Six Female Business Leaders Share Lessons Learned for the Next Generation of Entrepreneurs

Written by Suzanne Pollak on . Posted in Features

Despite the arduous work, long hours, and numerous headaches, six area female business owners all agree they have the best of so many worlds. They can take days off during Jewish holidays and for family events because they control their own schedules. They are able to give back to the Jewish community they love by financially supporting local institutions and sponsoring community events. And through it all, they have supported and raised their families.

On Jan. 18, Kol HaBirah convened six Jewish female business owners who advertise with the paper at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington in Rockville, Maryland, to network and share their insights about starting and running their own businesses. The panel included, in alphabetical order: Julie Black, Barbara Ciment, Joyce Dworsky Srour, Shonny Kugler, Joyce Torchinsky, and Laurie Wexler.

Julie Black is the president of NurtureCare in Northern Virginia, a home care company that matches elderly clients with caregivers. She started the company 20 years ago and now has 350 caregivers. Barbara Ciment, a Silver Spring realtor with 40 years of experience, heads a team with four members and is the number-one producer in the North Bethesda/Rockville office over the past five years. Joyce Dworsky Srour is the owner and CEO of Vital Signs LLC; started in 1987, the Silver Spring-based company provides sign language interpreters, speech-to-text transcribers, and readers for the blind.

Shonny Kugler has more than 40 years of experience as a realtor with Long and Foster. She operates out of her fully-equipped home office and deals mostly in the referral business. Joyce Torchinsky is the founder, owner and managing funeral director at Torchinsky Hebrew Funeral Home in Takoma Park, Washington, D.C. She started the funeral home 17 years ago. Finally, Laurie Wexler is a cofounder of the nonprofit Sunflower Bakery, which was started up in 2009 to train young adults with learning differences in the skills of pastry arts and baking with the goal of helping them find jobs. In 2015, Sunflower opened the Café Sunflower in the Jewish Federation building to offer barista and customer service training.              

Starting an Enterprise

Black recommended having a two-and-a-half-year financial cushion when starting a new business. “Don’t expect to do great immediately,” she said. “You have to have a strong stomach” during the first few years while the business takes time to succeed. She advised someone raising a family and starting a business to hire help at home.

Torchinsky started her funeral home with her personal savings. “I always saved all of my money from every job I ever had, and I worked since I was 14,” she said.

“I had no idea how I was going to make it,” she said. “I knew Hashem was taking care of me.”

Dworsky Srour was able to make a go of it at first because she kept her job, working a midnight shift to have the time and money needed to grow a business. “Who needs to sleep when you are young?” she quipped.

Ciment was a part-time elementary school teacher in Silver Spring when she decided to become a real estate agent. At the time, her husband was working for the U.S. Navy in White Oak while attending law school at night, and they had two young children. 

Sunflower was started with co-founders and friends pitching in $2,000 total, Wexler said. During Sunflower’s pilot, residents of the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes participated along with volunteers in donated kitchen space at Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac. Starting off with help from the Jewish and wider communities helped pave the way for what is now a non-profit with a $1 million budget, she said. 

“The community support and enthusiasm were what really drove us,” Wexler said, adding that Sunflower Bakery is currently looking to move out of its Gaithersburg facility and into a bigger space.

Operating a Business as a Jew and a Woman

One thing the women stressed was that to be successful, you must have a dependable staff. Not only are they the ones who take over during Shabbat and Jewish holidays, but they are often the ones who answer the phone and make the initial contact with customers.

“You’d never know they are not Jewish,” Torchinsky said of some of the members of her funeral home staff. After years of working there, they know what the Hebrew markers at the cemetery say and are even comfortable with the Yiddish they often hear from clients.

Wexler said 30 percent of trainees and participants are at Sunflower Bakery are Jewish. Since they are a kosher establishment that has special menu items for Jewish holidays, the non-profit teaches all its participants about kosher laws and Jewish holidays. 

Being female comes with its own share of challenges, panelists agreed, though many of the women on the panel saw themselves as working in female-friendly industries. 

Even though she started her business, Torchinsky said she is regularly asked if she inherited the funeral home from her parents or where the head of the company is, as if she couldn’t be the person in charge.

Being a woman also can be seen as an asset. “I think that women have a lot of empathy,” which often helps in closing a deal, Kugler said.

Black said that in the past 10 years, the home health care business has grown tremendously, and while that empathetic element is still important, the need to be concerned with competition has grown. “I have found I have to become more focused on the bottom line,” Black said. “I am talking more about money than I used to. It wasn’t like that when I started up.” Now Black spends more of her day dealing with marketing, her focus shifting to accounting and away from meeting clients.

Advice for Potential Business Owners

All the panelists said they are comfortable advising the next generation to start their own businesses, as long as they understand it’s not going to go exactly as planned. They also noted that it helps to know accounting and finance, no matter what business plan you pursue.

Black said the best advice she offers is to write your plans down. “If you can write it down, and it still makes sense to you,” it’s easier to succeed, she said.

Being passionate about what you do is only the first step, said Dworsky Srour. Business owners not only need to know everything possible about their field but also the terminology related to financial acumen, management, contracts, and all areas of business operations. Millennials are very concerned with having a balanced life, she said, and they need to know that, at least in the beginning, “life will be out of balance.”

People considering starting a business should also remember that “a hobby can become a business, but a business cannot be a hobby,” said Dworsky Srour.

Added Wexler, “You feel very responsible for the business, for the employees, and the trainees. It’s constant.” Ciment stressed the need for a strong support system to help with family life, as real estate sales are very “disruptive” of normal routines; her husband now works for her after taking early retirement from a senior executive position at the National Science Foundation.

But all agreed the rewards outweigh the challenges. For Ciment, it’s seeing happy families moving into their own home in the neighborhoods they desire. For Black, it’s the flexibility of being your own boss. For Torchinsky, it’s knowing she doesn’t have to turn to a committee to make a decision.

“Do your best,” she said.

By Suzanne Pollak

 Suzanne Pollak is the senior writer/editor at Jewish Council for the Aging of Greater Washington. She was a reporter at The Courier Post in New Jersey and The Washington Jewish Week, and she now writes for The Montgomery Sentinel.