Pharma exec Elisabeth Kogan shares her vision for Gvahim

Elisabeth Kogan, CEO of Clexio Biosciences Ltd., now chairs the board of directors at Gvahim, a nonprofit organization that helps new immigrants find professional jobs in Israel. (Larry Luxner)
Elisabeth Kogan, CEO of Clexio Biosciences Ltd., now chairs the board of directors at Gvahim, a nonprofit organization that helps new immigrants find professional jobs in Israel. (Larry Luxner)

Elisabeth Kogan, the new chair of Gvahim’s 10-member board of directors and CEO of Clexio Biosciences Ltd., hopes her life journey from Paris to Raanana will inspire other Jews as they follow their own dreams to begin new lives in Israel.

Gvahim, which means “heights” in Hebrew, aims to help new immigrants build successful careers in Israel by providing them tools, guidance, mentorship and networking.

The program, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in June 2017, also encourages olim to set up their own businesses through GEC (Gvahim Entrepreneurship Center), with many programs tailor-made for both low- and high-tech entrepreneurs. Gvahim’s CEO is Mexican-born Juan Taifeld, who’s held that position since December 2017.

Kogan, 46, has been on the Gvahim board since the organization’s birth nearly 13 years ago. In May, she replaced Moshik Mor, who had chaired Gvahim for the last five years.

We recently spoke with Kogan at Clexio — the company she co-founded along with Dexcel Pharma and two other former Teva executives in early 2018 — to about her experiences and asked her to offer some wisdom for new arrivals.

Juan Taifeld, CEO of Gvahim (at far left), meets with colleagues at the organization’s headquarters on the campus of Tel Aviv University. (Hadar Ezra)

“I’ve seen so many people come to Israel with savings for about a year. Then after six, eight or 10 months, their savings disappear, they still have no job, and they have to go back,” Kogan told us. “It drives me crazy that we, as Israelis, can’t find ways to integrate them — especially since there’s basically no unemployment in Israel.”

Born and raised in a suburb of Paris, Kogan had long been exposed to Zionist causes; her grandparents were major philanthropists who had endowed various initiatives at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, among other gifts. Her parents also give generously to Israeli institutions, with a special focus on scientific education.

One evening, at a fundraiser organized by her grandmother, Kogan found herself seated next to Baruch Raz, then-scientific attaché at the Israeli Embassy in Paris. Over dinner, Raz urged her to consider aliyah — prompting Kogan, then 24, to ask what he had to offer.

“At the time, I was working at Sanofi and really loved the field of pharmaceutical research,” she said. “He eventually connected me with Teva. The rest is history.”

Kogan made aliyah in late 1997, working as an intern for the world’s largest generic drugmaker at its Petah Tikva headquarters.

Elisabeth Kogan, CEO of Clexio Biosciences Ltd., now chairs the board of directors at Gvahim, a nonprofit organization that helps new immigrants find professional jobs in Israel. (Larry Luxner)

“I came with my backpack to Israel for one year and was planning to go back to France,” she recalled. “I took the bus every morning to Petah Tikva, and did ulpan in the evening. I loved Israel. Then Teva offered me a permanent job and I said yes.”

She ended up staying at Teva for 20 years, growing with the pharma giant and moving up the corporate ladder. In 2002, Kogan became vice-president of global sales and marketing for Teva’s Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients division, and later VP of Teva Global Generic R&D.

In mid-2007, Gvahim co-founder Mickael Bensadoun asked Kogan to advise new immigrants on how to pursue professional careers in Israel. She came to a few seminars to share her perspective. Ever since, Kogan has been a part of the Gvahim family — even after leaving Teva a year and a half ago to form Clexio with two other former Teva executives. Both Bensadoun and Yair Shamir, chairman emeritus, have been on Gvahim’s board since its creation.

The Clexio team has licensed six potential novel therapies from Teva to treat depression, painful neuropathy and cluster headache, with every intention to expand that product pipeline as the company grows. Of the startup’s 35-member workforce, nearly half are olim (both old and new) — including French, Russian, British and American employees.

Of the startup’s 35-member workforce, nearly half are olim — including French, Russian, British and American employees.

Giordana Grego, founder of BalaBoosta and one of Gvahim’s 3,000 alumni, attends the organization’s 10th anniversary party in June 2017 at Tel Aviv University. (Larry Luxner)

Asked for a few words of advice for new olim, Kogan offered the following:

  • Learn Hebrew. This is key to understanding and integrating into Israeli culture.
  • Try to work at a “real company” where you have colleagues and can meet people. Don’t work from home.
  • Understand how to translate your competencies into what Israelis are looking for.

“For example, in France you learn engineering and science. It’s quite general. But in Israel, you will learn mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, software engineering and so on. It’s much more specific,” she suggested. “So if you come to an interview and say you’re an ‘engineer,’ no one will know what to do with you.”

The same applies for those with careers in marketing.

“You may have been a product manager back in your own country, but in Israel, it means something very different. It can be very frustrating,” she said. “I think this is where Gvahim can really help olim: to translate their expertise and knowledge into something the Israeli market is looking for.”

Of the 2,000 alumni who have gone through Gvahim’s programs since its inception, 21% work in sales; 15% in marketing; 12% in finance; 11% in IT and computers; 10% in engineering; 9% in project management and logistics; 8% in administration, and the remaining 14% in customer care, teaching, the nonprofit sector and law.

To that end, Kogan has some big plans for the organization. For starters, she hopes to quintuple the number of olim supported by Gvahim — from the current 400 annually to around 2,000 — over the next five years.

Reserved parking space at the Ukrainian Embassy in Tel Aviv. Immigrants from Ukraine form a significant part of Gvahim’s client base. (Larry Luxner)

“We’re looking for partners who would share the dream and fund that expansion,” she said. This is crucial, since only 5% of Gvahim’s budget comes from the Israeli government, and since participants pay only NIS 1,200 each — about 15% of what the heavily subsidized programs actually cost.

“Gvahim has this amazing medical program to bring physicians to Israel, with financial and strategic support from the Adelis Foundation. We’ve already helped 140 doctors find jobs through this program,” she said. “Most end up working for Kupat Holim or at hospitals, but hopefully there will also be doctors in biotech.”

Gvahim also has a special program to find software engineers — which Israel’s high-tech sector needs in order to expand — and help them make aliyah and find jobs. Thanks to this program, 250 software engineers resettled in Israel in 2017-18.

In addition, Kogan wants to expand Gvahim beyond Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and Ashdod to the rest of Israel —the Galilee and the Negev. Over the last 15 years, according to government statistics, Israeli cities that have absorbed the most immigrants were Jerusalem (33,999); Tel Aviv (27,817); Netanya (22,883); Haifa (21,486) and Ashdod (18,521), followed by Bat Yam, Petah Tikva, Beersheva, Rishon Lezion and Beit Shemesh.

She also wants to fine-tune Gvahim to appeal to olim from the former Soviet Union.

Last year, 64% of the 30,087 people who arrived in Israel as new immigrants came from Russia and Ukraine — a far cry from when Gvahim mainly served Western Europeans and Americans. Arrivals from Russia alone totaled 10,673 — up 46% over 2017 figures — followed by Ukraine (6,561), the United States (3,052) and France (2,723).

“We support Russian and Ukrainian olim, but not enough,” she conceded. “Right now, our courses are only in English and Hebrew, so we are now discussing adding courses in Russian too.”

About the Author
Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017.
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