants if they will just leave anyway. The real question should be, what can we do across sectors to welcome all immigrants and newcomers, so that more of them will choose to plant roots and contribute to the future we all share in Israel.  

Yet, according to Michael Eisenberg, Equal Partner at Aleph and co-founder of Nevo Network, “When you come to this country, you become part of building a project. With the tools of technology, a fighting spirit, an immigrant mentality, and a positive view of the future, we can fix the challenges that we have here today.”

Although it still may be funny to think of Israel’s Ministry of Immigration and Absorption using anything but pen and paper to communicate with those it serves, one day, bureaucracy will be replaced by artificial intelligence. And that day is coming sooner than you think. Until then, private and non-profit sector partnerships will continue to be the best source of solutions for immigrants and Israelis alike. 

About the Author
Sophia Tupolev-Luz is the founder of The Reboot Startup Nation, a non-profit, grassroots initiative rallying Israel's tech sector to welcome displaced professionals affected by the war in Ukraine.
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