By Avigayil Perry
Growing numbers of Orthodox women from across the spectrum of Orthodoxy are using their ambition, ingenuity and creativity to launch successful businesses of their own.
The seeds of entrepreneurship were implanted in twenty-five-year-old Chaya Fishman at a young age. After a teacher challenged her to fill the need for a creative arts summer program for girls in her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, Fishman chose to act on it. For four consecutive summers, Fishman, as the founder and executive director of Appel Adventures, LLC, managed a budget of approximately $250,000, hired and supervised a staff of seventeen individuals and coordinated all technical and legal aspects of the program.
She was all of sixteen at the time.
Adventures was only the beginning. Fishman describes her mother as “creative” and her father as a “no-nonsense, let’s-get-the-job-done” kind of person. While Fishman was growing up, her parents ensured that she and her seven siblings each had a personal bank account, and stressed the importance of working hard.
As she grew older, Fishman noticed the rising number of frum female entrepreneurs. She also noticed the lack of support available to them. Where are the mentors and resources catering exclusively to Jewish businesswomen? she wondered. So, in 2010, she founded the Jewish Woman Entrepreneur (JWE), an organization that supports Jewish women as they launch and sustain successful businesses and careers.
JWE seeks to assist frum women looking to get involved in entrepreneurship “from the start to the finish line,” explains Fishman. It also serves as the “go-to” organization for those who need to take their businesses to the next level and take advantage of the JWE’s services and programs in business education, professional training and financial support. The JWE offers an online learning program, educating women on specific skills necessary to run a business; its mentoring program has matched 120 women to date. This past spring, the organization held its second annual conference in New Jersey, attracting more than 600 women from all over the United States for a day of learning, networking and collaboration.
Most important, the JWE helps women navigate the challenges that are unique to Orthodox Jewish women in business. Orthodox Jews tend to have larger families, and women usually take charge of the majority of family responsibilities. “I am a bad example of how to balance work and family because I only have one child,” Fishman says. “The work-life balance is a lot more complex with ten children.”
Currently, JWE boasts six city chapters, including Baltimore, Monsey and Lakewood and plans for rolling out six more are in the works.
In addition to serving as the founding executive director of the JWE, Fishman is also a fourth-year law school student at University of Maryland and mother to a two-year-old son. How does she do it all on a daily basis? “It’s all about strategy,” she explains. One needs to decide what is most important, and figure out what it takes to achieve it. “You can kvetch or get creative,” Fishman says. For instance, even with her hectic schedule, she wants to serve her family nutritious home-cooked meals. A problem-solver by nature, she devised a plan to achieve this. Every two months, she spends one Sunday cooking for several hours. Fishman chooses recipes that can freeze easily; her freezer is packed with dozens of suppers secured in tightly sealed aluminum pans. She even lists each frozen dish in a spreadsheet, enabling her to effectively plan each night’s dinner.
Fishman’s husband has been a tremendous source of support and encouragement. Fishman explains that when husband and wife view their marriage as a partnership and support each other’s goals, the mentality becomes, “we’re in this together, [so] we both win.” Fishman also stresses the importance of a support system. For example, her apartment complex in Baltimore is home to many students. During stressful finals week, she and her neighbors host each other for Shabbat meals. “What goes around comes around,” comments Fishman. “When you support others, you get support back.”
Fishman did not create the JWE with the intention of telling women whether or not to work. In the frum community, sometimes women who work full time are regarded critically. “It’s a trap; if you do anything else [outside the home], you’re not putting your family first,” Fishman says. In essence, each woman has to ask herself, “How do I reconcile my role in business without compromising my family and communal obligations?,” explains Fishman. “Sometimes feelings of guilt come from the community, but they can also be self-imposed.”
Fishman believes that it’s a mitzvah to utilize one’s God-given strengths. “Women often become better mothers and community leaders because of their work.”
Avigayil Perry lives in Norfolk, Virginia, with her family and writes for various Jewish publications.
This article was featured in Jewish Action Fall 2014 .