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American-born entrepreneur has high-tech dreams for Beit Shemesh
By Tamar Hausman
"If you build it, they will come," seems to be the motto by which Zvi Wolicki lives. But baseball isn't his thing. It's high-tech. The American-born Beit Shemesh resident has been working for over a year to turn his city into a high-tech center. Thanks to a large Anglo population, which is chock-full of engineers and computer mavens, he's garnering increasing support and has already achieved some success in his endeavor.
About 1,000 of Beit Shemesh's residents are employed in high-tech or in jobs that are peripherally related to the field. These include lawyers, accountants and venture capitalists who work primarily for high-tech companies. But only about 100 of them actually work in the city; the rest commute mainly to Jerusalem and Herzliya Pituah. Some 600 computer engineers commute from Beit Shemesh to other cities, estimates Eli Ehrman, CEO of 2AM, the first high-tech company in the city.
"Personnel is our number one commodity in Beit Shemesh," says Wolicki, a software expert who immigrated to Israel 19 years ago and has been living in Beit Shemesh for the last seven. "For many, it would be more convenient to work here. In general, high-tech companies would generate jobs for new immigrants and boost the economy here."
There are currently six high-tech start-ups (in addition to a few established companies in the field) in Beit Shemesh and almost all are run by Anglos: Alchemedia, 2AM, Shoutmail.com, ICSavings, Electric Fuel Ltd. and Exxactly.com. Some of the companies occupy space in industrial buildings, but most work out of an employee's home. There is some space in existing factory buildings in the Nacham industrial zone but these structures are not appropriate for high-tech companies.
"Lots of people have started to say to me, 'If you build a high-tech-looking building - something that seems professional and has a gym - we'll come," says Wolicki. He adds that a contractor and an architect have already drawn up plans for a 6,000-square-meter high-tech building and they are just waiting for the go-ahead. Several companies have already said they would move into the structure, and Wolicki says that he only needs another one or two companies (to take out leases on an area of 500 square meters) to begin construction.
Last September, Wolicki initiated a mini-conference for high-tech companies at nearby Kibbutz Tzorah in order to attract attention to Beit Shemesh. Eight companies and 150 people participated. Encouraged by the conference experience, he quit his job as a marketing manager for a Jerusalem start-up a few months later, and founded Shimshon High-Tech whose aim is to promote high-tech in Beit Shemesh. In April, Wolicki held a second, more successful, conference and 400 people attended; corporate sponsors included Yazam.com, Jerusalem Global and Bank Hapoalim. Thirty-one companies participated.
Shimshon High-Tech isn't making much money yet. Wolicki intends for the company to provide a variety of services to help high-tech companies setup shop in Beit Shemesh, including finding them office space and contractors. He has begun offering job recruitment services and hosting management and communications workshops for start-ups (which are usually staffed with technology experts who have few management skills).
Inspired by the success of the workshops, he plans to increase their number in the fall. He also plans to publish a newsletter geared towards Anglo residents of Beit Shemesh who work in the high-tech field.
"I wouldn't say that I'm going to get rich from this," says Wolicki, adding that he recently had to take a job at a software start-up in Jerusalem, and works on his Beit Shemesh project on evenings and weekends. "It's a cause."
Perhaps his biggest challenge is fighting the city's image. "Despite the Anglo population, Beit Shemesh still has the stigma of being a backwater town," Wolicki explains. In addition, many companies prefer the look and feel of Jerusalem's technology parks in Malcha and Har Hotzvim, or the Herzliya Pituah area, where they are surrounded by the buzz of activity of other companies and feel ensconced in the high-tech culture. Attracting the first companies which will be willing to become established in Beit Shemesh is the hardest part, he says.
Wolicki also aims to recruit people to staff accounting and legal offices, and to provide other high-tech support services in Beit Shemesh. In fact, his wife Linda is "a prime target" of his endeavors, he jokes: A lawyer for a high-tech firm in Herzliya Pituah, she commutes daily.
Starting a high-tech park in Beit Shemesh "would be a tremendous thing," says David Guedalia, chief technology officer and co-founder of Shoutmail.com., whose office is above a fish factory and a restaurant in the Nacham zone. "I smell fish periodically. Yes, we would move into a high-tech building if one were built here."
Guedalia adds that, "People are hesitant to work for a start-up which isn't surrounded by other, similar companies because of the instability of working with a start-up. They like to know that there are other opportunities next door, and that they are working in a high-tech community. That's the nature of the industry." A high-tech park, or at least a building, would allow companies to share express mail systems or office supplies and would bring down the cost of those services.
Furthermore, Guedalia says, "As a citizen, I would like to help Beit Shemesh's growth in general, because it would make it a more attractive place to live."
"Beit Shemesh is blessed with talented professionals with fantastic experience. Its high-tech people are its number one asset," says Ehrman of 2AM. "Convenience can translate into loyalty [to the city]."
Despite the support he receives, Wolicki says much work is ahead of him. "Each company I turn to always asks me, 'Why Beit Shemesh?' And I go through my spiel. I think it's working.
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