To call Chaya Fishman ambitious would be a gross understatement. By the time she was 16, an age when most young women are studying or babysitting, she had started her own LLC. Four years later, her business, a conglomerate of creative arts summer camps, had 125 campers and a staff of 17. Now she’s the founder and executive director of The Jewish Woman Entrepreneur, a nonprofit that supports Jewish women as they launch their own businesses, and a law student at the University of Maryland all at the ripe old age of 25.
Chaya grew up in Cleveland as one of eight children in a very busy home. Her mother ran a clothing gemach from their basement (still open today) and her father was the director of the city’s branch of Aish HaTorah. Their house was always filled with different kinds of people, and the family’s focus was on serving the Jewish community. Chaya’s parents also encouraged her and her siblings to read. Every Friday afternoon, each child got a laundry basket to take to the library and fill with books. After Chaya zipped through the children’s section, she moved on to the books on business. By 16, she knew the nuts and bolts of building a company. “I’ve always been very entrepreneurial,” says Chaya, with a CEO’s poise, professionalism and speed.
When she saw a need for an affordable day camp for 5th and 6th grade girls, she stepped in Her program took off, and she sat down with an accountant to form an LLC. She even called the IRS with questions (“I was probably the youngest person on the line!”). It was, she said, practice for what she feels is one of the most important parts of entrepreneurship: building support networks.Women began reaching out to Chaya with business questions, and the first seeds of the JWE were planted. “There are resources out there for woman entrepreneurs,” Chaya explains, “but nothing fully captures the frum woman entrepreneur.” She had a vision of one day creating a platform that would bring Orthodox women business owners together to share support and make connections. She envisioned “something that would encompass all the culture and nuances of the frum woman in business.” But first, she had to finish high school.
Chaya graduated at 16, then went to Darchei Binah` Seminary in Israel for a year. Then it was off to Lander College, where she majored in finance. Chaya married Rabbi Ariel Fishman, now the director of Judaic Heritage, a kiruv organi zation for young professionals in Baltimore. Meanwhile, the idea she’d had to connect Jewish businesswomen never left her; Chaya would still find herself scribbling ideas for the project on napkins. After two years of working as a financial analyst, Chaya decided she wanted to go to law school. She was accepted to the University of Maryland, and in the window of time before her first semester, Chaya launched the JWE. At first, it was just a website with business articles, a forum and a mentoring system, but, says Chaya, “what happened next was kind of extraordinary.” Without doing any advertising, Chaya was inundated with requests for mentors and mentees. She realized quickly that she was onto something. Chaya wrote a business plan and submitted it to one of the country’s top law firms, which took her on pro bono. She formed a talented board of women who helped her research the needs of Orthodox Jewish businesswomen.
The result was the JWE’s first national business conference, held last May, with 300 women from 13 states and three countries in attendance. At the conference, frum women of all walks were able to connect with mentors, swap ideas, and in many cases, get their businesses off the ground. A kitchen designer, for example, met a tile distributor at the event; they have now done four kitchens together. Since the conference (the second installment was held just a few weeks ago), the network has continued to grow at a rapid-fire pace; local JWE chapters are springing up around the globe. It has been vital, Chaya says, to show women how to build local support networks.
She explains, “Men go to a PTA meeting and they’re all making business deals in the back, but women are talking recipes. They don’t realize that the woman sitting next to them [also] has business savvy. There’s so much opportunity for synergy… and collaboration.”Chaya is a woman with a clear purpose and multiple talents; you get the feeling she can do anything she puts her mind to. But surely even she, a professional, a student and the mother of a young child, must struggle to balance the demands of work, school and family. Her philosophy on the matter comes from Melissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo: “You have to ruthlessly prioritize.” In Chaya’s world, it’s all about efficiency. She cooks only once every eight weeks in one marathon Sunday session, filling her freezer with meals she can pull out at the last minute. She has whiteboards all over her house for her many lists.
Every morning, Chaya gets up with her son at 5 a.m., heading with him to the park just as the sun rises. (“I really believe in quality over quantity,” she says.) Between work and class, Chaya runs home so she can be with her son before he goes to bed, and she uses the hour in the car to listen to audio reviews of her coursework. “I have to be very careful about how I spend my time,” Chaya explains. “I only have one child, so I think that changes the equation [compared to mothers with two or more children]. But I will tell you, I don’t sleep very much.” This hectic phase is a temporary one, as Chaya will be stepping down as the JWE’s executive director in the near future—though she will be maintaining her position on the board. And there’s only one year of law school to go. She’ll be cutting her teeth this summer in the mergers and acquisitions department of a law firm, an experience she hopes to parlay into working with startups in the tech industry. As for the JWE, her long-term vision is simple: “to make a serious stab at the parnasah problem in the community. But for now, Chaya must go. She’s been chosen as one of Maryland’s The Daily Record “20 in their Twenties,” and is needed at a photo shoot. “It’s my first,” she tells me. “It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever done.” I doubt it will be her last.