Why Being an Orthodox Jewish Mom Makes Me a Better CEO

Courtesy of 360i

When 360i, the ad agency I run, won Oscar Mayer’s business in 2010, I politely declined their invitation to sample products from their new portfolio. It’s not that I wasn’t interested—I had spent countless hours trying to win the hot dog maker’s business—but my faith simply prohibited it.

I’ve been keeping kosher and observing the Jewish Sabbath my entire life, along with striving to stick to the other 611 commandments of the Torah. This has meant resisting the temptations of McDonald’s as a child, fending off rebellious friends trying to get me to sneak out with them on Friday nights, and attempting to find the only kosher establishment in Tokyo (yes, it does exist, and yes, they have sushi, not bagels and lox).

At face value, perhaps someone like me shouldn’t be in the advertising business at all, let alone run one. And I’ve been told that many times. From friends. From my family. From others in the business. Yet “vulnerabilities” like mine—whether it’s religion, motherhood, or experience—can actually be major assets.

My faith

Let’s start with faith and the Sabbath. Strict observance means, among other things, that I don’t conduct business or use anything electronic from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday. Outsiders see it as painfully restrictive; I see it as a lifesaver. Being unplugged for 25 hours every week is one of the ways I’ve managed to not burn out.

Sure, as a kid it kind of sucked. I was always jealous of the kids who got to spend Saturday morning watching cartoons, playing in Little League, or shopping. But as an adult, it’s the best part of my week: I get to play with my kids with no phones ringing and no urgent e-mails to answer. I hang out with my friends without distraction. And I take the time to pray and to give thanks for having a healthy family and a career I’m proud of.

Keeping kosher, too, has proven to be an asset rather than a liability, and lets me be as picky about who I share meals with as with what I eat. While many folks in the advertising business rely on fancy dinners and trips as mechanisms to build relationships, I can assure you that nothing builds a bond like spending two hours trekking around St. Louis with the CMO of Enterprise trying to track down the only kosher joint in the city (which, of course, ends up being a greasy spoon in the middle of nowhere).

People tend to respect those who are committed to their values regardless of the stakes. There have been plenty of awkward moments, but I am proud that I have never lost a client—to my knowledge—due to my religious practices.

My family

Motherhood has been another perceived vulnerability of mine. As my children grow up, I beat myself up regularly about whether I am raising them right. But parenting has also has taught me some very valuable lessons—lessons that have become assets as I’ve grown into the leader I am today.

My biggest learning has been to eschew the false notion of work-life balance. There is no such thing. Instead, I’ve learned to make choices, to play whack-a-mole with my time. I only wish I could get frequent flier points for the number of times I’ve visited Urgent Care for one of my kids’ needs, whether it’s a trampoline injury or getting checked in basketball (yes, that’s a reference to the merging of two sports that should never be merged).

My experience

In addition to my religious observance and parenting demands, I’d add to this gumbo of vulnerability the fact I’d never been a CEO before now, nor have I ever worked at an ad agency before. Most agency chiefs have spent decades in the business, often at multiple shops. But I view being a novice in the agency world as yet another asset.

Being one of the only people under the age of 40 to have a job like mine might be seen as another vulnerability, especially in a world of Mad Men. People with lots of experience know how things are “supposed” to be done, but at a time of such rapid change in media, that institutional knowledge can actually be an inhibitor. My lack of industry experience doesn’t make me naïve; it helps make me more fearless about challenging the status quo.

It’s easy to think of your vulnerabilities as something to cover up or hide completely. But considering how these perceived liabilities might actually be assets will give you a whole new perspective on yourself and your abilities. So take another look at what you think makes you vulnerable. You may find that those are the very things that make you powerful. I’m a novice, outsider observant Jewish CEO with two high maintenance teenagers, yet I hope the advertising industry enjoys having me around—if nothing else than for a change of pace and perspective.

Sarah Hofstetter is the CEO of digital marketing agency 360i.

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