There is an ongoing discussion in Israel about women in the sciences and technology and the conditions women find themselves in in the field. The discussion was renewed by the Jerusalem Post in October 2009 after Israel’s Ada Yonath won the Nobel Prize in chemistry when it published a piece on the difficulties of receiving research grants and getting a fair salary in Israel. Shortly thereafter I continued my series on women in tech with a post about some of the unique challenges that women face in Israel.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Rony Ross, the founder and current chairwoman of Panorama Software, a business intelligence software company. Ross was born and raised in Israel and overcame challenges as a female entrepreneur to grow Panorama into the successful company that it is today.
Around what age did you become interested in technology?
I excelled in mathematics as a teenager, and shortly thereafter got interested in computer software. I studied Mathematics and Computer Science for my B. Sc and M.S degrees. While working on my Masters dissertation at the Weizmann Institute of Science, my professor, Amir Pnueli (winner of the Turing Award), offered me to join the software development department of one of the first hi-tech companies in Israel – SciTex. I went to visit the SciTex facility, and what I saw was so amazing and compelling that I could not believe someone was going to pay me in order to work in something that looked to be so much fun.
How did you get into the field?
I worked in Software Development, got my MBA degree in parallel, and moved to senior IT management positions. It was only after 40 that I became an entrepreneur and started my own business. A couple of years later, while working on other projects, we hit upon the idea of developing a product in the Business Intelligence field. This product developed into Panorama – a very compelling offering in the online analytical processing (OLAP) side of the Business Intelligence domain. We sold the product successfully to over 50 of the Israeli Fortune 100 companies in under 2 years. Then we met with Microsoft and they loved the product so much they offered to buy the company after the first 3 hours of the meeting. This became the first classic “exit” of an Israeli software company selling to a US software giant.
What obstacles have you faced as a female founder of a company?
When I was developing my first product I tried to raise capital from venture capitalists and failed. I had a very competitive product in a growing field, with established, paying customers who could testify to the value proposition, with a good business plan, etc. I tried practically all the VCs who were in business at the time – and failed with all of them. I believe that this failure is largely due to the fact that I am a woman entrepreneur. A guy with the same credential would have succeeded. (Of course, this impediment became a blessing when I sold the technology to Microsoft and had no VC to share the income with…)
In recent years, have you seen more or less women going into technology?
When I studied Mathematics, almost half the students were women. There were a lot of women in IT in the period that preceded the PC’s. However, with the outbreak of the early home PC’s , there was a distinct advantage to youngsters with affinity to technical skills (even manual technical skills), and I find that young girls are less interested in disassembling and assembling technical kits. So for many years girls felt “excluded” from the Computer Science field, and opted for other careers. Still, many found their way eventually into hi tech in various positions – but very few made it to the top. However, in recent years I’ve seen a surge of young female entrepreneurs, especially in the Internet arena, which is a very promising sign.
What do you think can be done to get more women in Israel in technology?
Education, education, education. The key is to raise the awareness of girls from an early age about the advantages of making a career in technology fields. These are top paying jobs, and women should target them.