Lena Gurary - David Bachar - February 10, 2012
Lena Gurary. Photo by David Bachar
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Nine in the morning at Kfar Chabad. Liora Kutner, 36, married and the mother of four, is busily scurrying about her house. The table in the kitchen has been meticulously arranged for a sugar-blowing workshop, for which students from New York and London are soon due to arrive. Kutner melts a candy under a heating lamp, inflates and sculpts it into a spectacular flower, and promises, with a sweet smile, that it is perfectly edible.

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In the next room, bouquets of candy flowers ordered for a special event have been wrapped in cellophane, and a white swan and wine glasses she designed from sugar are also awaiting a client pickup. Kutner started her small business, Sukariya − Glass-Blown Candy, three years ago.

“For 11 years I had a job with the Lod Valley regional council,” she says. “It got to the point where I was so insulted I stopped opening my pay envelope. I was receiving less than the men I worked with and I felt like my salary was very low and didn’t reflect my abilities. Finally I decided that I was going to stop crying about it and make a change. I knew I had a talent for sugar art and design. I’d sold a few things I’d made to people around here, but I didn’t know how to translate my creativity into the language of business.”

Her husband, also a salaried worker, supported her decision, she says. But like her, he didn’t know a thing about running an independent business. At the local welfare office she heard about a foundation called Supportive Community: Women’s Business Development Center ‏(known in Hebrew as Sviva Tomehet‏). Kutner signed up for a course in starting and running a business, and spent six months studying alongside 20 other women from outlying areas of the country. The group included immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union, as well as veteran Israelis, including some Arab women.

“I obtained all the information I needed to run a business, in comprehensible economic language,” she says. “When the course was over, I received individual guidance and consultation that is still continuing.”

Throughout our conversation, Leora’s husband Menachem looks on in obvious admiration. “I’m an enthusiastic supporter of every move she makes,” he says. “Our children are getting an important ethical lesson when they see both parents working and supporting the family, and especially a mother who runs an independent business and is proud of what she does.”

From the start, Sukariya was successful. “Now we’re thinking about expanding the business in light of the demand,” says Kutner, “but I’d still rather go forward very carefully. At this stage I’m already selling products all over Israel, and I also give workshops that are totally booked up. I get students coming from Israel and abroad, men and women, religious people and secular people. I can say that I’ve managed to break through a barrier and work not only with my community but with society as a whole. That is definitely a sweet success,” she says with a smile.

Sukariya is just one of the thousands of small businesses run by women and nurtured by the Supportive Community foundation in its nine years of operation. As we leave the Kutner home, it’s impossible to miss the excitement the visit brought to Lena Gurary, 37, founder of the foundation, who recently decided to step down from her post as director general. Her blue eyes sparkle with joy.

“I don’t measure success solely in terms of financial profits,” she says. “I look at what starting the business has done for the woman, how it’s affected her and her family. Of course, the women who turn to the foundation for assistance get to meet the business consultant in me, who gives them the most professional service possible, but on the personal level, it really thrills me to see a woman suddenly become a leader in her surroundings and serve as an example to others; to watch her become independent; to see the admiration and respect she gets from her family, to see her child look at his mother proudly and say, ‘My mom has a business’ and know that his view of her is enhanced, regardless of how much money her business takes in. I’ve guided women who were the second generation of poverty and unemployment and then one day they opened a tiny business. They didn’t build empires, and often they earned no more than minimum wage for a hired worker, but their children suddenly saw a different model of a mother. They saw a woman who supports her family, who tries hard to get ahead. To me personally, these are the things that move me the most.”

Gurary and three friends, all businesswomen from the former Soviet Union, started Supportive Community in 2003, and she was appointed director general. To date, the organization has provided services to 6,500 women, assisting them in becoming entrepreneurs and offering additional aid and training for women who already own businesses. In recent years, the foundation has been running an innovative nationwide program to raise women’s awareness about saving for retirement.

“Women with small businesses who are now working around the clock are liable to find themselves 20 years from now, when they’re over 60, unable to work and support themselves,” Gurary explains.

Supportive Community has branches in a number of places in Israel, including Ramle, Lod, Jaffa, Or Yehuda and Kfar Chabad, and has also recruited into its ranks Prof. Benny Gidron, founder and director of the Israeli Center for Third Sector Research (ICTR) at Ben-Gurion University, Be’er Sheva. On a visit to Israel in March 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked to meet with the women of the foundation and stated, “The foundation’s multicultural model is a model that ought to be copied all over the world.”

Seven salaried employees keep the foundation going, along with about 70 women volunteers, all graduates of Supportive Community’s training courses and now business owners who want to pass on the knowledge they’ve gained to other women who are just starting out. “We teach business entrepreneurship in eight languages,” Gurary notes proudly. They are Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Amharic, English, French, German and Spanish. The Koret Foundation works together with Supportive Community, granting business loans of up to NIS 30,000.

In 2010, Gurary was selected by TheMarker for its list of the 101 most influential people in Israel. That same year, she was also awarded the Bernice S. Tannenbaum Prize by the Hadassah Foundation, for contributions to advancing the status of women and girls, for her “pioneering work to promote women business owners through economic and social empowerment.”

Gurary − charismatic, unpretentious, soft-spoken and cheerful − seems to have an effortless knack for inspiring other dreamers. Collaborations that transcend borders, languages and religions are basic elements of her biography. She was born in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. “I grew up in a multicultural environment and I saw right away that it was possible to cooperate despite differences of religion or language,” she says. When she was 9, her family moved to the capital city, Tashkent. “This is a city where people of many different nationalities lived together in peace. I remember that as a child I greatly enjoyed celebrating Passover and Easter, the Spring Holiday and Ramadan. There was openness toward those who were different to you, and everyone was able to appreciate the beauty in that. I was enchanted by the Muslim culture with its home hospitality, compassion and communal ties. The feeling was that you could leave your door open for visitors.”

As a Jew, she says, she only experienced racism once. “At school the teacher made an anti-Semitic remark to me,” she recalls. “I got up and left the classroom and within minutes all of my classmates followed me. To this day I can’t say if it was really an act of protest, or if the lesson was just very boring and they were looking for an opportunity to escape,” she laughs. Another time she left the classroom in protest for a different reason. “One of the teachers said that the capital of Israel is Tel Aviv. I argued with her and told her that the capital is Jerusalem, and I left the room in protest. At the time I didn’t realize that she was right,” Gurary laughs again.

Her father was an engineer and her mother a pediatrician. “I grew up in a very well-off home with educated parents who talked about equality and values, and I was a very rebellious girl,” she says. “My father trained me in the martial arts and I was a bit of a tomboy.” She got into fighting for social justice at a young age. “One day I discovered that the school cafeteria served different food for the teachers and for the students. I was terribly offended. I couldn’t believe it. I stopped eating there and I convinced several grades at the school to boycott the cafeteria. I think you could say that from the time I was young, I fought on behalf of minorities and against inequality.”

Her business sense was also evident at that age. “You could see it, I suppose, in the successful negotiations I conducted with the teachers: I wrote texts for the school plays and in return I asked not to have to participate in gym class. To my surprise, they agreed to all of my conditions.” She grew up under the Communist regime. “The thing I remember most that expresses the spirit of that time is our home library. We had one for show in the living room and another, hidden one, with books that were forbidden by the authorities, like Bulgakov and Nietzsche. Whenever my father pulled books out of the hidden library he would remind us not to say anything about it at school.”

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, her father was among the first to open a small factory. “He had a great desire for me to find my place working in the factory, but I didn’t advance beyond the role of simple laborer, and I fled from there very quickly. That wasn’t the kind of future I wanted,” she declares defiantly.

When she was 17, at the end of high school, she was diagnosed with a type of lymphoma and had to undergo chemotherapy for a year. “I was so young that I didn’t know anything about the disease,” she says. “I didn’t know that I was supposed to be traumatized. I didn’t have any prior fear of it and that made it easier somehow. Something like that changes all your priorities in life. Suddenly I understood that I wanted a change. That I wanted to make aliyah to Israel.”

She came here at 18, on her own. The rest of the family joined her two years later. “I had $200 to my name and didn’t know a word of Hebrew,” she says with a smile. “It was the decision of an 18-year-old girl. That’s my explanation for it. Ah, that and Zionism.”

Zionism?

“Growing up, we always said, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ It was like a dream for me. I was filled with a sense of mission, but it dissipated pretty fast.”

Why?

“I was surprised when I discovered the racism here toward anyone who’s different. I couldn’t understand how after such a history it was possible to develop such hatred for other minorities. Even now, when I hear the voices that are against the Arabs or the refugees from Darfur, and the racism against Ethiopian immigrants, it gives me the chills. I don’t understand how this nation has so quickly forgotten what it was like to be persecuted everywhere. Pride in belonging to the Jewish people needn’t go hand in hand with racism toward other peoples. I’m a case of someone who came here because of Zionism and stayed because of love for the place and the people.”
This love, says Gurary, was ignited one day when she spotted a long line of people. “I was curious, and I asked them what they were waiting for. They told me, ‘We’re here to donate blood.’ It really moved me. I’d never seen anything like that before in my life. At that moment I realized that despite all the baseless hatred one finds here, there is also pure and extraordinary generosity, and that I wanted very much to live in this country.” Gurary lives in Jaffa. “The multiculturalism in Jaffa reminds me of the environment in which I grew up.”

When she was 20, Gurary learned that the cancer had returned. “It wasn’t easy to accept that it was back, to go through another year of hair falling out, radiation, chemotherapy treatments, a weakened body. During that time I tried to keep going as usual; I kept on making plans and dreaming of having a full life.”

She recovered, and her outlook on life came into sharper focus. “I think that having to deal with cancer a second time made me want to be a better person,” she says calmly. “It taught me that life is short and that one ought to try to live a life that is meaningful. There’s no point wasting your life on things that are unimportant. Love and giving became much more meaningful from that point on.”

A week after she left the hospital, Gurary met the man she would marry. “This love, which blossomed into marriage, rehabilitated me and enabled me to fully recover,” she says. She and her husband split up two years ago. “We’re still good friends,” she says. “He’s the secret of my success. Without his support through the years I never would have made it. Our marriage is over, but the friendship endures.”

When Gurary was 24, she got a job as a clerk at the MATI business development center in Tel Aviv. Her effectiveness stood out and before long she was given the “immigrant portfolio.” She became the coordinator of guidance for immigrants and was responsible for the entire business entrepreneurship department.

“It was really like school for me,” she says. “In the late 1990s, big budgets were given to encourage new businesses, and the administration allowed me to be creative. Nowadays the state encourages small businesses much less, and it really infuriates me, because women are the ones who are hurt the most.”

While working at MATI, she took a course in business consulting sponsored by the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor; she also studied history at the Hebrew University and took some courses in economics. “I saw that I really loved working with women,” she says. “I noticed that while men would conduct a negotiation, women would cooperate. Men would come and request information in the most efficient, brief and focused way and say, thank you, good-bye. Women would come and their language was different − more sensitive, gentle, feminine. They would check and check and check things. They start a small, cautious business. They want to know how people will respond and how their family will feel. When they open a business they’re able to harness everyone around them − they are able to muster the support of their family and friends, of their community. They don’t start a business out of a motivation to conquer the world, like men who start a business and already imagine controlling a huge empire. Most surveys show that if a woman has a salaried job for which she receives decent pay and respect and is treated well, she won’t look to open an independent business.”

So what propels a woman to start?

“Unfortunately we’re not living in a situation in which a woman launches a business to fulfill a dream and out of a sense of freedom. That’s the reality I would like to see, but what I see are women starting small businesses in an attempt to get out of a state of unemployment, after being laid off because of their age, because they got pregnant, or because of some other type of discrimination. In my work at Supportive Community this understanding has only deepened. Women start businesses because they feel they have no other choice. It’s not even out of any feminist ideology, but because they’ve been excluded, because society didn’t enable them to get ahead.”

Gurary says that women give more thought than men to what it means to combine business and family. “The family aspect is an essential part of their thought process in their business. When the business is profitable, you’ll see the woman immediately put the profits into her home, into her family. The man will invest it in the business.”

After two and a half years of hectic activity in MATI, Gurary tried to get away from business. She switched direction and worked as a fundraiser in a Russia-related program. “It didn’t take long for me to feel that something was missing,” she laughs, “so I opened my own business for organizing business events.”

When she was just 27, and an independent business owner, she ran eight Russian-language business forums around the country, on behalf of the Small Business Authority and MATI. “The business was going well, but something inside was bothering me,” she says. “I wanted to work with all of Israeli society, without walls, without ghettoes. I felt that I was stuck inside one sector. That there was a glass ceiling even for a successful businesswoman. In multicultural communities, very few businesses manage to transcend their particular community. I felt that I was succeeding in my community and had the potential to bridge between communities, but the name Lena, together with my accent, created a barrier that kept me from entering other business communities.”

At one of her business forums, she met three other businesswomen originally from the Soviet Union − Yulia Reznikov, Tali Brosh and Irina Salman. “We were chatting about our businesses in the kitchen at Yulia’s house,” recalls Gurary. “We found out that we all shared the same feeling of being stifled, we all had the same desire to break out of the ghetto in which we were trapped as new immigrants, we all had the same sense of isolation in the business world. We wanted to develop further. We wanted more, but we felt like we couldn’t break down these barriers.”

The four women cooked up a plan. “We came up with everything in the kitchen,” Gurary says with a smile. “We decided to start a forum for immigrant women trying to make it in business that would create opportunities for networking and cooperation. A big problem for women is the lack of business and social networks to create ties, compared to men who start making these ties when they’re in the army.”

The first meeting, held in Herzliya, attracted 120 businesswomen. “We were stunned,” says Gurary. “Half were native Israelis. I quickly tore off the sign that said ‘Immigrant Women in Business’ and when I was asked what this project was called, I replied ‘Supportive Community.’ The conference was a success. We suddenly saw that what we immigrant women were feeling was the same as what other women were feeling. All the women were facing similar barriers. Each group was trapped in its own ghetto.”

After the conference, they got started. Gurary was appointed director general and Reznikov deputy director general. The other two partners left after the first year. Reznikov resigned from her position in the foundation eight months ago. “She was the interior minister and I was the foreign minister,” says Gurary.

Gurary gradually began to put together specific programs for women from different communities, specially adapted to the social barriers that were likely to prevent them from advancing in the business world. “There are courses and programs in Hebrew, but we also adapted a program with a unique model for each culture and its language. For women who couldn’t read and write, we translated the materials into pictures. For Haredi women we built a program based on religious content.”

What sorts of problems do the women you assist encounter?

“One big thing is a lack of information about the tax system. They find encounters with the authorities intimidating. There’s also a lack of access to funding, a lack of financial and administrative knowledge, because they didn’t work in business before. They have trouble attracting investment and difficulty marketing their products outside their specific community. And there’s another thing − some of the women have no regular income and they have a low self-image that affects their business management. For example, when it comes to pricing an item, they might underprice it, thinking, How much do I really deserve for something I made?”

The survival rate for small businesses in Israel is relatively low compared to other developed countries, Gurary points out. Each year 45,000 new businesses open and 35,000 businesses close. “But I also see that women’s businesses are surviving and succeeding,” she says. “Women don’t try to establish an empire right from the start. They move ahead with carefully calculated steps. And there’s something else I’ve noticed: When a woman’s business closes, in most cases you’ll see her doing her utmost to repay all her debts. She doesn’t have that mentality of trying to disappear. Women take responsibility.”

“We’re a racist and divided society,” says Gurary. “Before I even look at the representation of women immigrants from the Soviet Union in the media, or in key positions in society, I’m bothered by their absence. I’m bothered that there’s no representation of Ethiopian women, or immigrants from the Soviet Union or Arab women. I’m disturbed that these women are not to be found in the media. It’s like they don’t exist. Fifty percent of the population here speaks with an accent, and you turn on the television and all you hear is perfectly polished Hebrew, which most of the population doesn’t even speak. That’s fine, but there should also be representation and a place for people with an accent. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, it’s a characteristic of our society. We are a society of immigrants.”

Hana Amouri, director general of Sadaka-Reut: The Arab-Jewish Youth Partnership, works at Supportive Community as a business consultant and instructor. Formerly the company’s financial director, she now gives business management workshops in Arabic and lectures on financial subjects in Hebrew.

“The foundation has developed a unique model,” she says. “It thinks about how to help women advance in the community and help one another advance. It’s an organization in which you see a woman director from the Soviet Union offering guidance to an Ethiopian woman entrepreneur. Just try to picture what it was like when Lena and I, an Arab woman and a woman from the Soviet Union, would show up at business meetings as director and deputy director. How many organizations do you know that operate on the basis of equality and whose every activity is aimed at fostering change for women and countering stigmas and stereotypes? It’s an organization in which I feel there is no glass ceiling. Women who attend the workshops come away not just with knowledge but with faith in themselves and the feeling that they can function in the business world with their feminine qualities and their identity intact, and that they can do very well.”

Shelly Ingadau, 33, a social worker by training, is the coordinator and group leader of programs for Ethiopian women: “What I’m trying to do is empower them as women and encourage them to dare to dream, to have ambitions.” She says she often helps women from the community translate their business ideas from Amharic to Hebrew.
She offers an example: “In the community there’s a tendency to open small businesses selling spices to others in the community. It’s a wonderful idea, but then you can teach this woman to think about how to adapt the business to society at large, to expand her customer base, and to open a spice shop that doesn’t cater solely to Ethiopians. I also try to get them to consider other types of business ideas, and not confine themselves to things like restaurants and spice shops. It’s hard for people from the community to break out of it because they don’t have the financial support, there’s no social-business network, the banks are wary of giving them loans and they themselves are wary of taking loans.”

“Gurary noticed something that was missing in our landscape,” says Hagit Rubinstein, who oversees the credit department for the Koret Foundation, which grants loans to small businesses. “You might find other organizations in Israel that are involved in the socioeconomic field, but there are very few that are really connected to women, and this is Supportive Community’s specialty. They provide long-term guidance and the possibility of using financial instruments to create real social change.”

Gurary says it wasn’t until 2005 that she truly realized that the foundation she started was filling a vacuum. “In America and Canada, for instance, entrepreneurship is taught at a young age. My parents’ generation didn’t benefit from such information and neither did women of my generation. In Israel, a change is now starting among the young generation, but the trend needs to be encouraged and there should be more teaching of business entrepreneurship in schools and universities. I have to say that I’ve found that the lack of business education and teaching of basic economic principles is more a class issue than a gender issue. My experience has shown that men in the lower socioeconomic sectors have the same lack of awareness as women; they too lack that kind of education.”

She emphasizes that her vision is not to turn every woman into an entrepreneur. “That’s not my goal. What really motivates me is for women in our society to be able to live dignified lives. By helping launch businesses and imparting economic language, I was aiming to achieve equality between women and men and to reduce class differences.”

Gurary has often been asked how Supportive Community differs from MATI. “The MATI network is very good,” she says. “They provide financial aid to people from all parts of society to start a business, they promote business, offer know-how and training and it is done with partial government support. We are there for women only and we’re not out to replace the government. Supportive Community empowers, promotes, assists, supports. When you’re working like this on behalf of a certain population, you can soon find yourself taking the state’s place, like you see with big wonderful organizations like Yedid [the Association for Community Empowerment].

The state says, ‘Here’s an organization that’s providing excellent service. Why should we bother?’ I didn’t want the state to shirk its responsibility and pass it on to me.”

Still, she says the government is not doing all it should for small businesses. “In recent years there has been an increase in the rate of women managing a small business operation, but the state isn’t taking responsibility. The economic potential of the small business sector is enormous; it’s an important engine of growth for the economy, but the state treats it the same way it does the birth rate. The state invests great effort in encouraging women to get pregnant, but as soon as they become mothers, it has no consideration for them. It’s the same thing with small businesses: The government invests a lot of money in business development, but as soon as you open the business − nothing. There isn’t the minimal assistance to enable a business to thrive. My favorite concept is mutual responsibility. Unfortunately, the state doesn’t seem to recognize this concept.”

In the current economic climate, would you advise a woman to open a small business?
“That’s a tough question. On the one hand, I know that for the first two years it will be very hard for her. I know about the system, which is not supportive, and I’m familiar with the obstacles she can expect to face. She won’t be eligible for a retirement pension, for unemployment. But I say: You have to think about several things: If she has nothing to eat, she’s better off starting a business and supporting herself and taking care of herself. She’s better off being able to live in dignity. I also know that a small business is sometimes just a stage in our lives. There are women who were wage-earners, opened a business and then closed it three years later. When they went back to the labor market, they were offered salaries two or three times higher than before, because employers saw that they thought about the big picture, that they were creative and conscientious. And of course sometimes there are dazzling business successes.”

Marina Zubok is a prominent advertising executive in the Russian community. Her Tel Aviv firm, G.N.A. Pirsum Marina, Ltd, is bustling. Her seven employees work on Russian-language advertising for magazines, the Internet, newspapers and radio. In addition, Zubok has also gotten into selling tickets for shows that target a Russian audience. She does NIS 3 million worth of business annually.

Zubok made aliyah in the 1990s. For six months she worked as a cashier, then she moved on to a job in telemarketing, and eventually landed a job selling ads for a Russian-language newspaper. “I saw that I was good at selling and I started selling newspaper ads independently,” she says. “I lived in a tiny rented apartment in Ramat Gan, and for six years I worked from home.”

She gradually accumulated customers and acquired broad knowledge of the field. Her business began to flourish, but she was wary about expanding. She went to one of the first meetings Gurary organized nine years ago, which was designed to help women from the former Soviet Union with networking. “I kept going to the forums and conferences and my customer base grew accordingly,” she says. “I went to courses and gained comprehensive and precise knowledge about the banks, about the National Insurance Institute and the tax authorities. These were things I knew about, but as an immigrant I always felt like my knowledge was incomplete, and they helped me fill in all the gaps. My confidence grew; the connection with Supportive Community gave me the momentum to leave the house, to open an office and hire employees.”

She now volunteers for the foundation in her free time, offering guidance to other women. “I want to give back what I got,” she says. “It’s not the most common thing to come to a new country, open a business and see it develop and succeed,” she laughs happily. “The meetings at Supportive Community gave something beyond the knowledge that you can find in financial textbooks. They gave an ambience of a female embrace, of support, they gave you the inner strength that tells you that you are going to succeed. Faith that anything is possible.”

On the way out of Zubok’s office, Gurary is drawn to the display windows of the neighboring shops. “I really love small businesses,” she says.

Why are you retiring from running the foundation you founded?

“If the founder of the organization stays there for too many years, then neither of them develops,” she replies with a smile. “I want the organization to grow. I want the organization to have a life of its own. And I also want a life of my own. I think that as soon as the founders leave, it lets the other people on the team grow. It’s hard to leave something you started. It’s very scary. Not financially, but because I’m a control freak. It’s hard for me to accept that the organization may be run in a way that’s not to my liking. It’s been two weeks since I left and it’s still hard for me not to try to run things by phone.”

Gurary is being replaced by Lena Bregman, who for the past decade worked as the grants coordinator for the New Israel Fund. At Gurary’s farewell party, held at the Academic College in Jaffa, many came to wish her well, including Barbara Swirski of the Adva Center; Vered Sweid, the prime minister’s adviser for women’s advancement; and dozens of Arab, Russian and Ethiopian women entrepreneurs whom the organization nurtured over the years.

“Israel is choosing a more secure future with Lena Gurary” was the slogan of the election campaign-style video made in her honor, not too subtly hinting at the desire of most who know her.

Do you have any thoughts about going into politics?

“Two years ago I’d never given it a thought. I’ve already had a few inquiries from all over the political spectrum. Some very good people have been getting into politics lately, so I’m looking at it a little differently. I don’t know, but I promise that if I do make such a move, I won’t go around spilling water on Arab Knesset members.”