| Family First Feature |

Untangling the Web

Tech executive. Concert pianist. Ola Sergatchov bridges professions and worlds

 

If you’d have asked Ola Sergatchov what she wanted to be when she grew up, the answer would have been obvious. She was a talented student at Saint Petersburg’s academy for musically gifted children; of course she’d be a concert pianist!

But this year, The Software Report business magazine named her one of the world’s top Women Leaders in Cybersecurity. As a seasoned cybersecurity executive at Guardicore, Ola is tasked with leading the company’s growth strategy, nurturing customer and partner relationships, and helping organizations protect their digital business.

Mrs. Sergatchov has reinvented herself in other ways, too. Until she was 16, she didn’t even know she was Jewish. “It’s not something you put on a billboard in Russia,” she says. “I’m my family’s last gasp. If it weren’t for me, my family would have become so assimilated that none of our descendants would ever have known they were Jewish.” Now she’s married to a Gerrer chassid and living in Israel.

The greatest influence in Ola’s life, second to her parents, was her piano teacher. “We spent a lot of time together because I was a top student. She taught me my work ethic: it’s all about hard work and willpower. Given enough of those, everything else falls into place.”

Even though Ola had some motor difficulties that interfered with her progress, her teacher never let her say, “I can’t do it.” Instead, she gave her the skills and tools to break through every roadblock in her way.

“She pushed and pulled and never gave up on me, even though I lacked zitsfleish. She always encouraged me to think about the one skill I was missing, and when I’d acquired that one, she’d show me another.”

“Put Your Heart Into It”

The last thing her piano teacher taught her became the motto of Ola’s life: “Whatever you do, put your heart into it and do it to the best of your ability.”

Her talent, willpower, and training ensured that Ola could make it as a professional musician in her native land. But when the Iron Curtain began to lift, it revealed the tantalizing prospect of leaving Russia by making aliyah. That was why Ola’s parents finally told her she was Jewish.

She didn’t apply for a visa right away. Her father wanted her to study Hebrew for a year before she went to Israel. It didn’t come from a sense of Jewish pride; it was just that he didn’t want her to move to a foreign country where she couldn’t speak the language.

In the meantime, at the Jewish Center, a small ad for a free Chabad summer camp caught her eye. “Free was a very attractive word to me,” she says. It was attractive enough for her to pack her bags and go to camp.

“I’ll never forget the candle lighting my first Shabbos. Lighting that candle woke up my neshamah,” Ola says. “It was the most spiritual moment of my life.”

 

She loved everything about that Shabbos. She remembers the zemiros, and how the campers started dancing in separate circles.

At first, she just watched the rituals. Then she started reading. The more she learned, the more she knew she had to go to Israel. She went home after camp, and assumed she’d have to put her religious growth on hold until she made aliyah. “It was impossible to keep Shabbos and kashrus in my hometown,” she says. “I also knew that I wanted to start davening, but I had no idea how to do it. I was going to need someone to teach me.”

Then her father came home with a book he’d picked up in a used bookstore. He had no idea what it was, but it had Hebrew writing on one side and a translation into Russian on the other, and he thought that might help Ola learn the language. To Ola’s astonishment, it was a siddur Tehillas Hashem, complete with instructions on how to daven!

“Papa, do you know what you bought?” she asked him. “It’s a prayer book!”

He laughed, because the idea was so foreign. “What will you do with it?” he wanted to know.

“He wasn’t scoffing, or trying to discourage me,” Ola says. “My parents never questioned what I did. They gave me free rein to do what I thought was right. They just couldn’t understand it. ‘G-d’ and ‘prayer’ were words that had never been spoken in our house.”

Ola wasn’t fluent after her year of Hebrew studies, but she flew off to Israel at the first opportunity, “to be what I wanted to be.” She’d heard about a kibbutz program in the south. She was sure it would be okay, because she assumed that everyone in Israel was religious. Even when someone told her that she was going to a place where no one shared her hashkafah, she thought she could just “make it work.”

But then she saw an advertisement for a one-year program for Russian Jewish olim at Hebrew University. Admissions tests were that day. Fully aware of the Hashgacha pratis that made her spot the ad on that very day, she changed her plans within the hour. She was accepted into the program, which included an ulpan and dorms. Ola set off for Jerusalem.

On her third day in Israel, she was walking around looking for a bus station when she met a nice, Swiss, knit-kippah-clad gentleman on the university campus. “How long have you been in Israel?” he asked.

“Three days,” she replied.

“No, not in Jerusalem — in Israel.” He couldn’t believe that someone who’d only been here that long could speak Hebrew as well as she did.

Ola looked religious, so he invited her to his home for Shabbos. “I was too young and dumb to be wary,” Ola admits. Fortunately, she felt comfortable in his house from the first moment. “It was just like my parents’ home: there were tons of books all over.” His family was highly-educated and polite, and he was willing and able to answer her questions. For hours, Ola asked questions and he answered.

Ola returned to them Shabbos after Shabbos. They encouraged her spiritual growth, and became like family.

She became connected to other families, too. In the time-honored tradition of impoverished students, she earned money cleaning houses and became close to some of the families she worked for in Geula and Meah Shearim, which strengthened her connection with chassidus.

The Casino Shidduch

Pretty soon, Ola was working for an Israeli company with business interests in the United States. At a convention in Las Vegas, she heard about a company executive who was actively promoting his employer’s interests in Israel. She told everyone who might help her that she desperately wanted to meet him during the three-day event. Then, exhausted from jet-lag, she went to sleep at 6:30 p.m.

Half an hour later, her phone, which she’d forgotten to set to silent, rang. “Ola? Remember that meeting you wanted me to arrange? I set it up for you, but you have to come NOW!”

Dazed, Ola asked who was speaking, and was told, “Don’t ask. You have half-an-hour to get here.”

“Here” was on the far side of the city, and she arrived at the meeting huffing and puffing, to find an antagonistic man who didn’t want to meet with her, because she worked with his competitors. Ola did her best to calm him and they went into a casino (because hey, there’s no yichud in a casino!) to get sodas. Within an hour, each of them realized that this was more than just a business meeting; they were making a strong spiritual connection.

“Sin City is the worst place in the world for a shidduch,” Ola says. “The casinos don’t like people who take up space without gambling.” But they ignored the withering glares of security guards and waiters, and talked until he jumped up at 3 a.m., realizing that he had to run if he was to catch his flight.

Although he was a born and bred Gerrer chassid, before he left, he said, “You don’t understand that we’re going to get married.”

“I don’t think so,” Ola answered, because the whole thing seemed so surreal. But six months later, they did, and settled in America.

New Vistas

Earning a living from music didn’t make Ola happy. “Once it’s a job, it loses its charm,” she says. She knew she had to go back to school, but since she had no background in math, she didn’t consider computer programming, although it interested her.

Still, all majors required some programming courses, and as she worked her way through her programming homework, her husband said, “Listen. You have the head. You have the talent. Why not learn computers?”

It was frustrating to quit her degree program in business administration and economics when she was already halfway through it, but Ola did it anyhow, and studied programming in earnest. There was such a shortage of programmers then that she didn’t even finish her final project. While she was working on it, she sent her CV to five workplaces, and all five were interested in her.

On the job, she saw she could do more than just programming. She became the head of her programming team, then realized that with her educational background, she could do well in sales. Next, she got interested in business development, product sales and marketing, and became a product manager.

“Some people have a goal and work toward it,” says Ola. “I never have a goal. I have a role, and within that role, I look for ways to expand my responsibilities and my areas of expertise. B’siyata d’Shmaya, I always find a place to land. This approach has given me both the breadth and the depth of technical and business knowledge. And that allows me to take on any role in a hi-tech field and succeed in it.”

This explains why she’s been Global Portfolio Strategy Director for IBM, built sales teams, and developed strategic partnerships with system integrators while she was Senior Director at Oracle. She’s also worked for Secerno, Ness Technologies, Matrix, and Itemfield. She’s done briefings and research papers for industry analysts, and in her spare time, she gives piano concerts.

Today, Ola is Vice President of Corporate Strategy at Guardicore, which incorporates her technical, business, and visionary skills. “I’ve held a spectrum of roles over the last 20 years, way beyond what I studied, but incorporating every single thing I’ve learned during my career,” she says.

Frum Executive? No Problem

Even in the upper echelons of the business world, Ola finds mitzvah observance isn’t much of an issue. Shabbos and kashrus have been lesser problems than the awkwardness of washing for bread while meeting with a client. When an employer, about to close a huge deal, tells her she has to be available over the weekend to answer emails, she calmly explains that “between sundown on Friday and Saturday night, I won’t be available. If the deal is meant to happen, it will be there for us after the weekend as well.

“People respect that,” she says. “I’m not afraid to talk about my strong belief system, and there was never a situation in which a business opportunity fell through because of my Shabbos observance. Most people are happy to learn about other cultures and minhagim, and I’m happy to teach them.

“Kashrus is sometimes inconvenient, but never impossible, and I talk about it openly. I never say I’m a vegetarian. I always explain what I do. If I’m invited to a pool party, for instance, I’ll say, ‘I’ll just stay by the bar area,’ and sometimes I’ll explain why. But I never pretend that there’s some other, not-religious-related reason for my non-participation.”

Having a reliable and accessible rav who is familiar with her and the world she works in is vital, Ola says. Her rav has taught her the skills and halachos she needs in the workplace, like how to conduct certain business conversations, and how to travel. “These are issues that can be solved, but you have to ask how.”

She rejects the possibility of only seeking out like-minded people to hang out with at work. Professional integration is vital, Ola says, if an employee is to develop into a team player and learn from others. She sees integration into the business world as “a chance to bring kedushah to places where there isn’t any.” Non-religious people respect her strong beliefs and her desire to keep mitzvos.

Her other mission is to mentor frum people who would like her guidance. She’s open to helping anyone who reaches out to her. She’s helped young women who wanted to go to university, but whose math and science education was too weak. She shows them how to prepare for their GEDs and points them to good community colleges where they can make up the coursework they need. Then she helps them choose a college.

One of her protégées was accepted to Columbia, but she and Ola decided that she’d be better off in Binghamton, with its huge Chabad House and active Jewish community, and now that Vizhnitzer chassidah works as a lead programmer and business analyst in a large bank. She just needed to be shown the way.

Women are especially suited for cybersecurity, Ola feels. “Let’s face it,” she says. “Men can’t put up a pot of cholent while participating in a conference call and rocking the baby with their foot. Women can.”

She says that women tend to get a broader education than men, and are often better at creative thinking. It’s mostly women who study the images from surveillance cameras, looking for something out of the ordinary that may herald a terrorist attack in the making. That’s because women are good at noticing details, and discerning which information is meaningless and which is significant, even when their attention is divided between multiple screens.

Those are the sort of skills cybersecurity needs, and that’s why most of the women in Ola’s present workplace are in the cyberlab. “We don’t hire them because they’re female, but because they’re the best. They apply for those jobs because they enjoy working in a field in which they can apply their skills.”

Women also excel at thinking outside the box, says Ola, and that’s a vital asset for cybersecurity. “The bad guys are all thinking out of the box, trying to bypass the norm, and we have to figure out which angle they’re planning to attack from before they do it,” Ola explains.

More women would go into tech if there were more all-women’s schools, she feels, because men and women think differently and learn differently. When Ola moved back to Israel with her husband and family, she began to notice the weaknesses in its educational system.

“Israel’s Begat”z (supreme court) is making a terrible mistake in trying to shut down gender-separate schools of higher education. They say such schools discriminate against women, but that’s a weird argument,” says Ola. “It’s forcing religious women to compromise their values in exchange for getting the education they want. Students should be made as comfortable as possible while they’re studying.”

Another element that needs to be addressed if religious women are to get high-paying jobs is the level of frum high school education. Many women receive limited educations, and they have to make a much greater effort than others do if they want to pursue meaningful and intellectually challenging careers.

Taking Values Home

Ola points out that “the temptation to compromise one’s values is in every setting, not just in the workplace.” She lives with her family in a frum yishuv, so her younger children are exposed to a limited spectrum of acceptable behavior, but even the youngest, eight-year-old twins, want more and more explanations as they get older about why the limits are set where they are. Relaxing some of her standards so the kids could do what they want would make life easier, Ola explains, but “my role as mother is to explain that the easy way is not always the good way.”

She compares it to eating junk food. The kids love snacks, so she decided, one Purim, to let them eat all the junk they wanted.

They felt sick and decided that binging without limits wasn’t smart. The next day, she showed them the list of ingredients on the snacks they’d eaten, and together, they came to the conclusion that it was bad news to eat foods with more than five ingredients that have weird numbers and names, or whose first ingredient is sugar. They made a little ceremony in which they threw out all the junk food. There was no crying or complaining on their part.

To this day, when her children ask for a second snack, she tells them, “You can take, if you like. I won’t stop you. But it’s not healthy to have everything you want.” And the message gets through. They’re learning, from their mother’s personal example and wise words, to set their own boundaries, based on their values — the strongest antidote to temptation.

As she tells them and shows them, life is always about balance, about making wise choices and choosing one’s battles. What’s crucial is to understand what’s important and what is not, and to make our choices accordingly.

 

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 707)

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