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The Ties That Bind

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Last month, a local steering committee brought 120 young entrepreneurs and business professionals from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia together as part of a Baltic Jewish Network (BJN) gathering. The event was sponsored by JDC Europe and took place outside of Riga, Latvia. The Schusterman Foundation helped to send ten Russian-speaking participants and two speakers (including Carrie Hammer) to the gathering to share their perspectives. In partnership with JDC Europe, Schusterman is supporting a series of European gatherings aimed at strengthening young Jewish leaders throughout Europe. 

Carrie Hammer is the founder of CARRIE HAMMER clothing, bringing custom clothing to professional women. CARRIE HAMMER has been featured in Elle, Forbes, Time and Cosmo, among others. Hammer was named to Forbes' 30 Under 30 list in 2015.

When Seth Cohen, Director of Network Initiatives at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, first asked me to speak at the Baltic Jewish Network Conference in Latvia I was ecstatic. I was honored to be asked and really excited to spread my message of entrepreneurship, inclusivity and disruption—but first I had to Google where Latvia was.

Upon arrival, I soaked up the beauty and history of Riga. It is a beautiful town with historic buildings and houses right on the Baltic Sea. The conference itself was held at a modern hotel and the event kicked off with “networking bingo” where we had to check off different attributes of the participants to complete our form. We all ran around in a frenzy looking for the member of the conference that didn’t have Facebook (the one box we all couldn’t check off). What I learned from this exercise was how many other entrepreneurs there were, all eager to share more about their work.

Throughout the weekend it was so enlightening to hear the stories of the Baltic Jewish Network entrepreneurs and we spent many hours sharing experiences and swapping advice. We come from all over the world and being Jewish makes us instant family, something we can all relate to. We all speak the same language and have a similar understanding of one another.

My company, CARRIE HAMMER, makes custom clothing for professional women. I was inspired to start my business when I was in advertising sales and felt a lack of feminine, professional, well fitting clothing in the market. I started my company three years ago and we’ve gained recent notoriety for our fashion shows at New York Fashion Week with the theme, “Role Models Not Runway Models.” Our fashion shows feature famous CEOs, executives, philanthropists and inspiring women on the runway rather than traditional runway models. I was so pleased that many at the conference related to and were inspired by my story, one that includes switching careers and taking on an innovative approach to the fashion industry.

I too gleaned a great deal of inspiration. In particular, the session about Transmedia advertising emphasized that everything about our businesses and marketing needs to be "cross platform" but in a way that is both interesting and genuine. Alessandro Nani, a professor at Tallinn University, pointed out examples from his university and other brand case studies that inspired some ideas that I will bring to my business and my fashion show in the Fall.

One of the most difficult yet important parts of the trip was our visit to the Rumbula Forest right outside of Riga. This venture made me appreciate my heritage and how lucky I am to be alive in this day and age. The forest is where 24,000 Jews were mass murdered over the span of two days during the Holocaust. Today, it is a peaceful and beautiful forest so it was difficult to imagine the devastation that occurred in that very place just some 70 years ago. These atrocities seem like they must have happened centuries ago, but the fact that there are still survivors alive in my lifetime seems unfathomable. It was a difficult and powerful moment.

That evening we went back to the conference and shared memories, ideas and hopes for the future of our lives and businesses. It was important for me to meditate on the fact that if we had been standing in that forest only 70 years earlier, as the exact same people and professionals we are today, we would have been in very different circumstances. It’s important that we remember how fortunate we are to be free and to have so many opportunities. I’m grateful for the experience that the Schusterman Foundation afforded me and so many other Jewish professionals. The Baltic Jewish Network Conference was truly enlightening. 

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or all program participants.