It’s 1919 and my Grandma is an Entrepreneur

Grandma at about 20 years old.

Grandma at about 20 years old.

It’s 1919 and my grandmother, Sarah, is sixteen.  This same year, her mother tragically died from an asthma attack at the age of forty-two.   Sarah had little money and no prospects in the Polish town in which she lived.  So she followed her older sister to Germany, and lived with her and her husband.  The newlywed couple had few resources of their own, and Sarah had to figure out how she could support herself.

She decided to sell dry goods, specifically materials for clothing, to individual customers.  My mother explains to me, “She carried two suitcases with materials on the trains, going from town to town, door to door. Sometimes a client wanted additional material of a certain pattern and she would try to get it and return to where they lived. At this time women stayed home, tended the house, married and raised families.  A woman alone as a traveling salesperson, that was unheard of.”

My grandma was all of four feet nine inches.  I can just imagine her as a young girl, determined to proudly support herself, dragging two huge suitcases on the train.

She made a living with only a few years of formal education.  My mother shares, “She was a pleasant, friendly person with good math skills.  Your grandma did this from 16 until she married my father at the age of 25.  All the while she taught herself how to read and write in German, Polish, and Russian.  Needless to say I admired her greatly.”

There are many studies that say parental entrepreneurship is one of the strongest determinants of one’s own entrepreneurship.  I’ve got to think the pioneering entrepreneurial grandma effect was pretty strong in my and my mother’s case (mom is an entrepreneur too).

And here I am with my sweet Grandma Sarah. She spoke to me in perfect, although Grandma&Hollyheavily accented, English.  (She taught herself English when she came to the U.S. in her late forties). I remember her as always reading a newspaper and I thought it was pretty cool that she could speak lots of different languages.  I had no idea of her girlpreneur back story until I was older and she had passed away.

And you know what mom? I admire her greatly too.

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Category: Girlpreneurs

  • Elke Crandall

    That’s a wonderful story Holly. Thank you for sharing it.

    • Holly Lichtenfeld

      Thank you Elke! I have known the story about her carrying the suitcases on the trains for quite a few years, but I just recently got the details. Plus we don’t have many photos of her, very few survived WWII. I’m thankful for the handful my mother has. Thanks again for reading the post.

  • Robert Bornstein

    That is an amazing picture. I believe I’ve only seen it once or twice before, and that was years ago when I was a young boy. Grandma Sarah was a dynamo, and for a long time it was hard to reconcile the beautiful young woman in the picture with the beautiful older woman I personally knew. My fondest memories of growing up were of having my Grandma Sarah hold my right hand and Grandpa Joseph hold my left hand while they walked me on the boardwalk along the Atlantic coast in Brooklyn running from Brighton Beach to Coney Island. They would swing me in the air ever once in a while, which was amazing, like flying. Then they would put me on some rides at Coney and later buy me a cherry-cheese knish.

    I can only add a bit more about Sarah since Holly has done such a great job of explaining who Sarah was; this tiny woman who started a business by dragging large suitcases over trains in Europe nearly a century ago. It was nothing short of remarkable; a testament to Sarah’s ambition and will. Grandma Sarah was always ambitious and she never stopped learning. After coming to the United States Sarah had no time to resume any sort of formal studies, so she started a self-study program. How did this work? After her children returned from school each day Sarah would have them sit down with her and explain everything they had just learned.

    What always struck me when I visited my Grandmother Sarah’s home was that there were always careful stacks of current magazines and newspapers she had just read. And what were these magazines and papers? U.S. News & World Report, Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, because, of course, everyone’s tiny European grandmother with little formal education read them. My Grandmother seemed to know something about almost everything; she could show you how to make an amazing blintz while discussing geopolitics. As my mother frequently commented when I was growing up; if Sarah had lived in a different world she could have either established a major corporation or have been running the country.

    The world we now live in is closer to that “different world” my mother spoke of, but it still isn’t there. This is why I’m so proud of my sister for starting Bright Girls. Something Holly hasn’t shared is that she has always been a dynamo too. Yes, Holly is a girlpreneur, but what does that look like from the outside? Holly does have amazing business skills honed at Fortune 500 companies, has run her own successful marketing company, co-founded CleanWell, and has been a mentor for teen girls. However, what I find most impressive is how Holly constantly balances stability and risk. From my perspective, Holly’s success as a girlpreneur rests on her ability to use her head while trusting her instincts. Over the years I’ve seen Holly take methodical and unswerving paths to achieve her goals, but she also has repeatedly taken calculated and very sizable risks. Many who through hard work and achievement land a stable and prestigious job in corporate finance in New York hold onto it for dear life, but Holly, realizing that she wants to change the direction of her life and career, is the kind of person who gives up that job, steps on a plane, works on a Rainforest Conservation Project, and then steps on a plane again to the West Coast to start a marketing company. Kudos Holly. You Go Girl!

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