Lean In? This Woman Social Entrepreneur was Practically Planking – Way Back In 1912.

“This entrepreneur took her pain and the pain of others, added her skills and sense of self and channeled into a powerful force for good.”

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Farknot Architect / Shutterstock
Farknot Architect / Shutterstock

I’m fascinated by women entrepreneurs — how they got their start, what obstacles they overcame and what made them successful.  I’m even more intrigued by women whose ventures serve the public good.  Which is why, when I think of one of the first – and most successful – women social entrepreneurs, I’m in awe that she built it all without using a computer or the internet.  

This woman had no angel investors or venture capital firms backing her dreams. Her social media plan involved women meeting around their kitchen tables for coffee, rugelach and a game of ‘mahj.” Her crowd-funding consisted of a volunteer battalion of bubbies (grandmothers) armed with tiny tin pushke’s (boxes) collecting small change to make a change. And change she did make. Because she was armed with purpose.

What this entrepreneur started in 1912 with pennies, nickels and dimes as a small mission to provide emergency care to infants and mothers in pre-state Israel flourished into the beginning of the Israeli healthcare system, which today includes some of the world’s leading research and treatment hospitals, and schools of medicine and nursing.

These hospitals – Hadassah Hospitals – provide outstanding medical care to patients in Israel and from around the world. The hospitals, known as the “bridge to peace” in the Middle East are an island of peace and coexistence. During one of my visits there, a nurse named Fatima told me, “The only enemy we have here is disease.” Bringing advanced medical care to all, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or nationality, earned Hadassah a nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.

And even though you may not have heard of this innovative and dynamic social entrepreneur, your life has probably benefited from what she tirelessly created.  Hadassah Hospitals today are on the forefront of creating medical miracles through research— with effective treatment for ALS, MS, cancer, macular degeneration and more. Chances are, someone you love has been helped by what this woman started back in 1912.

This woman is Henrietta Szold. Born in 1860, she didn’t set out to shatter any glass ceilings. 

Henrietta Szold

What Henrietta longed for was a traditional family. She was in love with a man thirteen years her junior. He valued her intellect. He valued her contributions to his work. He valued and took all she was willing to give him. But while on vacation (and after only three dates) he proposed to an 18-year-old young woman. Dumped. Some things never change…

Devastated, a depressed Henrietta traveled to Ottoman Empire-controlled pre-state Israel in 1912 for a change of scenery and was horrified by the poverty and disease she encountered. A spark was lit. This entrepreneur took her pain and the pain of others, added her skills and sense of self and channeled into a powerful force for good. The worst thing to ever happen to Henrietta turned out to be a wonderful gift to humanity.

Henrietta shared the traits common to all entrepreneurs: purpose, passion, strong people skills, creativity and determination.  Henrietta used to say, “If you’re going to dream, dream big.” And she did.

Henrietta Szold

Returning home, Henrietta collected money and sent two nurses to British-mandated Palestine in 1913 to provide pasteurized milk to infants and new mothers, and to eradicate trachoma, an easily cured eye disease that was robbing thousands of their sight. 

By 1918, she and her organization, now named Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, Inc. (HWZOA), had sent an entire medical unit, comprised of 45 doctors, nurses, dentists and sanitary workers to pre-state Israel. day, Hadassah hospitals are the second largest employer in Jerusalem. With 300,000 members and supporters in the U.S. and more worldwide, Hadassah remains committed to Jewish continuity and building a better world through medicine and healthcare, advocacy, and communities of women.  

I can’t imagine the times she must have been told that her ideas were “pie in the sky” or untenable. Who was she – a middle aged women with no business background – to attempt such a venture that had never been attempted before? And to create this venture without formal funding, but instead, with the help of women of all ages gathering spare change.

Today, many Hadassah members have pins celebrating the multiple generations of empowered Hadassah women in their families. Henrietta believed in the power of women. She believed in her own power. But most importantly she believed in her purpose and her product – that everyone was entitled to excellent health care and that with medical healing came peace and coexistence.

I’ve often wondered what Henrietta sacrificed to fulfill her vision. Henrietta never married or had children. But to this day in Israel, Mother’s Day is celebrated in her honor. It seems fitting that this month where we recognize Women’s History and Women’s Empowerment that we honor one of the first women social entrepreneurs – Henrietta Szold –  the upstart matron of the start-up nation.

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