Though her fluency in French is what got Elana Drell Szyfer into the cosmetics business, these days Hebrew is what the West Orange executive is seeking to master.
Recruited two years ago by Ahava, the Israeli cosmetics company, to serve as its general manager and CEO in North America, on Dec. 1 she was named its chief operating officer globally, making her number two in the company.
Her achievement has put her in the spotlight. Double-digit growth in sales at all the company’s main retail outlets, coupled with an outstanding record of success throughout her 18 years in the industry, earned Drell Szyfer a spot on The Jewish Daily Forward’s annual list of the 50 American Jews who “made the most significant impact on the news in the past year.” She was also chosen this fall as one of Jewish Women International’s 10 Women to Watch in 5773.
Speaking at the JWI annual gala in Washington on Dec. 3, she said her notion of ultimate success is “the ability to define and make your own choices without the mandate from or fear of others.”
Joining Ahava was a major step in that direction for her. “I was ready to run a whole business,” she said to NJJN during an interview at her home in West Orange Dec. 16.
An MBA in marketing from New York University and that knowledge of French won her a job with Chanel and L’Oreal. Drell Szyfer also worked for Avon and Estee Lauder, rising steadily through the ranks to a level where few women are to be found.
Her go-getting attitude might come as surprise to those who don’t know her. The 43-year-old mother of three daughters, ages 11, nine, and six, is petite and down to earth, with a casual elegance. “At first meeting they don’t put it together,” she acknowledged. “But as I say, I’m small but mighty.”
One of three daughters herself, she grew up in Maplewood. Her mother was a social worker and then worked in the Jewish nonprofit world, and her father was a toy company executive. “In many ways, the field he worked in was very similar to mine,” she said.
Drell Szyfer earned a degree in history at Columbia University. She met her husband, Claude, while she was at NYU. He later earned a law degree there. Fortunately, she said, they shared a dedication to work. “He had the same workaholic attitude. He understood that drive to do your best — that it’s not a choice, it’s a reflex,” she said.
The couple lived in Brooklyn, and then moved back to her hometown of Maplewood, where they stayed until moving to West Orange’s Llewellyn Park last year. They also became members of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, the synagogue she attended as a child. Having a familiar base, she said, has proved a comforting counterpoint to the global challenges of her career.
Having her first baby barely slowed her down, though Drell Szyfer did shift gears with the second and third, “learning from my mistakes.” She has carved out more flexibility in her schedule, working more from home, so that she can be with — or within reach of — her kids. But that can still mean working on a Sunday, given that her Israeli colleagues do, and traveling to Israel about once a month.
A few years back, she found time to get involved with the Women’s Philanthropy division of what is now the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. After attending one event, she organized another. She now serves on the division’s board. When her husband was named a Wexner Graduate Fellow, she joined him on three trips to Israel, forming close friendships with the other participants and a growing passion for Israel.
The A hava connection fit right into that. She was attracted to the company and its story. It was formed by a group of kibbutzniks 25 years ago to sell the skin treatments developed using minerals drawn from the Dead Sea. Those ingredients are still included in all its products. Kibbutz Mitzpe Shalem remains the single largest shareholder in the company and the head of the kibbutz is its chair. “It has a family identity, and it’s very relationship-oriented,” she said.
What Drell Szyfer brought to the table was her familiarity with the American and international markets. At first the Israeli staff “probably hated me,” she said, but that has changed as they have experienced the success that has come from implementing her strategies.
The adjustment has worked both ways, and part of that is her new determination to speak Hebrew. “I’m good with languages and I can read and write Hebrew, but I actually avoided learning to speak it, to push my Israeli colleagues to learn more about the American scene,” she said. “But now I do want to learn.”