One day about a year ago, Gitel Weber, a chasidic homemaker in Borough Park, was engaging in her favorite hobby — making personalized gift packages for friends and family. This time, it was cards and decorations for a family simcha.
“You should go into this line,” one of her sons told her. In other words, turn her hobby into a business.
Weber, who gives her age as “over 30,” took her son’s advice. She approached the Manhattan-based Hebrew Free Loan Society, arranging for a start-up loan and enrolling in the nonprofit’s women-only entrepreneurial course.
Six months ago she opened Pretty Personal Packages, a small storefront a few blocks from her home. With some ideas gleaned from Javits Center trade shows (and many ideas of her own), Weber offers a full line of towels and clocks, toys and other gifts (many of them purchased as low-price closeout sales), all of them individually wrapped. Weber prints, stamps or embroiders the recipient’s name on the gifts, lending an air of intimacy to the items. Some of the gift bags feature poetry she writes for each occasion. Her mainly Orthodox customers buy the merchandise for birthdays, weddings and other events.
Weber, who earlier had served as a playgroup teacher, also designed her own, predominantly purple logo. A son set up her website, prettypersonalpackages.net.
The HFLS loan and course gave Weber the confidence — and the initial capital — to open her own business, turning her avocation into a vocation, Weber said. “I love art” and writing poetry for friends, she said; the course taught her how to market and advertise her skills, and how to balance her books. Her initial success hasn’t surprised her. “I know my neighborhood,” she said.
Weber is not alone. Spurred by tough economic times and by their own entrepreneurial spirit, growing numbers of haredi women are opening their own businesses. Mirroring a trend among haredi women in Israel, the local women are taking advantage of a micro-loan phenomenon that has flourished since Bangladeshi social entrepreneur Muhammad Yunis won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his micro-credit bank that transformed the lives of many women in his developing country by offering them small loans to start homegrown businesses.
These new business ventures challenge the common stereotype of quiet chasidic women who usually stay at home making meals and raising broods of children. The businesswomen emphasize that their families are their first priorities, but that does not inhibit their ability to increasingly serve as breadwinners, if they continue to conduct themselves in a modest manner that does not contradict haredi norms.
Weber, said Shana Novick, executive director of HFLS, is “a success story,” one of nearly 200 haredi women, mostly members of the chasidic community, who have enrolled in the microenterprise course since it was first offered three years ago.
Novick said the course, inspired by programs she had seen in Israel, is the first of its kind in this country with a focus on haredi women. There’s weekly homework, but no grades or exams. The only fee is $100, for the Ewing Marion Kaufmann Foundation’s 380-page “Entrepreneur’s Handbook” manual, whose topics include market analysis, cash flow reports, “financial feasibility” and a “final reality check.”
Instructors, both fulltime facilitators and guest speakers, appear in modest (i.e., long skirts or dresses) garb.
“Ladies, welcome,” Tiffany Goldberg, one of the facilitators, announced at the start of one recent morning session in Borough Park. The students at the tables in front of her comprised a surprisingly in-the-know group. About 75 percent work online, Goldberg said.
“Who watches ‘Shark Tank?’” she asked, referring to the ABC reality competition program on which on a panel of millionaire entrepreneurs evaluate — and sometimes agree to fund — business proposals presented by that night’s contestants. Several hands went up.
Goldberg then discussed the differences among such sources of financing as bank loans, loans from friends and family, credit card advances, “angel investors” and venture capitalists. Most students in the microenterprise course qualify for an HFLS interest-free loan, which ranges from $10,000 to $25,000.
Semester-long sessions alternate each fall and spring between Borough Park and Williamsburg, two of Brooklyn’s largest haredi neighborhoods. The courses, supported by grants from the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York and the Westchester-based, UJA-Federation-affiliated Nedivot Fund, operate with the imprimatur of local Orthodox groups — Mishkan Yecheskel in Borough Park and United Jewish Organization in Williamsburg.
Advanced economic training that gives members of the haredi community the skills to improve their economic condition is “more and more accepted” in Brooklyn’s strictly Orthodox circles, said Briendy Katz, a lifelong Borough Park resident who has worked in the business world for almost 25 years.
Women who stay at home to raise families accumulate administrative and decision-making skills that translate easily into a business setting, says Katz, a HFLS board member and consultant. “There is a lot of talent in the community.”
“Women have for generations (even when they ran the store for their husbands) been helping out economically,” Samuel Heilman, professor of sociology at Queens College and a close observer of the haredi world, noted in an email. “This is in line with the growing realization in the haredi world that they need to do more to support themselves financially.”
Another sign of haredi women’s increasing entry into the world of business: the Jewish Woman Entrepreneur organization, which was launched three years ago, runs annual training and networking conferences for participants who are mostly from the New York area. Some 300 who attended a conference earlier this month at the Hyatt Regency in New Brunswick, N.J., heard stories of women from their ranks who have turned home-based hobbies into thriving businesses.
In Borough Park, HFLS classes are held in the second-floor study hall of Pardes Shlomo, a yeshiva-synagogue, above the Paris Café; bewigged women sit in front of the mechitza at tables stacked with siddurim and Talmud tractates.
The two dozen participants in the latest course, who began the semester by creating a “vision board” that describes their ideal business, made presentations last week about their nascent firms, and received completion certificates. They were in their 20s, 30s and 40s; past sessions have included a great-grandmother. As in years past, most will soon open their own businesses (sometimes working from home) or expand the ones they have already started. Many of the businesses center around familiar pastimes: food, sewing, tutoring, skin care. “There’s always a sheitel macher,” a maker of wigs, Goldberg said.
As is the custom, the women did not attend college, and most of them are members of families that have encountered tough economic times in recent years; according to recent studies, Brooklyn’s chasidic community was especially vulnerable to the recession that started in 2008, because few members of the community have attended college or received professional training. The UJA-Federation 2012 Community Study “identifies poor Haredi households as the largest group of poor people in the Jewish community,” HFLS promotional literature states.
The HFLS course is open to women who have a substantive business idea, even if it has not begun yet, said Shlomo Haft, microenterprise program coordinator.
The course, said Tehilla Schwartz, who gave her age as “almost 50,” helped her prepare to open a home-based business as a professional organizer, using skills she’d honed for years as a favor for friends.
The course teaches confidence, Schwartz said — confidence to assess her own worth. Previously, she said, “I would have charged $20 an hour”; she learned that pros in her field charge three or four times that much.
Novick calls that one of the “soft skills” the course stresses. Unlike a separate HFLS entrepreneurial course for men that stresses “hard skills” like pricing, cash flow and legal considerations, a course for women requires a different slant, she says, adding that women usually are more reluctant than men to speak up, approach potential clients or assess the true worth of their service or product.
Etty Surkis, 31, from Staten Island, a participant in the Borough Park course, is starting a catering business, Celebrity Events (http://celebrityeventsny.com), with her husband, Heshy, an experienced chef.
Her background is in party planning and teaching. “I’m a hondler,” she said, using the Yiddish expression for someone who has a sharp business sense. Now, she said, she’s gained the training to back up natural enthusiasm. She’s already convinced her business’ landlord to partially finance the lease, and some customers to pay in advance.
“She learned it’s OK to ask — and she got it,” Novick said.
She calls the HFLS small business loans “an exact analog of those to pushcart peddlers,” immigrants in this country, more than a century ago. The Society has provided more than $260 million over the years to some 870,000 borrowers; its “loss rate” (i.e., non-repayment): under one percent.
Course facilitators are supplemented by a series of guest speakers on subjects like law, bookkeeping, marketing, body language and government loans. Follow-up includes an enrichment coaching group, and an ongoing business education and networking group.
It’s too soon to determine the long-term success rate of the businesses founded by the women — and men — who have finished the HFLS’s microenterprise education and received start-up loans, Novick said. But early results indicate that the businesses are on solid ground, and will bring into the Jewish community far more than the $40,000 that the course costs each year.
It’s a good investment, she said. “This is a pathway to upward mobility. There’s a lot of entrepreneurial energy in the [haredi] community, if you position people for success.” n
The Hebrew Free Loan Society’s next microenterprise course for haredi women will begin in the fall after Sukkot. For information: (212) 687-0188, ext. 213.