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Stock Exchange CEO: 'Having it all is pure nonsense'

From Felicia Taylor, CNN
updated 6:35 AM EDT, Wed July 4, 2012
Ester Levanon is the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange's first female CEO, and the first non-economist. She has a background in IT, having formerly launched the Israeli Security Service's IT division. Ester Levanon is the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange's first female CEO, and the first non-economist. She has a background in IT, having formerly launched the Israeli Security Service's IT division.
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Ester Levanon
Tel Aviv Stock Exchange
Tel Aviv Stock Exchange
Ester Levanon
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ester Levanon brought automation to the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange
  • In the 1970s, she created the Israeli Security Services' IT division
  • Levanon rejects the concept of "having it all"
  • Children will complain regardless of whether their mother works, she says

(CNN) -- Ester Levanon rejects the notion of "having it all." The head of the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange says women should do whatever feels right for them, not what society thinks is best.

"I don't believe I have to prove to the world that I am a success only because I have a husband and two children and two grandchildren," says Levanon, who split childcare with her husband while head of the Israeli Security Service's computer division.

"That's me, that's my life, that's what I wanted to do."

After graduating from Hebrew University with a Masters in math, Levanon was was scouted to join the Israeli Security Service (Shin Bet) in 1973 while working at a software company.

The service was in the early stages of computerization, and Levanon, whose brother was killed in the Yom Kippur war, wanted to do something "more than just work."

People should do what they believe is right, not what society believes is right for them.
Ester Levanon, Tel Aviv Stock Exchange CEO

"It really appealed to me, because I felt I could serve my country," she says. She spent 12 years with the service, initially as a consultant, but eventually launching its IT division.

She says being the first and only female manager at the Israeli Security Service was not as difficult as convincing the organization that it needed to adopt new technology. "They knew absolutely nothing about IT," she recalls. "More than that, they really hated the idea."

Levanon also brought wide-sweeping technology adoption to the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, which she joined as Chief Information Officer in 1986 before becoming CEO in 2006.

The exchange, which includes more than 600 companies -- more than 50 dual-listed on the NASDAQ -- now offers automated trading, clearing and settlement.

Ester Levanon: Israel's Leading Women

In January, it was one of several Israeli businesses attacked by hackers, who managed to crash the exchange's website, although not its trading system.

Israel's high tech ambitions

In 2010, the exchange was upgraded from emerging to developed market status by index provider MSCI Inc and this year also topped Bloomberg's Riskless Return Rankings of developed markets.

Here, the 65-year-old tells CNN about Israel's tight-knit business community, the sector she's most excited by, and what she's learned about children.

On "having it all" ...

It's pure nonsense. I don't know the meaning of 'have it all.' Everyone should have what they would like to have.

If someone becomes a manager and she doesn't have a family, I don't think that she doesn't have it all. Maybe that's the way she likes things.

(People) should do what they believe is right, not what society believes is right for them.

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I believe that my sons are very proud of what I achieve.
Ester Levanon, Tel Aviv Stock Exchange CEO

On childcare ...

My husband and I split the responsibility, and we were helped by other people from time to time.

We both managed to have careers. But that was so uncommon at the time that, at first, I pitied myself and said "I'm working harder and look at the men!" And then, I realized that he's paying a higher price.

I don't believe he looked at it as a sacrifice. That's the life we built together and it was very natural. Each couple builds its own life; that's what we did.

When (my sons) were 10 and 12, one of them complained that all of his friends come back (from school) knowing they have their mothers at home. Why am I not there? His brother told him, "If she wants to succeed and have a better job, she must work harder."

I found out two things about children. First of all, they will always complain. If the mother is always home, they will complain. If she's not at home, they will complain. Second, I believe that my sons are very proud of what I achieve.

I have to tell you that one time I stayed at home for one week and they went crazy. I started playing mother, asking them all kinds of questions I never asked. They wanted me out of the house.

On Israel ...

In about 64 years, we managed to come from nothing to being a developed market. Israelis are hard workers and they invest a lot. When you don't have natural resources, you need brain resources, and that's how the hi-tech community and the biotech community came to life.

One of the things you see in Israel is everyone knows everyone. So, if you are looking for someone bright, you either met him during your army service or someone knows someone. They say you need three contacts to know anyone in the world -- in Israel, you need one.

When you don't have natural resources, you need brain resources.
Ester Levanon, Tel Aviv Stock Exchange CEO

On the Eurozone ...

What should happen is that the citizens will realize that they have to pay in order to bring Greece back to what it used to be and what it should be. As long as they are not willing to pay the price, everyone has a problem.

I wish I knew what the solution is. That would make me a hero. But we probably will all have to be patient.

More from Leading Women: Saudi female entrepreneurs exploit changing attitudes

On biomedical investment ...

A very interesting sector. It's the future of the world, I believe. That's what's going to save the human race.

On having a mathematics degree ...

Being a mathematician always appeals to everyone. They are so afraid of those who really understand mathematics.

On being the Israeli Security Service's first female manager ...

They always treated me as an equal, but they also told me I am not an example. It doesn't mean that now they believe that women can do it. I never knew whether to treat that as a compliment or an insult. I decided it was a compliment.

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