Orna Berry: Making high tech work

Orna Berry (center) has become a partner in Israel Gemini Funds, a venture capital group, since leaving as Chief Scientist of Israel’s Ministry for Industry and Trade.With her short silvery hair, dark pants suit and sensible flat-heeled shoes, Orna Berry …

Orna Berry (center) has become a partner in Israel Gemini Funds, a venture capital group, since leaving as Chief Scientist of Israel’s Ministry for Industry and Trade.With her short silvery hair, dark pants suit and sensible flat-heeled shoes, Orna Berry could be mistaken for any executive on her way to work. Engage her in conversation, though, and Israel’s former Chief Scientist of the Ministry of Industry and Trade quickly makes an impression.

Berry is well versed in the delicate relationships among a country’s external global partnerships, internal management experience and pure innovation so important to growing a technology-based economy. She’s also a superb role model for any woman pursuing a career in science or technology.

As Israel’s first female Chief Scientist, from early 1997 until May 2000, Berry implemented more than $450 million in government funds to support and encourage industrial research and development. Before joining the government, Berry co-founded ORNET Data Communication Technologies Ltd., raising the venture capital, building worldwide infrastructure and then managing its sale to Siemens for $30 million. She also served as chief scientist of Fibronics and as a senior research engineer in companies such as IBM and UNISYS.

With her work in government over, Berry is now a venture partner in Gemini Israel Funds as well as the active chairperson at both Lambda Crossing, Ltd., an optical component company, and at WanWall, Inc., a security information protection company. She is a frequent lecturer in Israel, Europe and the United States on issues related to high tech and women in science and technology.

I had a chance to talk with Berry about Israel’s technology market, the major challenges it faces and the role women play in the Israeli economy.

Q: How was being Chief Scientist similar or different from running your own company?

A: First of all, I’m the same person, so I don’t think there is such a big difference in terms of management skills. Obviously it’s different in that a lot your work is not actually running the objectives that you set. You have to take into consideration a lot of the environmental, governmental requirements, such as budgeting, protecting information, avoiding pressures so you can provide a continuous service. A lot of issues unrelated to your objectives require energy.

Q: It sounds like there is a lot of politicking.

A: Yes, there is lots of politics. Sometimes you’re lucky to work with good people – I worked with very good people who really see their national responsibility as the goal and not their own benefit.

Q: What was your greatest achievement as Chief Scientist?

A: I’d say it was as the promoter of innovation in a science and technology based economy – and establishing collaboration between technology and industries, the convergence between technology and the military.

Q: In Israel, it’s often the case that those with military experience are at the forefront of new technologies. Why is that?

A: This is not an issue of success, but an issue of the food chain. Normally, the people who study (science and technology) do not have the experience to apply what they know. The people in the military know the idea of improvisation and problem-solving highly competitive issues and also the moral responsibilities to protect lives. The idea of being competitive in technology is quite similar.

Q: Is Israel the next Silicon Valley?

A: Israel cannot be Silicon Valley. First, for products to be a success (in Israel), they must cross the border, whereas in Silicon Valley, product development can succeed within the area, because it’s a big enough market. Second, we have to talk to people who are very far away, 4000 miles away. It’s not easy to deal with our technology “neighbors.” That sort of shoulder rubbing does not exist simply because key partners are far away. Israel contains centers of innovation, but not an entire Silicon Valley.

Q: What are some of the factors slowing down Israel’s pursuit of a technology-based economy?

A: Israel is not fully developed in its ability to scale up. The number of industries that have assumed sizes of conglomerates is very small. You have very few companies that sell more than $1 billion a year. We have about 40 percent of academic researchers involved in life sciences and only 2 percent of the industrial product emerging from their efforts. Clearly you know that you haven’t done much to commercialize this competence; you haven’t scaled it.

Q: The economy is still very embryonic and is learning. You don’t have a feeling of continuation. You have the feeling of entrepreneurship and initiation, but you have to have continuation for the next generation.

A: Israel is a relatively youthful state. It’s a youthful state and we also have a lot of cultural issues. One of the issues is private and public sector management. Management is not developed at the level we wish it to be, that we wish to obtain. I think at this point, it’s very clear that the people who assume public management positions do not have the qualifications to meet the country’s needs. They are not able to address national-size problems or issues. Normally it would happen from learning from the experience of others, but there is not enough experience internally that can lead to that level.

Internal management has been on the decline in the last three governments. Before that there was no economy to talk about. Consequently, the ability to become efficient was weakened. There is no sufficient renovation in economic policies, including simplification and definition of procedures. Those issues make it a random walk rather than a systematic support of the infrastructure.

Normally in Israel, things need to get worse before they get better. But things will change.

Q: Moving to a different subject, do you feel Israeli society fostered any sense of gender egalitarianism when you were pursuing your goals?

A: Israel was not sufficiently encouraging for women. Israeli society is working on changing this because the Israeli economy is based on knowledge with more people contributing to that economy.

The particular situation of an individual plays a larger role. By closing gaps and applying education, competence and aptitude to technology and science, this will ultimately open opportunities to women. That goes with the territory. Israel has the advantages and disadvantages of any western society. It’s the higher competencies of women that get them where they are.

Q: In addition to your interest in high tech, you’re also involved in promoting women in science and technology. What are your goals here?

A: The goal is to define changes in the infrastructure such that more women will be encouraged early on to continue in science and technology programs in elementary, middle and high schools and then academia. I am involved in a conference in which the women who attend are in the stages of making choices in their career path, be it in schools, army, academic or post-academic studies.

When I led a number of projects (in the late ’80s), I looked at the salaries of the men and women working for me and I found the difference in salary was an average of 40 percent less for the women with equal skills and productivity. I changed it. The women who were benefactors took it as a big boost and a significant number of them are now in senior management positions or senior research positions.

Recognition means you don’t have to be under the table serving somebody else who gets the visibility. If you’re qualified to do the work, you’re qualified to get the recognition and you should retain the position that corresponds to your performance.

A lot of teachers dissuade girls from pursuing technology or physics because it’s hard; they would never tell boys such a thing. I believe you do what you’re qualified for, don’t hold yourself back.