Lying in her hospital bed while recovering from a life-threatening emergency C-section, Nechama (Nicki) Salfer gazed at a tree outside the window. Her then-five-year-old daughter and two-year-old son would not be welcoming a new sibling home. Having just given birth to a stillborn baby, Salfer could have easily decided to wallow in grief.
But rather than focus on her own pain, there in her hospital bed Salfer decided to channel her agony into something constructive—she would do something to help children. And so, as she gazed at the tree outside the hospital window, the seeds were sown for A Tree of Knowledge, Inc (TOK). Having earned degrees in education and special education, Salfer is also a licensed intervention specialist and has completed post-graduate work in psychology. Her husband, Rabbi Mordechai Salfer, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist. In 1999, the couple combined their expertise to establish TOK. Beginning as an educational home program for children in and out of hospitals, today the program serves charter and private schools in Ohio, New Jersey, New York and Florida, as well as development centers and homeschooled children, with a wide range of tutoring options according to individual need. TOK has helped thousands of learning-challenged children of all races and backgrounds. From there, Salfer expanded into Virtual Schoolhouse, a mix of online curriculum and in-home education designed to address the needs of children with various challenges who are at risk of dropping out of school; Tree of Knowledge Learning Academy (TOKLA), a home/hospital charter school and Learning Concepts, an educational management organization that provides leadership expertise in various areas. The programs boast a combined 200 employees and a budget of six million dollars.
Salfer’s husband also founded Yeshivas Doresh, a yeshivah for learning-challenged high school-aged boys.
At forty-two, Salfer, who lives in Miami, Florida but travels constantly to Cleveland, Ohio, for business, describes balancing her work and familial responsibilities as a “seesaw that is never actually even.” She exercises every morning, tries to make time for Torah learning and every once in a while has a date night with her husband. She also outsources as much as possible. “A cleaning lady is cheaper than therapy,” says Salfer. “You cannot be in control and do everything alone.”
Her family, including her husband and three children, ages fifteen, nineteen and twenty-one, have been an “incredible support” to her work.
Salfer continuously emphasizes that in order to succeed at entrepreneurship, one cannot be afraid of making mistakes, even big mistakes. One also needs to realize that experiencing a failure does not mean that he himself is a failure.
Salfer, who grew up in a large, loving chinuch family, has been working since she’s eight years old. Needing to support her family, she learned the value of hard work and perseverance, qualities which continue to help her with her business today. Even while her business went through trying times, with the support of her dedicated staff, she persisted. “You cannot be an entrepreneur on an island,” explains Salfer.
Unfortunately, Salfer has found that some people are critical of successful frum women. People often assume if you are a successful frum woman, you must not be a dedicated wife and mother.
Many also assume her life is so easy because she is running a successful business. “There is a lack of real honesty about the difficulty [involved in entrepreneurship],” she commented. But “nasty and mean comments are not exclusive to entrepreneurs,” Salfer says. “We all have to deal with it. It’s best not to respond and rise above it.”
Salfer also believes that in Bais Yaakov schools, girls should be taught the same business-related halachot as men, such as laws regarding cheating, lying, contracts, interest, et cetera.
Becoming a successful entrepreneur is often accompanied by loneliness. When her children were younger, Salfer felt greater isolation. However, “today it’s amazing how many young women are creating their own businesses,” remarks Salfer. Salfer has “a great group of friends who run their own businesses,” and finds that talking to them and hearing their stories of both successes and failures gives her chizuk. Additionally, every year from Yom Kippur through Sukkot she travels to Israel. “Just being there gives me strength,” Salfer says.
Entrepreneurship has brought Salfer closer to God, as He is her only boss. Success, she admits, solely depends on God. A successful entrepreneur needs to be humble. “If you take yourself too seriously, you’re not going to make it,” Salfer explains. “Entrepreneurship is a partnership with God.”
Avigayil Perry lives in Norfolk, Virginia, with her family and writes for various Jewish publications.
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