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On the ground in Israel
MAAYAN COHEN: This was by far the most difficult week of my life. My CTO texted me and said, “Hey, Israel’s under attack.” And I was like, “Yeah, there’s rockets. Israelis are tough.” And she texted, “no, this is really bad.”
We started sleeping in the bomb shelter. Nobody’s hanging out in the streets anymore. It’s war.
I’m in the office every day. I have 80 employees here that depend on me. I have soldiers out in the field that, until a week ago, were software engineers and project managers. And a lot of our team members their spouses are out in the field. And I have three team members that are survivors of the strike zone. And I have to take care of them.
BOB SAFIAN: That’s Maayan Cohen, CEO of Hello Heart, who is running her business on the ground in Israel. When Hamas attacked Israel, Maayan had employees in the strike zone, and has since had other employees called up for military service.
I’m Bob Safian, former editor of Fast Company, founder of The Flux Group, and host of Masters of Scale: Rapid Response.
I wanted to talk to Maayan, because business leaders are increasingly on the frontlines of societal upheavals, and nowhere is that more the case than right now in Israel.
While Maayan’s challenges are hardly typical of a CEO in duress — dodging rockets, sleeping in bomb shelters — her themes about caring for her team, finding meaning and reward in her work, and staying dedicated to her principles, they apply to any leader.
Her call to action: To speak out against atrocity and hate, and to support those from diverse backgrounds within every community and organization.
This episode does contain descriptions of specific acts of violence that may be disturbing. Please take appropriate care.
SAFIAN: I’m Bob Safian. I’m here with Maayan Cohen, the CEO of Hello Heart. Maayan is coming to us from Tel Aviv as I ask my questions from New York. Maayan, thanks for joining us.
COHEN: Thank you, Bob.
SAFIAN: So first of all, I just want to ask, how are you doing today? I mean, it’s been a difficult last week or so.
COHEN: I think this was actually the toughest week of my life. And I’m Israeli I went through difficult things in my upbringing, but this was by far the most difficult week of my life.
Maayan Cohen explains her experiences with the Hamas attacks
SAFIAN: So tell me, where were you when you first heard about the Hamas attacks?
COHEN: Yeah, for sure. So I’m a tech entrepreneur. I run Hello Heart, which is a digital therapeutics company based in Silicon Valley and in Israel. We actually have employees all over the U.S. And I was flying to Las Vegas to a tech conference. And we were about to launch a new women’s heart health campaign to promote equality for women, around heart disease and heart attacks. And a couple of hours into the flight, my CTO texted me and said, “Hey, Israel’s under attack, it’s bad.” And I was like, “yeah, there’s rockets. Israelis are tough. We deal with conflict all the time. Every couple of years there’s something.” And she texted, “no, this is really bad. Open the news. And we have 80 employees in our Tel Aviv office.”
And when I started to realize what’s happening, I was completely shocked. So I immediately checked in on my family in Israel and all my friends. And we did a check-in with all of our team members in Israel. And we quickly realized that Rotem, one of our HR team members, is in the strike zone. She’s pregnant. And she texted us that she locked herself in a bomb shelter with her two kids. Rotem was in a bomb shelter for 30 hours.
She texted us that all she can hear outside is yelling and screaming. And she was trying to keep her kids quiet, because she didn’t want to draw attention, because the terrorists went house by house, came in, broke down the door, shot everyone, and the lucky ones died. The unlucky ones were dragged into the Gaza Strip, including kids and elderly Holocaust survivors. And she was just trying to keep them quiet, so they won’t pay attention to them. So, they hugged each other, they colored. One of her kids took a sticker of a rocket and put it on his arm and told her, “don’t worry, mommy, the rocket’s going to protect us.” And, thank God, 30 hours later, her and her kids were rescued safely. And she’s now in a better place physically, but as she defined it, “I’m alive, but I can’t say that I’m okay.” She realized that her neighbors, her family in the kibbutz, were all slaughtered, or worse, they were kidnapped into the Gaza Strip to go through unthinkable things.
SAFIAN: And this is all unfolding in Israel. You are in Las Vegas at this point.
COHEN: Yeah. It was a very, very surreal experience, because the contradiction between what I know that’s starting to unfold and is happening to my team in Israel and what’s happening around me is complete opposite — dazzling lights and slot machines and music and people laughing and people drinking. And I know that my team is at risk. And I know that there’s terrorists banging on people’s houses. We, by the way, had three team members that are in the strike zone. I didn’t really know what to do. I think I was in shock for a few hours, got myself into the hotel, and I didn’t want to leave the room. I just sat there and talked to the team. We all started to connect rescue teams with people that were on the ground, because everybody were hiding in their house and they didn’t know if it’s the army knocking on their door or it’s the terrorist pretending to be the army knocking on their door.
There were even situations where people locked themselves in a shelter. The terrorists realized that and they went outside and burned down the house to get the people to flee out so they can shoot them in the street. So, the worst thing about the digital world is Hamas videoed all of this and posted it in social media. So it was everywhere. It was on Twitter, it was on LinkedIn. You were just surrounded by horrific videos of people you know that are going through these things. This is the cruelest, psychological warfare ever created.
After a couple of hours, I figured out how I’m taking the first flight back, which was the next day. And I was trying to keep myself together, because what else can I do? So I tried to project business as usual, canceled most of my meeting, did my panel and got on the first flight out home. And when I got here, I started to do whatever I can to get my family and my team to be in a place where they’re safe and we feel secure.
SAFIAN: Is your family in Tel Aviv also?
COHEN: My family is now in Tel Aviv. I split my time between Silicon Valley and Menlo Park and Tel Aviv these days. So my family was here too. They were not in the strike zone. They were not at risk. But, the next thing of course that happened is a bunch of rockets fell on our heads. So we all moved in together, the entire family, and we started sleeping in the bomb shelter with mattresses on the floor, and that’s my life now. So, we try to live a semi-normal life between fire alarms and bomb alarms while running to shelter. We sleep in bomb shelters. Nobody’s hanging out in the streets anymore. There’s no kids. It’s war.
SAFIAN: Yeah, it can be hard sometimes for those here in the United States to appreciate how relatively small Israel is. How far is Tel Aviv from the danger zone from Gaza?
COHEN: It’s a little under an hour drive. It’s very close. And the first wave of the attack, they started getting into the small villages and kibbutzes around Gaza. They started taking over small cities in the south that are completely normal cities. We were very scared because we didn’t know when it’s even going to stop. And Israel was shocked. Hamas have always said that they’re freedom fighters.
The south is considered a peaceful area in terms of the borderline. There are some incidents, there’s rockets once in a while, but it’s not a severe conflict area, so there weren’t a lot of military forces around. They basically conquered parts of Israel. And now they’re hurting the Palestinian people too. It’s insane. My heart goes out to all victims of this situation — the Israelis and the Palestinian. We just heard yesterday that there are areas in which there are terror tunnels. So the Israeli army need to get into and destroy those infrastructures. And Hamas won’t let Palestinians get out of there. They took their IDs and they took their car keys and they won’t let them flee the area. So my heart really goes out to all victims on all sides of this horrific conflict.
Maayan Cohen on leading a team through this crisis
SAFIAN: You’re talking to us today from your offices, from the office of your company. With all this going on, how do you think about what your role is and the role of your business versus is it all about taking care of your team? Do you go back to work as usual?
COHEN: I’m a business leader. I’m not a politician. I’m not a war expert. I can do what I can. I knew that I have to come back and I’m in the office every day since. I have 80 employees here that depend on me. We had several folks that were drafted into the Army reserves to protect the country. They’re now either in the north or in the south because Israel is scared for its existence. For the first time in history, we’re actually scared that the country won’t exist anymore. So we have insane amount of army reserves. So I have soldiers out in the field, that until a week ago were software engineers and project managers. And a lot of our team members, their spouses are out in the field.
So, the first thing we did is consulted a trauma expert that helped us understand that when you’re going through something so severe, the best coping is actually to do and not just sit at home, take a step back and think about your emotions, because if you do that, the horrors that we just witnessed are so overwhelming that a human soul can’t contain them. So you have to move people from emotions to actions. We started taking actions. We opened an aid and logistics center in our office. I have dozens of packages right here beside me in the office of protective gear, of raincoats, socks, and anything that the soldier out there needs.
We started to help our teams that were in the strike zone. We’re supporting them with housing. We’re supporting them with toys, baby foods, anything that they need. And that gives our team hope. We decided that anybody that wants to volunteer in the aid center are not working, and the rest are covering for them. So work now has meaning. And that helps everybody cope. But people still zone out. I still zone out. Every day, I find myself a few hours, just unable to focus. Everybody struggles to sleep, not just because they’re sleeping in a bomb shelter, because the things that we’ve seen, and to know that it didn’t happen in so far away length.
It happened to our team, to people we work, that we see in the office every day, is unimaginable. We started support groups for the team, for parents. And we’re trying to do whatever we can to get other business leaders and our friends in the U.S., the majority of the companies actually based in the U.S., to acknowledge what happened. And this is not about left and right or pro-Palestinian and pro-Israelis. This is a moment in time, where a horrific, cruel, unprecedented terror attack happened on civilian houses, where the cruelty level that I don’t think I’ve ever seen, definitely not in live videos.
COHEN: No, because we know these people. We have team members that go to funerals several times a day. There’s kids in these pictures that are our friend’s kids. These are grandmas, we know, of our friends. And if you want to pretend that you’re a freedom fighter, you start to create misinformation. This is not AI. These are bodies that were brought to graves now, of kids decapitated.
This is not science fiction. It’s not a movie. It’s not up for debate. This is happening live. And unfortunately there’s even a worse fate than death. We have our friends that have been kidnapped to the Gaza Strip, girls that are now rape victims. Kids that just saw their parents die. Five-year-olds that were dragged into the Gaza Strip alone. It’s horrible. And if anybody cares about humanity and empathy for human life, they need to speak up.
Silence is very apparent in this situation. Somebody asked me, Hey, why aren’t you going back to the U.S.? I can’t. I’m Jewish. I have a house in Menlo Park. Of course I can go back, but if Israelis won’t be safe in Israel, Jews won’t be safe anywhere else. I have a team here, my family is here and I have to do whatever I can to protect my country, if I want to be a free Jew in here or anywhere else in the world. Hamas’ mission statement is to kill all Jews everywhere. If Israel goes down, the west is next and where will I go? So, I don’t really have a choice.
SAFIAN: I realize I’m making you delve into maybe some emotions you don’t necessarily want to so much.
COHEN: Yeah, the easy option was to stay in Vegas, get my family on a plane back. There were a bunch of people that fleeted here. They can get a plane ticket out very easily. But I can’t. I need to be here.
SAFIAN: Maayan’s emotions and fears are palpable, while her personal choices are inspiring: to support her team as a leader, to choose action over despair, to accept risk in the hope of a better future.
After the break, we’ll hear about how she’s balancing near-term decisions and planning ahead.
We’ll be right back.
SAFIAN: Before the break, we heard Maayan Cohen, CEO of Hello Heart, talk about grappling with war in Israel. Now, she talks about her experiences in the Israeli military as a tank driver, how she’s balancing near-term reactions and planning, and what her plea is to other business leaders.
“We need people to understand how bad this was.”
You served in the Israeli military when you were younger. Does this bring back any of that experience?
COHEN: So war is war, and war is a horrible thing in which everybody loses and all sides, people die. I lost multiple friends in my army service that unfortunately died protecting our country. It’s bad, it’s sad. But what happened is a thousand times sadder. People that live a peaceful life, kids in their homes, 84 year old grandmas to have people that come into their house, rape their daughters, burn down the house and take grandma into the Gaza Strip is not war. It’s the most barbaric thing that a human mind could think about. If you lose friends at war, it’s hard, it’s tough. I lost friends at war. But you know what you’re getting yourself into. You put on a uniform, you take a gun, and you take the risk of not coming back.
Attacking civilians and kidnapping them is the worst war crime you can think about. In my army service, I was a tank driver. I was a sergeant and I was willing to do whatever it takes to protect my country. Rotem from our HR team did not sign up for that. She didn’t sign up her kids for that. None of the young girls that were kidnapped and have been raped did not sign up for that.
It’s a very, very different experience. And I see the team members that were drafted. They’re scared, but they know what they’re going into. Their families are saying goodbyes to them, and they know some of them may not come back. I hope and pray that they all will, but we know that people will die. Unfortunately, given Hamas’ action where they don’t let the civil population in Gaza evacuate, we know Palestinians will also die. That breaks my heart. It really does. They didn’t do anything bad either. But, if we won’t be able to live in this country, if my team members won’t be able to live peacefully in their homes, then we can’t live in Israel. And then what? Where would we go? Cause if they took over IsraelWe just don’t have a choice. We need the world to acknowledge what happened. We need people to understand how bad this was, how inhumane that was. This was not just another terrorist attack. We’re used to terror attacks. We’re used to suicide bombers explode on a bus. We’re used to rockets sent to our house. This was an unprecedented situation I think in the western world, ever.
Planning ahead while taking it one day at a time
SAFIAN: How do you think about planning, and what comes next for you and for those you work with? Or do you not right now and you just sort of each day, one day at a time, one hour at a time?
COHEN: So I think the first week was one hour at a time. Where are we now? Are we safe? Do we have a bomb shelter? Are they making their move next? I have, now, a knife, pepper spray and a hammer in my bag. I don’t even know what I’m going to do with it, but I feel I need to be protected. So I carry a backpack with all this equipment and water to just be safe. I asked my team this morning, we had the first team meeting in a week, and I asked them like, Hey, what are you scared of? They’re like, we’re scared for our kids. We’re scared of a chemical attack. We’re scared that they’re going to take over Israel. We’re scared that it’s going to happen again.
People can’t even digest what happened and we’re just full of fear. So, it was one day at a time prepping bomb shelters. I think now we can plan a few weeks ahead. We know that this is not going to be over soon.
This is a very hard situation to be in as a country and there’s a lot of internal conflict, but I think now things are starting to stabilize. The troops are out in the field. We continue to send them supplies. But it’s one day at a time. Sometimes we have two bombings. That’s a good day. Other days we have a bombing every hour. Yesterday, when I was driving my five-year-old to grandma, because she also has a bomb shelter and there’s no schools now. I found myself in a highway during a bomb attack and I just stopped the car, got out of the car, laid down on the ground and protected my head. That’s our reality now. I think it’s going to be at best a few weeks, hopefully not longer, but probably longer. And we have to think about the future.
So we’re planning ahead. We’re trying to figure out which features we can release that will help more users improve their heart health, because that’s what our company does. Our mission is to empower people to understand and improve their heart health. We’re a company that’s all about living longer life, happier life, helping people. So we’re trying to do whatever we can to help the ones that depend on us — our users, our clients. I spend my mornings, probably around 6:00 AM till 4:00 PM, just helping the war. Rain started yesterday in the north. They didn’t have tents, so we started buying tents.
And from 4:00 PM till midnight, I’m a CEO, and I work with our U.S. team and our clients. They’ve been phenomenal too and helped us shift gears so we were able to keep business continuity, but it’s hard. It’s hard for our team to focus. We will get out of it eventually. Hello Heart is going to continue to thrive as a company. We now have services for 2 million people and I want to get it to a hundred million people. We’re going to continue to build risk alerts that help people understand that they’re at risk for heart attacks and strokes, and to build our prediction models that we’re starting to work on now. And here in Israel, we’re going to try and stabilize things and process what happened. But, I don’t think my soul is still able to contain the horrific videos and stories that I’m hearing from my team members on what happened. We will need a lot of time to process this and no we’re not okay.
SAFIAN: Do you have any messages or requests that you’d put to the listeners?
COHEN: Everyone needs to speak up, especially business leaders. Your team is looking at you. You have Jewish team members. You have Palestinian team members probably too. You have to speak up. You have to show humanity. You have to show empathy. If you ignore it, you might not understand the level of damage you’re creating. We have to acknowledge what just happened, which is a very, very, very cruel barbaric attack that’s unimaginable on civilians. Help us raise awareness, do whatever you can to free the hostages. But most of all, just listen to the stories. Don’t be numb. If you see videos and you have the gut to watch them, watch them.
This is a moment in time that will be remembered for generations to come. And it’s our job to speak up and acknowledge what happened. That’s all. You can of course donate money, you could do a lot of other things, but the most important thing is just to speak up.
SAFIAN: Well, Maayan, thank you for taking the time and sharing and giving us a glimpse of the reality that you’re going through. Really appreciate it.
COHEN: Thank you, Bob.
SAFIAN: This is not a usual episode for Masters of Scale, but as Maayan points out, this is not a usual situation. What I take away, along with a healthy dose of uneasiness, is to resist the impulse to turn away from difficult realities. However complicated the situation, we all need to do the hard work to try to understand, and in the process, to show empathy and humanity.
I’m Bob Safian. Thanks for listening.