One sunny afternoon three years ago, while hanging out at Tel Baruch — a beach just north of Tel Aviv — Michael Azoulay and his friend, Mickael Bensadoun, noticed an attractive woman jogging past them.
“She ran smoothly across the sand, elegantly fitted in top-of-the-line sneakers and active wear, sun-streaked hair gathered up in a bandanna, a cellphone strapped to her arm, earphones plugged in — a typical healthy portrait of today’s woman,” Azoulay recalled in a recent blog post. “But something was wrong. Her all-together look was ruined by the thick while sunscreen she was wearing. As her face was sweating, the cream was turning into a damp, oily, uneven layer that was running into her eyes, making her blink and squint in the bright sunshine.”
That got the two Mikes thinking about a new and ultimately profitable business opportunity: a line of skincare products especially designed for women who sweat.
The company that materialized, Fré Skincare, is only the latest venture for Azoulay, who made aliya in 2000 after studying economics and finance in his native France, at Université Paris-Dauphine.
The 39-year-old, whose parents hail from Algeria, arrived in Israel not speaking a word of Hebrew, but he quickly fell in love with the Jewish state, eventually returning to work for an investment bank and learning the new language on the job.
Four years later, he joined the team at Arcaffe, helping expand the fledgling Israeli espresso retail chain from eight outlets to 45.
“It was a successful operation in the local business landscape, and I learned a lot,” Azoulay told us. “I was always attracted by the retail and consumer goods industry. I also managed to open franchises on my own (he still owns an Arcaffe outlet in Ra’anana).”
But that wasn’t enough for the aspiring entrepreneur.
In 2012, Azoulay went back to school and earned an MBA through a program between Northwestern University and Tel Aviv University. He and his friend Bensadoun — co-founder of Gvahim — eventually decided it was time to make serious money, and targeted the skincare industry for potential business opportunities.
Azoulay said his sighting of that sweaty girl running along the sand at Tel Baruch was a “Eureka moment” for him and Bensadoun. “Nobody in the world was tackling this problem,” he said. “These creams on the market do not at all fit the needs of people who are sweating.”
Fré’s products revolve around the argania tree — mainly the water extract of its leaf, the organic oil and its stem cells. Azoulay’s company imports the raw material from Morocco through a French intermediary, and works with a manufacturer in Yeruham — a town in Israel’s Negev — to turn the argania extract into various facial skin-care products.
When Azoulay isn’t busy selling cosmetics, he mentors TheNest by Gvahim’ participants — a role the former Frenchman clearly relishes.
“If Gvahim had existed when I came to Israel, maybe I would have had a different career with more opportunities,” he said. “So a few years ago, I decided to do my best to take motivated people, and leverage my network and experience to try to help them face the difficulties. For me, this is very personal. When you help other people in this way, somehow you feel you’re doing something for yourself as well. It’s a big mitzva.”
He added: “Now Gvahim has the infrastructure and the network to make things happen. Ten years ago it had no visibility. Our mentor network is growing.”
Azoulay extended a heartfelt shana tova to all new immigrants — both those already in Israel and those he hopes will make aliya sometime during 5778. “What I wish is to double the number of olim who will come next year,” he told us.
by Larry Luxner, journalist and contributing editor of GV MAG