Michal Tsur: Israel’s Top Female Tech Warrior

And the Geek Award goes to … Michal Tsur! Sure, she’s the top Israeli female entrepreneur, as the tech news site Geektime declared earlier this year, and she boasts a Ph.D. in applying game-theory models to law. But Tsur can’t code to save her life — so is she really a geek? “Not at all, no,” she insists, laughing.

Yet it’s not her math (or coding) skills we’re most interested in. It’s unraveling the mystery of how this obviously intelligent yet modest woman managed to become founding partner of two über-successful companies in the hypercompetitive tech world. Tsur’s attracted more attention of late, in part by gaining a spot on Women 2.0’s 2015 Israeli Tech Founders to Watch list and being dubbed “the Iron Lady of Israeli Startups” by the tech news site NoCamels. She’s written articles encouraging women to enter the tech force, appeared on panels about women in tech and weighed in on the “women can’t have it all” debate, arguing that they can, since tech companies may offer flexible hours or the possibility of working remotely.

Now 42, she founded her first company, Cyota, with friends in New York in 1999, just in time to catch the final inflation of the dot-com bubble. Truth is: They had no idea what they were doing back then. After going through some “crazy ideas,” including special helmets to wear inside of cars, they lit upon the idea of computer security. After one failed product, they came up with risk-based authentication, which financial institutions jumped on to help defend against fraudsters. Guess what? Your bank almost certainly uses it today. While Tsur says she and her partners “definitely sold too early” to RSA in 2005, their company went for $145 million. Today, she’s founder, president and chief marketing officer at her second company, Kaltura, a leading provider in another area — video-management platforms.

As Tsur’s profile has risen, so too has that of Israel’s tech startup scene, which has morphed into a virtual extension of Silicon Valley. Many American ventures, both small and big, have set up R&D centers there, including Microsoft, Intel and IBM. Meanwhile, in 2013, Google bought the Israeli navigation app Waze — for $1.3 billion — and many startups are having a big impact, including the media data companies Outbrain and Taboola. Part of the growth has been attributed to the Israeli Defense Force, which trains inductees in technology and fosters leadership and teamwork skills, says Shuly Galili, cofounder of UpWest Labs, a Silicon Valley venture fund specializing in Israeli companies. But, for Tsur, the IDF had nothing to do with her personal turn to tech.

It was nearly midnight in Israel — the time of Tsur’s choosing — when I finally caught up with her via Skype at her home north of Tel Aviv. Wearing a tank top, her hair pulled straight back around her face, she sat with an exercise bike behind her right shoulder and an elliptical machine to her left. (She stays fit but has stopped competing in triathlon events.) She moved back to Israel, for the third time, a year and a half ago as part of an international career pas de deux with her husband, who now teaches history nearby at the University of Haifa. She mostly stays in Israel with her three kids.

Her latest venture, Kaltura, mimics many successful Israeli tech companies that split operations between home and the U.S., in part because the local market is growing but still too small. Used by thousands of enterprises, including Warner Bros. and HBO, Kaltura is taking a fast ride on the rapid growth of video production, especially in big universities and media organizations, says C.J. Johnson, vice president of product and technology at 3Play Media, which provides services to video companies. Indeed, so far Kaltura has raised over $100 million in funding.

Some of Tsur’s rivals, including Ooyala and Brightcove, are still much bigger, and some industry watchers warn it may be a long journey before any of these companies turn profitable. “It’s an arms race,” says Dan Rayburn, a media analyst at the consultancy Frost & Sullivan. Yet Tsur sees strength in how both Cyota and Kaltura started. “We first connected as a team and then decided what we wanted to do,” she says. Those teams stretch back to Tsur’s childhood in Jerusalem, where she biked a few minutes from her family’s apartment to an elite high school attached to Hebrew University before earning a law degree and then clerking for the Israeli Supreme Court. After that, the daughter of a journalist/musician father and a mother who was once deputy mayor of Jerusalem headed to the U.S. to earn her Ph.D. at NYU and went on to a postdoc at Yale, working on open-source data at the law school.

You’d think her recent accolades, especially in this male-dominated industry, would bring some validation. But Tsur says she’s grown “fed up” with all the attention. In fact, she continues to work with some of her former classmates at Kaltura today and argues that her fellow founding partners are at least as deserving as she is. “I’m mostly driven by the value of friendship,” she says, “wanting to work with certain people.”

Source: OZY, Steven Butler
Photo: OZY
Steve landed at OZY after years of reporting all over the world and living for long stretches in Asia and Europe for the Financial Times and U.S. News & World Report. He has managed correspondents everywhere as foreign editor at Knight Ridder but is delighted to be free of the printing press.