Through the Glass Ceiling: Experience unnecessary

Sapir Loye-Tagaya strings together a series of successes.

sapir loye tagaya 88 298 (photo credit: )
sapir loye tagaya 88 298
(photo credit: )
A little over two years ago when Richard Fry, the president of MSD Security Technology, mentioned to a friend that he was in need of a personal assistant to help run his business, the friend responded that he had just the right person for the job. Fry, who likes to make his own decisions, didn't ask too many questions. He just took the name and phone number, which offered no clues other than the gender of the person he was going to interview. He saw her approaching as he waited for her in a Tel Aviv coffee shop, and had a fleeting doubt - but only for a second. As soon as she sat down, he knew he was going to give her the job, but he didn't tell her that right away. "What kind of experience have you had in security technology?" he asked her. "None," she replied. "I'll teach you," he said. "I'll give it a trial," she agreed, as she had nothing to lose. Fast forward to the present. Sapir Loye-Tagaya is still working for Richard Fry, only these days she knows a lot about security technology and equipment, and her title is Administrative Manager for Import/Export. "I'd like her to run this company one day and let my grandson be her assistant," says Fry, who is as proud of her as if she were his daughter. Indeed Loye-Tagaya, 30, has come a long way since she crossed the Sudan on foot to come to the Promised Land. The second of five sisters raised almost entirely on her own by their mother, Loye-Tagaya came to Israel in 1983. Her father had died in Ethiopia, leaving three daughters. Her mother had remarried and produced another two children, but was divorced soon after arriving in Israel. The family lived in Afula where Sapir first went to school. She later attended the Yemin Orde school in Haifa, and boarded there with youngsters from many other countries. During this period, she never experienced any racial discrimination and later, as an adult, would not allow herself to be humiliated by prejudice. She was simply in denial, and when anyone expressed surprise that an Israeli of Ethiopian background might be reaching for the stars, she just laughed. Her mother, a hard-working woman, instilled a strong work ethic in her daughters and taught them that if they worked hard they would always be able to reap the fruit of their labor. In the IDF, Sapir enrolled in an officer's course, but decided at the last minute that she didn't want an army career. She completed her service with the rank of sergeant and with high commendations. Like many young Israelis she wanted to go abroad, but didn't have the money. She worked two jobs in order to raise the fare to the United States - in the daytime, she managed an accessories and cosmetics store, in the evening she worked as a waitress. She did so well in the store that, when she announced she was leaving, the proprietor offered her more money. She refused to be tempted. "I was focused on my target. I had to go and get the American experience." After a year she had sufficient funds not only for her fare but also for living expenses - at least for a couple of months. In the States, she met a nice New York family that adopted her. For official purposes she was an au pair, but in actual fact she was a student. She wanted to know what it was like to go to an American school, so she enrolled in computer and English language courses. Her au pair activities were confined to meeting the school bus in the afternoon and taking home the children of the family with whom she lived. Initially, she got an extension on her visa, but later kept returning to Israel just before her visa expired so that she return to America without trouble. It was an exciting time. She lived in Westchester County and, looking around, constantly marveled to herself: "All the things I saw on TV - now I'm inside. I see all the famous people I saw on TV." At Westchester Community College she studied English as a second language. She then moved to Riverdale where she got a job managing the office of a car rental company. After deciding she wanted to work in Manhattan, she found employment on 47th Street. When her prospective employers asked about experience, she decided to be absolutely truthful. She had none. She knew nothing about diamonds. But the proprietors, who dealt with wholesalers, decided to take her on for a month to see if it would work out. As she left the room, she kissed the mezuza. "They were shocked" and asked whether she was Jewish. They were surprised to receive an affirmative answer. With her gold-toned light brown skin, Loye-Tagaya was often taken for a native of the Dominican Republic in the United States. Needless to say, she proved herself within the month and her foray into the diamond industry stretched into three years during which time she learned about quality, size and clarity. She made up special orders, sent invoices, dealt with customers and collected money from people who bought from her firm. Coming home Loye-Tagaya loved America, but she was homesick. She missed her family and life in Israel. Since Afula was a little too tame after New York, she settled in Tel Aviv and, again with no experience, found a job almost immediately with an investment firm. How does it work? What is the magic formula? Loye-Tagaya has an infectious laugh that has undoubtedly stood her in good stead when job hunting and in dealing with clients. "I go with hope. I believe in God - and I'm given a chance. When you have motivation and a target, nothing stops you. You follow your own direction," she says. This is her philosophy in all things, and it guided her when she decided that discriminatory remarks would not affect her. "When people act that way," she says of those who display ethnic prejudices, "it shows that they're not smart." Indignities suffered by Ethiopians in Israel, she believes, are no different than those experienced by other groups in previous waves of aliya. "It happens," she says with a shrug, but unlike other Ethiopians, she doesn't feel that she has to make that extra effort in order to succeed. "I don't feel that as an Ethiopian, I have to prove myself." Nonetheless, it's not easy to overcome racist attitudes. The first time it really hit her, she was working for the investment firm. She would be sent to the bank and people would look at her as if to ask what she was doing there. She was shocked when she would greet people and they refused to acknowledge her - she'd never experienced anything like that in America. Street smarts The first thing that surprised Loye-Tagaya in her present job was to have a boss who conversed with her in English. "He's tough and demanding," she says, "but he taught me a lot of things - stuff you don't really study at school." She deals with clients, suppliers, the banks - in fact every people facet of the business. Among the company's local clients are the Israeli government, the defense establishment, the police and the diplomatic services - a factor that brings her into contact with many high powered, influential people. Her greatest strength is in networking, says Fry, who took her to England to the IFSEC exhibition, one of the largest and most professional security solutions and network fairs in the world. It was here that Loye-Tagaya really excelled. She was excited to meet people with whom she previously had been in contact only by phone or e-mail, and they were equally excited to meet her. She suggested to Fry that they get themselves photographed with everyone they met so they could send them the photos as a reminder - and a marketing tool - and so that they could create a kind of client wallpaper on MSD Security's premises in Yahud. What really surprised Loye-Tagaya was the number of women in electronics and technology. "It really opened my mind." Her legs hurt from the amount of walking she had to do through the vast exhibition halls, but she kept going, because of the need she felt to connect with so many people Not the least bit shy about asking questions, her curiosity derives not from a desire for brinkmanship but from a genuine interest in what the other person is thinking and doing. "I told her that she should have been a lawyer," says Fry, "because she knows how to decipher and interrogate." Informed by her interviewer that Fry would like to see her take over his business, Loye-Tagaya smiles and says: "Even as a joke, it's nice to hear that someone believes in you like that." What she doesn't realize, even though she's working as his right hand, is that Fry isn't joking. But will she stay in the security business, or is it simply another passage on her road to self-discovery? Loye-Tagaya doesn't know the answer to that one yet. "I'm hard with myself," she says. "When I want to do something and have a target, I like to make it come true. It's not always easy, but I want to be able to say 'Okay, I did it, I fulfilled my ambitions.'" When she met Fry, she really wasn't sure what she wanted to do with her life, but she acknowledges that in working for him she has built up skills she didn't even know she possessed and she's learned to be a team player and solve problems quickly and efficiently. Fry gives all his employees an opportunity to test their capabilities and reach their potential, she says. More important, he helps them all to develop a corporate persona, to establish profitable relationships and to believe in themselves. Now that she's come this far, Loye-Tagaya is seriously considering studying law part-time. Given her history, if she wants the degree badly enough she'll get it. After that, the sky's the limit. For Fry, employing Loye-Tagaya is a kind of deja-vu. Before going into the security business he worked in securities in his native Texas and later on Wall Street in New York. In Texas, he was the first member of his company to give an African-American an executive job - the man proved to be top-notch. Fry is confident that Loye-Tagaya will go the same route and will become one of the more powerful women in Israel. Profile of a powerhouse Sapir Loye-Tagaya Age: 30 Status: Unmarried Education: Laboratory Technician Professional milestones: Continued successes in varied industries despite limited relevant experience.