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Modest Sums

Armed with microfinance loans, ultra-Orthodox housewives learn entrepreneurship

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Sara holding samples of her Nature’s Cure herbal supplements (Allison Hoffman)

When it came to Eva Longoria, the ultra-Orthodox women who gathered on a recent weekday morning for a crash-course in marketing drew a total blank. “Who is she?” asked one behatted, bespectacled woman, peering suspiciously at an ad for L’Oreal hair dye that was supposed to represent the power of “transformation” as a marketing metaphor.

The instructor, a serial entrepreneur from Brooklyn’s Syrian Jewish community named Rebecca Harary, paused, waiting for a sign of recognition. Crickets. “Well, she’s an actress,” Harary began. “On a show called, um, Housewives.” Pause. Deep breath. “Desperate Housewives.” Chuckles.

“We don’t get that here,” explained one of the women. She gestured around, apparently indicating not just the basement classroom in a row house in Brooklyn, lined with bookshelves packed tight with Talmuds and other religious texts, but the entire Hasidic enclave of Williamsburg–an exclusion zone when it comes to American consumer culture despite being a single subway stop from Manhattan.

“It’s lost on us,” said another woman, dressed in a chic printed jacket and wearing tortoiseshell glasses, who introduced herself by her Yiddish name but asked to be identified only by her English name, Judy.

What wasn’t lost on Judy or anyone else, though, was the power of “sizzle,” as Harary–taking on the cadences of Don Draper–put it. “Add more sizzle, not more steak!” she exhorted her students, participants in the first business-basics class for women ever offered in New York’s fast-growing ultra-Orthodox community. The monthlong course, patterned after a class introduced last year for Hasidic men, is designed not just to help their wives start businesses, but to give them the tools and the confidence to apply–and qualify–for seed loans of up to $25,000 available from the Hebrew Free Loan Society.

“In Bangladesh you can just extend the credit and buy a cow for the village,” said Shana Novick, the executive director of Hebrew Free Loan, who previously worked on microenterprise programs in third-world countries through the Ford Foundation. “In this country, if you want to position a micro-entrepreneur for success you have to provide all the pieces–how to write a business plan, how to deal with legal issues.”

Novick said she felt it was vital to give women in the ultra-Orthodox community equal access to financing–not least because many men study full time instead of working. Already, a handful of graduates from the men’s course have qualified for loans, including a 23-year-old who opened a recording studio for ultra-Orthodox musicians.

The 15 women who signed up range from newlywed twentysomethings to grandmothers in their fifties and sixties. They are all housewives dressed according to the strict codes of tznius, or modesty–sporting wigs, berets, or headscarves over their hair, along with long skirts and high-necked blouses, they are the opposite of Desperate, and they want to learn how to become entrepreneurs.

Most of them already have some professional experience: one works in a chiropractic office; another is a real-estate broker who says she is “burned out” on the business and is thinking of opening a licensed daycare center to help Hasidic working mothers. An older woman who helped her husband run a factory in Brooklyn providing embroidery and hand-finishing for high-end designers like Donna Karan is looking for a new source of income after competition from China put the family out of business. Others say they are running informal businesses providing daycare or alteration services, distributing secondhand clothes, or selling products like jewelry from their living rooms or via mail-order. But with the economy tight and their large families feeling pinched, many feel the time has come to be more ambitious.

Williamsburg and the nearby ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Borough Park, Crown Heights, and Flatbush are among the poorest in New York City, with about 60 percent of all residents living below the poverty line, according to the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, and with large broods of children, even families with steady incomes depend on food stamps or other government assistance–and on extra cash women are able to bring in through part-time office jobs or their own enterprises.

“My business is basically my only income,” said Sara, a soft-spoken 52-year-old with seven children, the youngest already 18. Sara, who grew up in Monsey, an ultra-Orthodox village north of New York City, said she was always interested in natural remedies and began selling herbal supplements–capsules, tinctures, and drops–by mail six years ago with help from her family, and was growing the business by word of mouth. One of her daughters spotted an ad for the class in a local Yiddish circular and encouraged her to sign up to get free legal and tax advice as well as to meet other Hasidic women who interested in expanding their businesses.

The curriculum is the same as the men’s, with classes on accounting, legal concerns, insurance, and sales. Most of the content is sophisticated; Harary, an adjunct professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, passed around handouts from a Harvard Business School distance-learning course and taught the women about “Unique Selling Propositions.” She advised them to hire “marketing professionals” to help design logos and write promotional materials, prompting several to point out that they could become new clients for a woman in the class who said she hoped to go into copywriting.

But what the students kept returning to were workaday concerns, and they weren’t afraid to speak out of turn as their anxieties struck them. “English isn’t my first language–is that okay?” asked one, who spoke with a very slight Yiddish accent and wanted to distribute high-end baby products to mothers in Brooklyn to save them a trip into Manhattan. Sara asked whether she should pretend not to recognize customers’ telephone numbers on her caller ID, lest they realize how small her operation was. “They’ll think you’re a genius!” said a classmate. “Everyone wants to look mom-and-pop now,” Harary added. When she recommended the women print business cards, she suggested they go to Staples or any other big-box office-supply store instead of a custom printer. Several of the women, talking over one another, asked if Staples could do the colors and designs they envisioned for their infant companies. “I am trying to tell you how to do it cheap!” Harary responded.

Again and again, the women asked about how much they could charge. Everyone agreed that Judy could offer a discount for friends buying six gift baskets for all their daughters-in-law, but seemed concerned that they would be taken advantage of by relatives or friends or acquaintances who haggled for discounts. A middle-aged women wearing a knit hat and pearl earrings, who plans to sell hand-smocked car-seat covers and other baby items, told a story about spending hours smocking the front of a dressing gown for a friend, who wanted to pay her just $65 for the work–and tried to get her to do the back for free. “She came to pick it up, and asked why the back wasn’t done–well, then she said she had to ask her husband if she could pay more, and when she came back she said she’d give me another $25,” said the woman, who asked that her name not be used. “You can’t imagine the work that it takes!” she added, exasperated at the memory.

One solution, Harary said, was to focus on expanding outside the Hasidic community. “You want to sell Jewish products mail order,” Harary told one student. “So think outside of Williamsburg and Borough Park–maybe there’s a Catholic minister in Iowa who could be interested in your items, someone who has Jewish friends.” The woman looked startled. “But I’m looking at Jewish products!” she protested. “Maybe I could sell to Reform or Conservative, but that’s already going outside,” she protested.

David Rubel, an economic development consultant who works with the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, a Hasidic social-services agency, designed both the men’s and the women’s courses–-though, as a man, he can’t meet his female students. He said part of the point was to expand the participants’ economic horizons. “That is the marching order–if people cannot break out of their communities, it’s going to be very limited,” he said, telling a story about one of the participants in the men’s class, who built a thriving business selling pet supplies online almost exclusively outside the ultra-orthodox community, where very few people keep pets. “We want to encourage as many people as possible to reach a broader market,” said Rubel, who has written several studies on workforce participation and poverty in the Hasidic community.

But the women all seemed inclined to start locally–and, if possible, in the classroom. One participant who left the marketing class early to visit her newborn grandson had a wave of offers on her way out the door. “You need a gift basket?” asked Judy, who nodded at the woman who planned to manufacture baby items and added, “Or a car seat cover?” The woman smiled shyly and replied, “They’re not ready yet.”

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Modest Sums

Armed with microfinance loans, ultra-Orthodox housewives learn entrepreneurship

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