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Mommy the Mogul: A Mother and CEO Speaks About Career, Convention, and Conviction

Michal Eisikowitz

Chaya Landau is 28 years old. She is also CEO of a real estate development company in Zurich, overseeing large-scale building projects from start to finish and negotiating million-franc deals regularly. A petite mother of five from a community where women rarely go out to work, her situation is intriguing. How did she come to obtain this unusual, demanding position, and how does she feel about it? Chaya shares her eye-opening and inspiring story.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

mommy

Chaya* was always atypical. The fifth of eleven siblings born to a well-known chassidish family in Zurich*, she stood out from a young age. Already at five years old, she’d wow her father — a prominent maggid shiur — with scintillating questions on the parshah, and he’d jokingly marvel at his wunderkind: “Di hust a kup fun a yingele! (you have the intellect of a boy!).

But as she grew older, there was less marveling and more clashing of wills. Chaya was quick-witted, bright, and — ultra-opinionated. A deep thinker with a mind of her own, she was eventually deemed a nonconformist teenager who didn’t quite fit the family mold, and her school years were rocky.

Once she finished her compulsory seminary stint, Chaya — now only seventeen years old — took on four teaching jobs in Zurich, working from seven-thirty to four each day. She taught both boys and girls Hebrew and secular subjects in several different schools, and would come home thoroughly exhausted.

When the shidduch stage began, it became clear that Chaya had unusual ideas of who she wanted to marry.

“Though my family descends from distinguished lineage, and each of my siblings married spouses from similarly respectable backgrounds, I wasn’t looking in that direction,” she says.

“I married my husband, a European boy from a much more modern upbringing; he had grown up in a different world.

“Ironically, after we married, my husband got to know my family and developed a keen interest in Chassidus. He learned much from my father and soon became as chassidish as my brothers or brothers-in-law. He also became much more involved in learning, and yearned to expand his Torah knowledge. I see clearly that regardless of what I thought I needed, Hashem gave me what He knew I needed.”

Parnassah Problems

Chaya’s husband, Moshe Landau, is an accountant by trade, and at the inception of their marriage, he worked full-time in a secular-owned Swiss company. After two years, however, when his employers could no longer tolerate his many Jewish-holiday-related absences, he was laid off, and the Landaus’ flow of monthly income steadily reduced to a trickle.

Already a young mother of two, Chaya tried hard to coax her husband back into working. Initiating innumerable discussions on the matter, she struggled to work through the issue calmly and reasonably, and even enlisted outside help when she felt it necessary. But she soon realized that her efforts were in vain: her husband would not work. She didn’t know it at the time, but this refusal stemmed from far more than laziness — it was rooted in health issues she’d discover only years later.

Thus began a terribly turbulent time in Chaya’s life. Still recuperating from her second child’s birth, she was now forced to deal with grave parnassah deficits. With no marketable skills or education under her belt, she felt utterly helpless, and began to build up stores of deep resentment and self-pity.

“I was depressed about everything,” she remembers sadly. “Plagued by profound regret over my choices, I sunk into a state of despair.”

After months of floundering in destructive thoughts, though, she came to the understanding that it was up to her to save her shalom bayis. 

“Eventually,” says Chaya, “I realized I could either wallow in depression about my sorry situation or try to do something to alleviate the tension. The issue still needed to be resolved — there was no denying that — but in the meantime, I could try to dissipate a bit of the dark cloud that had descended upon my home by contributing to our parnassah.”

At this point in her life, Chaya wasn’t particularly opposed to working part-time outside of the home; with two babies just a year apart, she felt it would improve her mothering as well. Her therapist — whose professional counsel proved indispensable during this difficult time — also strongly supported the idea.

“I knew I didn’t want to go back to teaching,” Chaya recounts. “I wanted to have patience for my children when I returned home from work. When I heard about a secretarial position for three hours daily in a Jewish-owned real estate company, I grabbed it. I never dreamed that this part-time occupation would pave the way to my becoming the sole ‘breadwinner;’ I figured it would bring in a few pennies to cover the electric bill!”

Chaya tried her hand at the new job and immediately liked it. As a star student who was already somewhat computer-savvy, she learned the ropes quickly — and her bosses noticed. They steadily increased her responsibilities and added working hours to accommodate the new tasks. “Secretary” gradually morphed into “contract-drafter,” “negotiator,” and “manager,” among a host of other roles.

After about three years on the job, Chaya’s bosses asked her to open up a new branch of the company and manage it. When this arrangement didn’t work out, she decided to set out on her own.

 

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