Welcoming a group of more than 400 Orthodox female business owners, Jewish Woman Entrepreneur president and founder Chaya Appel Fishman urged the crowd, “You can kvetch, or you can get creative” at the organization’s second annual conference in Parsippany, N.J., this month. She went on to say, “We know there’s a bigger force behind us. We know we have God as a business partner.”
Though JWE is less than 2 years old, the concept had been brewing in Fishman’s mind for years. When she was 16, Fishman ran a conglomerate of summer arts programs in her hometown of Cleveland that had 17 employees and 120 students. That experience exposed her to other businesswomen in her community, and she noticed there were many resources geared to female entrepreneurs but none specific to Orthodox women with their special needs and religious guidelines. She thought someday she should do something about that gap in support.
Now 25, she is a mother and wife in Baltimore and has a degree in business finance. She worked as a financial analyst for two years and just completed her third year of evening law school at the University of Maryland School of Law.
“I had two children in my first year [of law school]. I gave birth to my son and to JWE,” said Fishman, laughing.
Initially JWE was launched as a website when Fishman “had a couple of months before law school,” an example of what has come to define her jump-in and-do-it attitude. The site featured various professionals’ writings on business topics and an informal mentoring program. Very quickly Fishman found she hit a nerve.
“I had spent time putting [the website] together but didn’t really do any research,” she said. “Without advertising or anything, I was swarmed with applications from people who wanted to be mentored.”
Fishman obtained help to set up JWE as a nonprofit and believed there should also be a forum for religious businesswomen to come together face to face.
“I made this bet with God,” she said at this year’s conference, recalling the birth of the first event last year. “Let’s see if I can pull this off and it will happen. If I can get all [the invited speakers] to come within a week, I’ll take it as a sign.”
The first conference was held in Monsey, N.Y., with about 200 attendees.
Many Orthodox women choose to run businesses because of the flexibility, explained Fishman. They are often are busy with large families, and many do not gain access to higher education so job options can be limited. Entrepreneurship allows women to create their own hours and enable them to address the multitude of family and holiday obligations and often make more money than they could working for an employer. In addition, as with many other large families, it is often necessary to bring in a second income.
Since last year’s conference, JWE now has a board of directors and is soon to launch a sophisticated online learning platform that will enable members to take classes and gain appropriate skills at their own pace and even get evaluated as they progress. It will be offering a formal mentoring program and hopes to move into educating Jewish day school girls in business skills as well.
“I’m 25, and I have a really strong group of responsible adults behind me,” said Fishman. “I’m grateful that there are so many successful, brilliant women who have guided me in this initiative. It’s all about the team.”
The head of that team is Shelli Weisz, chairman of the JWE board. She has known Fishman’s family for years and is a successful businesswoman in her own right. Weisz is past co-owner and vice president of TMW Systems, Inc., the largest software developer for the truckload carrier industry and is currently managing director at Weiszco, LLC, a business consulting and angel investing firm.
“I work in tandem with Chaya for strategic planning and evaluating new programs,” she said. “We have had to monitor our growth because the need is so tremendous. We realize we can’t be all things to everybody.”
Referring to the view that traditional Judaism mandates gender-specific roles that could preclude the possibility of a woman running a business, Weisz took a nuanced approach.
“We’re not here to answer that question; it is an individual’s; they must answer for themselves,” she said.
Many times throughout the conference when ethical or religious-based questions were raised, attendees were advised to consult their local rabbi.
When women in the religious community do decide to work, there is a specific set of needs that are not addressed by the general business support community, Weisz explained, noting that JWE provides that support. Women face a host of issues, she pointed out, such as deciding whether or not to close for business early on Fridays, to shake a man’s hand at a networking event or to wear a head covering at all times. At the far right of the religious spectrum, there are those who avoid technology and will not use a computer. The JWE provides resources for those members too, such as audio-recorded phone programs in business-skills instruction.
“They love coming to this conference because it is all women, it’s a sisterhood,” said Weisz. “They are able to partner with like-minded people.”
Another component of JWE is the local chapter initiative. There are currently six city chapters, and six more are rolling out next year. Miriam Gittel Rosenblatt and Devorah Baron are the Baltimore chapter city leaders.
“I didn’t feel like there was an acceptance in the community of women owning a business,” said Baron. “I decided to let it simmer, and the creativity and need to have a business was bursting out of me.”
At the time she embarked on her business career, there were no resources for religious women entrepreneurs, she added, but since then she has learned a lot from working with both Fishman and her city chapter co-chair Rosenblatt.
Rosenblatt and her husband, Mendel, run a printing and graphics business that recently expanded and relocated from Pikesville to Randallstown. Thanks to the business guidance of fellow JWE members, the company now offers more services and has grown to include more employees. Rosenblatt and her co-chair Baron met when carpooling to the first JWE conference.
“Meeting Devorah is the point of JWE,” said Rosenblatt. “It’s to connect women who are in the business world, to learn from each other and give to each other, and our co-leadership is like the poster child of success.”
Another poster child of success, according to JWE founder Fishman, is Rena Levin of Pikesville.
Levin, 53, is mother of five children ages 12 to 27. She is the owner/practitioner of Serenity Healing Solutions, where she draws upon traditional coaching techniques and holistic health and energy medicine methods to treat her clients. She began exploring the healing field because of a mysterious condition her son developed and from which he has since found relief. Serenity Healing Solutions has been in business since 2006 and Levin recently added a monthly visit to New York, when she travels to see clients. Her husband helps in the marketing end of the business.