Orthodox women share tricks of the entrepreneurial trade at inaugural conference
Chaya Appel-Fishman hatched the idea for a network of Jewish businesswomen at age 16, when she rented a college campus and created a conglomerate of creative arts programs with 120 participants and a 20-person staff.
“I wanted mentors who could give me advice and deal with my religious needs,” she recalls. “And many women reached out to me for support, asking me ‘How did I do it?’”
Now 24 and the founder and executive director of The Jewish Woman Entrepreneur nonprofit, Appel-Fishman was the driving force behind the organization’s first conference, which took place this month.
Attended by 300 Orthodox women, the May 5 conference at the Hyatt Regency in New Brunswick, NJ, had broad goals.
“This conference wasn’t meant to be just about work-life balance,” Appel-Fishman tells JNS.org. “We wanted to blend core, substantive business content as well as challenging, difficult issues and also networking to encourage women to meet and support each other.”
Starting as notes on napkins, Appel-Fishman’s idea for a women’s business network was eventually concretized with a website in 2009, nonprofit status, and now the conference.
Attendees reflected a healthy blend across the spectrum of Orthodoxy, suggests Appel-Fishman, but with more Hassidic women than expected, including 50 on a bus from Borough Park in Brooklyn. Fifteen women came under the aegis of From Sister to Sister, which supports divorcees with children.
Some women there were the heads of huge businesses, some were trying to figure out how to get a small service-oriented business off the ground, and others just love to work. “They have large families and need a dual income,” Appel-Fishman says.
“Our goal is to validate women who work because they need to and those who work because they want to,” she adds.
Although Appel-Fishman is interested in a wider spectrum of Jewish women, for now her primary constituency is narrow. “We are focusing predominantly on the Orthodox community—because they need us the most,” she says. “They needed an exclusively Jewish and kosher organization; other Jewish women have elsewhere to go.”
Although many women who attended were from the New York area, women also came from as far as California and the Midwest to be at the one-day conference.
Ellen Paxton, a newly observant woman who is founder and chief learning officer of Professional Learning Board in Minneapolis, came to meet other entrepreneurs. She hopes to expand her company, which offers online classes to largely secular education professionals to help them meet licensing and professional development requirements, to the Jewish community. “I have grown personally in my Judaism, and now it is time to grow professionally in that regard,” she says. “The more I stay true to my values, the more it supports the growth of my business.”
Other businesses and nonprofits were focused primarily on the Orthodox community. Elana Bergovoy of Chicago, who started the International Shidduch Group Network as a volunteer eight years ago, now has matchmaking support groups for mothers on every continent. Drawn to the conference because “it sounded very empowering,” she is ready to take her grassroots organization to the next level. “I need to know how to be a professional,” says the former teacher. “I have to monetize it so that I get paid, because my time is precious.”
Charisse Smoller of Fremont, Calif., will be launching Jewish E-Cards & More when she gets her website up in August. Working as an occupational therapy assistant 29 hours a week to pay her business staff, Smoller came to the conference to network. “I am trying to get writers, artists, and photographers and to get out the word so people will like us on Facebook and purchase a membership,” she says.
Robin Ticker of Brooklyn, who has a background in computer science, wants to create a business to help parents who are not computer savvy put some limits on their children use the Internet and social media. “They are getting into stuff contrary to the Torah lifestyle and are overexposed to a lot of ideas,” she says.
Many attendees had existing service businesses they strive to expand. Rena Schleifer of Monsey, N.Y., has a doctorate in nutrition and does counseling to help people integrate healthy eating and movement into their daily lives. “I’m here to learn how to transmit that message,” she says. “If I want to make money, I have to become an entrepreneur.”
Other women were connected with nonprofits or wanted to create them. Frieda Kahn, who represents Neve Yerushalayim, a group of schools in Har Nof, Israel, that educates Jewish women of all affiliations, ages, and backgrounds, says of the conference, “There hasn’t been another opportunity for Orthodox women to connect on a professional level.”
Attendee Chani Mayer of Brooklyn says she wants to start a nursery school focusing not just on babysitting, but on building self-confidence in children. M.E. Lax of Monsey would like to start a home for pre-at-risk boys who turn rebellious from ages 13 to 15.
The day featured two speakers, a primer on networking, and four concurrent workshop sessions on subjects including starting a business, developing an elevator pitch, employee relations, using productivity tools, raising capital and marketing with social media, and navigating the professional world.
Both speakers emphasized the demands of owning a business, especially one that makes it big. Chief executive office of Achieve 3000, a provider of differentiated reading instruction, Saki Dodelson is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, with four children, two grandchildren, and a husband who learns Torah by day rather than holding a traditional job. She urged the women at the conference to dream big, start small, hire people they trust, and whenever something is working, scale it up fast.
Sometimes things like home-cooked dinners go when women begin full-time jobs. When a teacher reported to Dodelson that her daughter had said that in December there were no suppers at home, Dodelson told her, “Yes, that’s true, however, we’re going to have supper in May.” At the same time she noted that when a child is sick, she has had to drop a business trip or say no to an amazing deal.
Talia Mashiach, a 36-year-old mother of five who married right after high school, today runs Eved, a company that automates the buying and selling necessary for meetings and events. The company has tripled its revenues three years in a row, now processing more than $80 million in transactions.
A super achiever, Mashiach graduated at the top of her business class at Loyola University, despite having two children in the process. She started her first real business, Tech Closeouts, to earn money to add an addition to her house while staying home with her children. When she got tired of being on the phone all day selling discounted computers, she decided to move on to something she was more passionate about—businesses through technology. That led to Eved.
Today Eved is at a point where Mashiach can take off Fridays and have a fresh, homemade meal ready for Shabbat. Mashiach says, “We are so fortunate to have Torah as our guide; my exposure to the outside world has made me understand and appreciate that so much more.”
At the same time, Mashiach feels committed to her role as a businesswoman, feeling that she is following her God-given talents.
“Hashem gives us special gifts; it is our duty to make use of them,” she says.