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From secretary to chief executive at one of the world's largest insurance companies, Hava Friedman-Shapira, 52, has risen to be the first female CEO of an insurance company in Israel, bringing US insurance services standards to the Jewish state.
"I don't know anyone, including me, who has always had the dream to work and start a career in an insurance company," says Friedman-Shapira, who today runs the Israeli division of the American International Group Inc. "In my case, it was pure chance at first that I was drawn into the profession, but looking back, I believe it was no coincidence. I always knew I was going to make it."
AIG Israel, which was established in 1997, is part of US-based AIG, a world leader in insurance and financial services, with operations in more than 130 countries and jurisdictions.
Over the last few years, more and more women have been finding their way to senior management positions in finance, which in the not too distant past was the exclusive domain of men. However despite impressive growth in the number of female executives in the field, women are still underrepresented at the top.
"Among the 130 countries in which AIG is active, I know of only two female CEO's," says Friedman-Shapira. "The financial world is very conservative and for many years has been a man's world."
Friedman-Shapira always wanted to do something that has "soul and spirit," she says, which initially drew her to the world of theater. "My dream from when I was little was to become an actress, so I decided to study theater at Tel Aviv University."
However acting remained just a dream for Friedman-Shapira, who delved into the theater of life.
Looking for a first job, the then-22-year-old found a job as a secretary for the general manager of Biderman Insurance Ltd.
"My boss at the insurance company quickly saw that I was no good as a secretary [but] told me I was intelligent, good with people and had the potential to succeed in other areas," says Friedman-Shapira. "He encouraged and promoted me to try the profession seriously and work in a number of positions up to the Non-Life production manager for the company."
After seven years at Biderman, Friedman-Shapira understood that to advance her career she needed to aim higher and venture out to the US market.
"I always wanted to work for a US company. It became my dream," she says. "So I went to New York and first continued my studies for a Bsc. in communication and management, followed by a Masters of Business Administration."
During her MBA studies at the New York Institute of Technology, Friedman-Shapira worked in several positions, including as an account manager. After trying for an executive position in the insurance sector, she returned to Israel.
"The positions I held were very administrative, so after two years I decided to take my knowledge and experience back to Israel," she says.
Friedman-Shapira then worked for five years as the marketing and unit manager of software company E.L. System Engineering before finding herself back in the insurance market, first as the account executive for major industrial accounts at Arieh Insurance, a fully owned subsidiary of Clal Insurance Ltd, for a year.
She moved on to the Ilan Brokerage as manager of its Non-Life unit for 18 months. "I couldn't find myself with the Israeli insurance companies until I replied to an ad looking for a manager for an international company, which turned out to be AIG Golden Israel," she says. "Last October was 10 years since I started as an underwriting manager just as AIG commenced operations in Israel."
Friedman-Shapira moved swiftly up the career ladder to vice president of various divisions, and just over five years ago, at the age of 46, she became the first female chief executive of an insurance company in Israel.
"AIG saw the potential of the direct insurance market in Israel and I believe they purposely chose a local CEO for the very competitive and aggressive market in Israel," says Friedman-Shapira. "I believe that nothing is a coincidence and that I was chosen because I have something to contribute and my background connects well with the demands of a professional organization with an international culture and strategy. I contribute to building a generation of future managers in Israel with a global mind-set and business culture."
Friedman-Shapira says her success comes from being patient, waiting the right place at the right time. "I never forced and pushed to get to the top as fast as possible," she says.
Virtually without senior management experience before entering her new position, Friedman-Shapira has had a steep mountain to climb.
"Nothing is difficult for me, but without the right people, you can not succeed. Success comes from everybody's work," she says. "I don't believe in management by fear, my philosophy is based on positive energy in the work place. I want the people I work with to have fun and they should not have to put on masks."
Friedman-Shapira says AIG's success in Israel comes from bringing US standards of service to Israel, for example through longer working hours and toll free telephone access.
Friedman-Shapira clearly understands that the differences between men and women bear fruit. Identifying these differences and translating them into a business concept has helped generate market potential for her.
One of the differences is clear for AIG: Women are safer drivers than men. Research published by the company shows that female drivers are involved in only one out of five car accidents and in just one out of nine lethal car accidents.
In 2005, AIG started offering Lady AIG to its female clientele in Israel, whereby they pay 35 percent less than men for car insurance. The face of the $2 million campaign, with the slogan "All of a sudden everybody wants to be a woman," was pop star Dana International. "We were among the first of the group to launch AIG Lady in Israel, which offended many men for being labeled bad drivers but had a lot of resonance with women," says Friedman-Shapira.
Friedman-Shapira has not hesitated to participate in the company's radio ads together with actor Avi Kushner. AIG recently shelled out $150,000 for Kushnir to appear in print ads as well as a TV and radio commercial.
Friedman-Shapira still sees obstacles in the way of women making it in a world that is tailored to men's schedules. "Business meetings are often scheduled for very late in the day when they could be scheduled for early in the morning, making it harder for working mothers."
As a career woman and a mother, Friedman-Shapira believes you need to have certain qualities to do both. "Women need to work harder than men and they need to be a master of multitasking and sharing work," she says. "Women need to be convinced that it's the right thing to do. For me, my daughter is the most important thing in the world and I place much importance on being a good model at home and taking time out for the family."
Friedman-Shapira makes a rule of leaving the office at 4 p.m. once a week, because at the end of the day, "a mother is a mother," she says with a big smile on her face.
Status: Married. One child
* Bsc. in Communication and Management, Adelphi University, New York
* MBA, New York Institute of Technology
* Secretary at Biderman Insurance Co. Ltd
* Marketing and Unit Manager at E.L. System Engineering
* Account Executive for Major Industrial Accounts at Arieh Insurance
* Manager of Non-Life Area at Ilan Brokerage Firm
* CEO of AIG Israel Insurance Company Ltd.