Interview By Ronnie Lavie (Editor)
This month, we chatted to Shira Kaplan – founder, CEO & owner of CyVerse, a Zurich-based cyber-security firm which provides best-in-breed cyber-security solutions made in Israel to global and local corporations.
Shira served as an Intelligence Analyst in the 8200 unit of the IDF – widely known to be the elite technology unit of the intelligence in Israel, in itself a renowned force globally. She completed her undergraduate degree at Harvard on a full scholarship and spent some time studying in China, as well as working with Israel’s Securities Authority’s Chief Economist. While studying for her MBA at St Gallen’s University in Zurich, Shira reinstated the school’s Women in Business club and set up a mentoring program with women from leading companies and organisations for the female students at the school. In 2017, Shira was selected by the World Economic Forum as a ‘Young Global Leader’.
How did the idea for CyVerse come about?
Seven years ago, I moved to Zurich with my husband and took a position in private banking, but very quickly realised that that was not where my future was, especially if I wanted to build a family, together with my career. That notion was not welcome in a Swiss bank. The thesis I was writing for my MBA was about Israeli cyber security and how it was relevant to the Swiss market, and I decided to turn this thesis into a company. This is how CyVerse started.
Three years ago, we started taking the best in Israeli technologies and distributing them here in the German speaking market of Europe. CyVerse today is serving around 50 customers in the German speaking market in cyber security and we’re having a lot of fun.
So did you start CyVerse to have more flexibility?
That was a part of it. More specifically, I think a lot of people fit into the corporate career, but it wasn’t really for me. Working for a Swiss bank is very challenging, and being an ambitious woman wanting to make a difference wasn’t trivial there. So I realised that I would be much better off starting my own business.
Was it challenging as a woman, or just in general?
At the time, the private banking industry was changing – there was a lot of compliance and regulation-driven pressure on both men and women. But, for me, the trigger was specifically when I got pregnant – I was 30 years old and I started getting all of these looks from the HR people, asking me if I was going to come back to work when my baby was born. I just though – ‘what are you talking about? Of course I’m coming back to work. I’m here to build a great career’.
Running a company is a pretty tough thing to do. How do you balance that with building a family?
I find it easier. Obviously, you work around the clock in the first couple of years – you work 20 hours a day, but you’re much more flexible. You don’t need to be at the office at eight in the morning. I have two daughters, a two-year-old and a 5-year-old – I was writing the thesis CyVerse developed from when my oldest was born. I can be much more flexible as a mother – if they’re sick, for example, I can take the time off because I’m my own boss. So it’s much easier in that way.
Why do you think there is such a lack of women in the industry?
I think it depends on the geography. If you look at Israel, you find many women in senior positions in the financial industry, the fintech industry, banking – we have so many women CEOs at our banks. So I think in Israel the situation looks pretty good.
If you look at Europe, there are clearly not enough women at financial conferences and board meetings. I was once invited to do a presentation on cyber security threats for the board members of one of the biggest European stock exchanges – there were 15 people in the room and they were all grey-haired men who looked pretty much the same.
That said, women often drop out of senior executive positions. They don’t pursue a very aggressive career in a lot of these places, because they want to focus on building families, and I think there is still a problem with juggling these two things, especially in places like Switzerland. It’s almost horrifying when I tell people I have a business and two little girls – they look at me like I’m a bad mother. So there’s still this social lack of acceptance of women pushing their careers and rising to the top. And I guess it’s also true for the corporate industry.
The other thing is about empowerment – are we being empowered enough to build entrepreneurial careers and take major risks as women? I’m not so sure.
Let’s talk about Tel Aviv. What do you think makes it such a great hub for startups and innovation?
It’s a combination of things. The army infrastructure provides the talent to feed into the hi-tech industry. The fact that everybody is drafted into the army, and that a lot of these people go into technology-oriented positions, means that there’s a constant pool of people going into the hi-tech industry when they finish the army.
The other thing is that there is a well-oiled ecosystem in Israel that doesn’t really exist anywhere else, other than Silicon Valley, Berlin increasingly and maybe London. You have the government’s support for startups, you have the presence of around 280 foreign companies that are bringing money in, and the venture capital that is there as well – it’s a real machine around the Israeli hi-tech scene. It’s also geographically very convenient – you can visit 1,000 startups in less than an hour, because the country’s so small. I think that makes the ecosystem so unique.
To go back to CyVerse – what’s the vision? What is the future like for the company?
The way we started was we wanted to take the best next generation Israeli technologies and distribute and sell them in Europe. We said – cyber security is moving so fast, that there’s no point in developing new technologies here in Europe, so why don’t we just take the incredible knowledge from Israel and use it in this geography.
Where we’re headed is we’re increasingly not just partnering with the best Israeli startups and selling their technology, but we’re also investing into these startups. So we’re headed towards becoming a vehicle to allow European investors, both corporate and individual, to invest into this ecosystem of Israeli cyber-security startups in a very smart way.
How about the future of the industry as whole – what do you think that looks like?
When I look at the fintech revolution, or evolution if you prefer, I think that without cyber security it’s not going to go anywhere. The whole idea of financial technology is that it has to be trusted, and the way for it to be trusted is to be secure. So cyber security is going to be at the forefront of all the big buzzwords, like AI and blockchain. All of these things will have to have security by design. Meaning, you will have to integrate security into them in order for them to be successful, and this is why we’re betting on cyber security to be critical for anything that we do for the next 50-100 years. We’re all so connected – industry 4.0 and digitalisation taking place everywhere, it’s all going to be about cyber security.
Finally, what are your own personal goals?
First of all I want to build a big family, I think that is the most important thing. The thinking that you cannot build an entrepreneurial career because you’re a mum is not correct, and we have to understand that when we bring children into the world, we act on our responsibility to make it a better world. Professionally, my plan is to grow CyVerse significantly in this region and to make this incredible Israeli innovation much more available and protective of European businesses. I love seeing brilliant career women who are also mums – it is one of my favourite things.