After working in a big organization as a student, Timor Arbel-Sadras vowed not to do so again. But when she had the chance to join LeumiTech as CEO, she could not resist the opportunity to make a big impact on the Israeli tech ecosystem. As a startup within Leumi, LeumiTech faces many of the challenges of other startups. Arbel-Sadras shares that the vision to be the financial home for the tech industry is clear, and she is working to put the vision into practice. Listening to customers is key, she says, and she loves getting feedback to know where to focus on improving. She explains that not being afraid to make mistakes is so important for companies and individuals. Arbel-Sadras has displayed the courage to share her opinion and take some risk, which has served her well through a variety of roles in her career.
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Your journey is fascinating: from working as product management and product development team leader to being a general partner at Viola Credit, then being a COO at EverC, to now being the CEO of LeumiTech. How do you define yourself?
I am a very curious person. I'd like to know everything about everything. I love the junction between technology, businesses, and people. Along my career, I always found a different implementation for this junction, and I find it fascinating.
Did you think that you would become an executive within a bank or a financial organization?
No. When I was studying in the Technion, I worked as a flight attendant in El Al, which was a huge organization. I said, "Never again." I like the intimacy of a small organization when everybody can really make an impact. But when I faced the opportunity of coming to LeumiTech, I was excited by the magnitude and the power of the platform to make a real impact in the Israeli tech industry.
Can you walk me through some of the big milestones in your career and what you learned from those experiences?
When I graduated, Intel offered me a new position as an engineer, managing something that I felt was really too big for me. My manager at the time told me, "You always want to wear a suit that is two sizes bigger than you so you have room to grow."
It proved itself to be very good advice. When I'm talking to young people, I always tell them, "The most important thing in choosing where you're going to work is your manager, and then don't be afraid to take chances and challenges."
When you're looking at this idea of wearing a suit that is two sizes bigger, what is the mentality that we should be in?
I think this is a lot about taking risks. Sometimes super successful and talented people are afraid to take the leap of doing something that they don't know. When you're going to start a startup, you're going against the flow. There are always going to be more people that are going to tell you that it's not going to work. Courage of failing: you can do stuff and you can fail.
I also tell people in LeumiTech, "We are making 10,000 decisions a day. We're going to make a lot of mistakes. We need to make sure that we are taking more good decisions than bad decisions." I think this approach is the key.
Did you bring in the same mentality for risk-taking to those three hugely different organizations?
I'm married to a startup entrepreneur. For him, I am not a person that is risk-taking. So we need to put everything into proportion. But I think that when you are truthful to your beliefs, listen to your intuition, and are not afraid of breaking walls and doing what's right: I think this was the same for me in every position. I was never afraid to speak my opinion. I had the courage to push it through. You need to be smart about it. You need to choose your battles. But I think the courage and the risk-taking was the same in each position.
Transitioning from Viola Credit to a COO: what was that like for you?
It was amazing. I spent 14 years in Viola Credit and worked with hundreds of startups. I thought I knew a lot about the challenges. But looking at it from the other side, I realized that there were blind spots for me on the investor side. I now appreciate even more the executives of startups.
What do you take from your time as a COO to your current position?
LeumiTech is a startup in Leumi. That's the spirit of everybody that works for LeumiTech. It wasn't very natural years ago for a bank to understand how to correctly analyze the risk in startup companies. My predecessor was the entrepreneur that took the early-stage. I'm coming in at the revenue stage. Our business is to give credit that solves the needs of companies in many stages of their lifetime, from simple working capital loans to sophisticated venture lending, and we are constantly looking for ways to expand it. We are looking every day at how to listen to our customers. I think this is the first rule of a successful startup. Then how to be flexible, agile, and find the right solutions for the pains and the needs of our customers.
What is LeumiTech?
The idea behind LeumiTech is that the tech industry is different than any other industry, and it has different needs. If we want to be the financial home and the trusted advisor for our clients, then we need our people to do only that: breathe and live tech and startups. They are bankers, but they are part of the high-tech ecosystem. Their training is all about startups, tech, and trends in the tech, and how does a company build and what are VCs.
We see ourselves as a partner with our client's company. Also, being the ambassador of those companies within the bank and explaining where they're coming from in order to ease all the processes.
In what ways are entrepreneurs really interacting with LeumiTech on a day-to-day basis?
At the beginning, when we have two entrepreneurs with a PowerPoint deck, it's really helping them with their first company, helping them along the way with every step: first invoice coming from a customer; first investment coming from an angel. Later, to help them work on their financial planning, structure it right, and give the right advice on the right time with the financing. At the end of the day, this is what we're doing best. We are the experts for credit for startups. It's really working with them along the way and giving our professional advice for correctly financing their growth.
That sounds like a very intimate relationship that is pretty new. Is this a smooth transition for all of us to make? Or are there some blocks along the way?
We are a startup. We have the vision, we know where we want to be, but there is still, for us, a way to go. We know what's important for our customers. It's not perfect yet. We are constantly improving ourselves. I really love the feedback that we're getting from our customers to know where to focus our efforts.
I think, especially with growth phase startups, that there is a great intimacy between their CFO and the Bank's relationship manager.
What are the biggest challenges that you as CEO need to be facing to reach your vision?
First, I'm a manager. This is to be a leader of the team and put the vision into action, making sure that we are all aligned and we are working as one machine. This is the first challenge.
There is also a challenge of communicating to the world that we are progressing. Every day, every month, we are better and closer to our vision. To tell them, "Come, try us. See how far we are going with you in our support for your growth."
With everything you've done, you can pretty much do anything, yet you chose this position. Why?
I think this is another challenge of taking what I know to do best: to understand the real essence, the real risk in a startup and then translating it into smart financing, into the right structure of a loan. To really make the match between the pain and the product, which is always what I'm looking at when I'm looking at startups.
Michael Matias, Forbes 30 Under 30, is the author of Age is Only an Int: Lessons I Learned as a Young Entrepreneur. He studies Artificial Intelligence at Stanford University, is a Venture Partner at J-Ventures and was an engineer at Hippo Insurance. Matias previously served as an officer in the 8200 unit. 20MinuteLeaders is a tech entrepreneurship interview series featuring one-on-one interviews with fascinating founders, innovators and thought leaders sharing their journeys and experiences.
Contributing editors: Michael Matias, Megan Ryan