Jewish Entrepreneurship: A Man’s World?

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February 7, 2018

Last week, I was invited to serve as a facilitator of conversation at a monumental event celebrating female social entrepreneurship in the Jewish community: Change: Powered by Women, Inspired by Jewish Values hosted by the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York and UpStart. I walked into a room of 60 high-powered, highly-inspired Jewish women who, in one aspect or another, are driving innovative, courageous, much-needed work in the Jewish community. After hearing the personal narratives and challenges of three powerhouses blazing trails in education, women’s health and protecting against abuses of power in the Jewish community, a number of us, fellow social entrepreneurs, facilitated conversations at our respective tables around these questions:

  1.       How does gender play a role in entrepreneurship?
  2.       How can we better support Jewish women social entrepreneurs?
  3.       How do you want to have an impact?

Yes, important points to ponder.

Entrepreneurship is in my blood– I come from a long line of self-starters (oriental rugs, education– close enough), though all men. After starting and successfully running my own photography and filmmaking business for a decade, I founded a school. And from the get-go, I framed our work as not only an innovative platform in education, but a grass-roots movement for social change– a catalyst for deep communal engagement in unchartered territory. And within this frame, I’ve always sought out training and mentorship from the business sector. For three years, I was part of an entrepreneurial coaching group (go Vistage!), where I was the only non-profit executive amongst a group of 16 successful business owners. We met monthly to support each other and work through our business and personal issues while receiving one-one-one mentorship.

Oh, and amongst the group of 16 entrepreneurs, I was also one of only two women in the group.

I remember one of my early sessions with my coach. I was reviewing a dynamic at a committee meeting at my school. I had formed a financial advisory group that consisted of about eight fathers in the school, all successful businessmen (and wonderful individuals!). I was attempting to lead the group, to encourage common purpose and engagement, to create some sense of accountability. Was I coming off too strong? Why did it feel like I had to work a little extra hard to get these men to value my role in the group? Like I was intruding on some men’s club?

My coach told me not to play the gender card. It was likely in my head. Deal with the dynamic at hand. Don’t read between the lines.

Perhaps.

Though whether in that case or not, we’d be remiss if we thought that gender does not play a role in these kinds of dynamics.

How many of us have had to check our power, make sure we’re not ‘too aggressive,’ act demure, hold our tongue, or stroke egos just to feel heard?

Yes, in many ways still, it’s a man’s world.

Even around a table of relatively woke business leaders in my coaching group, I had to underline behaviors and attitudes that seemed to undermine women (helpful hint: don’t refer to women who work with or for you as ‘girls.’ It’s just not respectful).

We know we have to ‘lean in’ and continue to work for better representation and equal pay in the workplace. So is this a Jewish challenge? Do Jewish women need a different kind of support?

Perhaps.

How many magazines continue to pixelate our faces, blur our images, co opt our stories, effectively erasing our presence from Jewish media, story and community?

Why am I able to secure a grant to give annual raises to our male Rebbes– yet its not available for female Morahs? (We are committed to equal pay at our school, so we still offer annual raises for our female teachers. It’s just not subsidized by this grant.)

How many conventions or conferences in the Jewish community have women in equal representation as men in headlining roles– even in more liberal circles?

How many business expos and networking events in the Jewish community feature all-male panels, their marketing materials barely mentioning the presence of female entrepreneurs at their events, though their attendance are open to both men and women?

What kind of message does that send to women who aspire to create their own venture? To our daughters who may dream of starting their own business or social venture one day?

I went to one such gathering last year. It was an event for e-commerce executives and business leaders in the Jewish community. Many, many men and some women gathered in a massive convention hall, learning best-practice in business and networking. Much of my work is building new relationships and fundraising for my social venture, so this kind of event is not only informative for my own practice– it allows me to make new contacts with potential donors.

I met quite a few people I already knew.

“Oh hi! What are you doing here?” Or, “Are you here with your husband?”

Um, what are you asking?

What business do I have here? If I can justify my presence because I’m tagging along with my man?

Years ago, in the early days of Lamplighters, we initiated an event called In the Glow. It was a vendor fair and artist bazaar celebrating Jewish female entrepreneurship and creativity in our community. In the days before Facebook pages and Insta-stories, this event was groundbreaking– 300 women and young girls visiting close to 50 vendors, supporting a platform for female business owners and change-agents to promote their work, share their talents and build relationships. Women being women, in the most beautiful way.

What are other ways we can continue to create this kind of opportunity for Jewish women, yearning for connection, opportunity and inspiration?

I sat at this table at the inspirational event last week and heard stories from fellow Jewish women who dream of creating their own ventures, are thirsty for meaningful work, full of passion and wonder, and searching for possibility and mentorship. And here is what evolved in our (too short!) conversation: gender bias is real. And being a Jewish women is an incredible gift.

This week is the yahrtzeit of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, the highly private, somewhat mysterious, incredibly modest and righteous woman who was the wife of the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe. In her honor every year since her passing, thousands of shluchos, Chabad emissaries, from around the world (including my little sister!) gather here in Brooklyn for a convention. Hundreds of these powerful women will be in my neighborhood this weekend, attending classes, lectures, workshops and more to strengthen their work at their respective posts around the world. And Sunday night, for the first time, I will attend the kinnus, the crescendo event of the three day convention.

I’m not sure what to expect.

Yet here’s what I am imagining: it will be highly charged and very moving. These women are ‘social entrepreneurs,’ par excellence. They show grit, imagination, strength and leadership every day, forging new paths in their communities. And they feel powerful. They revel in their femininity. They are not waiting for permission. They are not holding back.

What an example.

I don’t know how to fully support female entrepreneurship in the Jewish community.

Yet I believe it starts with greater visibility of who’s out there, working hard to make a difference. It means more opportunities for female business leaders and social entrepreneurs to learn from, and teach, one another– men or women. It means giving our daughters more opportunities to interact with female leaders and role models. It means shifting our definition of power. It means giving up control.

It means creating a world where we’re not ‘girls’ working for men.

I am so proud to be a Jewish woman.

Femininity, in the most Divine way, is so utterly beautiful. The intuition. The sensitivity to nuance. The understanding of how to make others feels special. The unique reservoir of strength, maternal instinct, humility and awareness of the other. The distinct brand of creativity and nurture. The willingness to make space in the way (only?) women can.

I’m surrounded by so many friends and colleagues who are powerful, effective, courageous entrepreneurs, pushing against real and perceived boundaries to make this world a better place (you probably follow a bunch of them on Instagram).

Are they successful despite their gender?

Or because of it?

Who says being a woman is a liability?

Perhaps– even likely — it’s the best asset there is.

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