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Israel, Morocco Co-host Women in Innovation Conference in Marrakesh

The event, meant to promote regional peace and prosperity, comes less than three years after the Abraham Accords normalized Israel’s relations with Morocco and three other countries in the region
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May 11, 2023
Aviva Steinberger, director of innovation diplomacy at Start-Up Nation Central, addressing Women Connect to Innovate conference. (Courtesy Start-up Nation Central)

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Almost 100 female business leaders from four continents gathered in Morocco last week for the Women Connect to Innovate conference where they discussed women-driven innovation as a path to regional prosperity.

The three-day conference in Marrakesh was hosted by the Israeli nonprofit Start-Up Nation Central and Morocco’s Consensus Public Relations firm.

The collaboration between an Israeli nonprofit and a Moroccan firm involving women from across the Middle East and Africa served as a reminder of how much Israel’s position in the region has improved in just a few years.

The 2020 Abraham Accords normalized Israel’s relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco. In 2021, Sudan signed on as well. Since the signing of the agreements, the countries have established substantial partnerships with Israel.

Conferences like this one and other forms of innovation diplomacy have helped Israel to cement its partnerships with countries in the region.

Aviva Steinberger, director of innovation diplomacy at Start-Up Nation Central, told The Media Line that innovation diplomacy is about “leveraging the ecosystem in the country in order to create resilient ties with countries in the region and focusing on addressing shared and global challenges.”

“It’s building relationships based on innovation collaboration,” she said.

Start-Up Nation Central’s mission is to connect Israeli innovation to the rest of the world. The Women Connect to Innovate conference specifically focused on bringing that innovation in an equitable way.

According to the Israel Innovation Authority, women make up only a third of the Israeli high-tech workforce. Less than 10% of high-tech CEOs in Israel are women. For Arab Israeli women, the numbers are even lower relative to their share of the population.

Rates of women working in high tech throughout the Middle East and Africa are lower than rates in Israel, Steinberger said. She said that conferences like Women Connect to Innovate help support the women in high tech by connecting them with “an entire network of women in leadership positions all across the region.”

Attending the conference expanded the women’s networks to include experts in fields such as investment and software engineering, potentially crucial factors to growing a business that may have been absent from the women’s networks until then, Steinberger said.

The United Nations Generation Equality Forum says that technology plays a major role both in achieving gender equality and in promoting sustainable development. But in order for technology to bring about gender equality, technology itself needs to become more equitable. Factors such as a significant gender gap in cell phone ownership in low- and middle-income countries create a barrier to women’s integration into high tech.

Justine Zwerling, a founding member of the Gulf-Israel Women’s Forum and head of the Middle East branch at Shore Capital Markets, was one of the participants in the conference.

“Such an event shows exactly how the future needs to be built,” Zwerling told The Media Line. “Women are natural supporters of each other and they need to make sure they have more of an extensive network.”

She said that supporting women is a great investment for any economy, given how much work women take on inside and outside the home.

Aida Kandil, the CEO of an e-commerce platform meant to connect Moroccan small-business owners with consumers from around the world, also said that the event could help bring about a better future.

“It is important to have such gender events that allow us to think on how we can join forces and make changes,” Kandil said.

Steinberger said that the women who attended were able to discuss their visions for the future without minimizing their own identities.

“The women participated with all the different hats they wear in their daily lives—business leaders, mothers, daughters, wives. All the roles really factor in how women bring themselves in their leadership and in their businesses. It was about how we can support each other to generate economic prosperity and chartering a vision for what the future of the region could look like by recognizing the inherent strength that women have in forging connections,” she said.

The challenges faced by the women who attended have to do with many factors other than gender. Many of the countries they represented are dealing with water scarcity, food insecurity, and various military threats. Steinberger insisted that those tensions could be addressed without making the event a political one.

“While we cannot ignore the fact that we are all influenced by the politics of the region, we focused on the role that innovation and connection play to make sure that relationships in the region are resilient,” she said. “The hope is that through these personal relationships we built, the relations between the countries will withstand the tensions we face in the area.”

Zwerling described the conference as “a zero-politics event.”

One of the workshops at the conference focused on women’s confidence, especially in a business or fundraising setting. Zwerling said that many of the women at the workshop struggled when asked to speak highly of themselves.

“The women were stuttering,” she said. “Women are always dealing with the issue of confidence. For a lot of the women, of all ages, the session resonated with them and broke through a lot of personal barriers allowing them to go forward with strength.”

Kandil said that some aspects of traditional gender roles will need to shift to allow women to make headway in the high-tech field.

“More women need to be convinced to start entrepreneurship journeys and take more leadership roles,” she said. “In Morocco, this is not always a given.”

The conference ended with the unveiling of a new graffiti wall in Marrakesh featuring images inspired by the conference. The wall was created by artists from Israel, Morocco, and Senegal.

Graffiti wall in Marrakesh, jointly created by three artists from Israel, Morocco and Senegal. (Courtesy Start-up Nation Central)
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