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Editorial: For women in business, an inspiration

Sheryl Sandberg has created big buzz with her new book Lean In, advice for women trying hard to get ahead in the workplace, which can still be a man’s world. Many readers have wondered: Are the life experiences of the super-rich applicable to the rest of us? Do we have the same options available to Sandberg from her rarified perch as chief operating officer at Facebook? Does any of this relate to me?

Turns out, for New Hampshire women hoping to succeed in business, there is a role model who might just be easier to connect to. May Gruber of Goffstown died this month (at age 100!), but not before inspiring younger generations to take risks in business and to defy the expectations of their families and communities.

In the 1930s Gruber was one of four founders of Pandora Industries, a sweater manufacturer that moved in 1940 from New York City to Manchester. Her first partners were her first husband and her parents, European Jewish immigrants.

In her early life, Gruber didn’t have an option other than work. “It was not a question of (choosing) staying home and having a family,’’ she told the Associated Press in a 1986 interview. “My only choice was between survival and starvation.’’

But she quickly showed more than a little talent for it. What was revolutionary came next: When her husband died in 1964, Gruber was under pressure to allow her father and brother to buy her out. After all, it was more common then for sons, not daughters, to carry on the family business – a rule she was unwilling to follow.

“If you found a company and then you’re told that because you’re not a first-born son, you can’t (become) president, you don’t go for that,’’ she once told the Associated Press.

Instead, she quickly raised $1.5 million to purchase the entire company herself – and then ran it successfully for another two decades. “I cashed in everything I possibly could. I called on friends, key salesmen in the company – made use of every asset I could lay my hands on,’’ she said. “I was determined.’’

Pandora grew into a multi-million-dollar business under Gruber’s leadership. At its peak, the firm employed 1,000 workers and produced 60,000 sweaters a week – not bad!

In a recent interview with documentary filmmaker Nancy Beach, Gruber explained her decision to keep working: “I said, what would I do with the money? I should stay home and play bridge? Or learn to play golf? It seems so stupid to waste your life that way.”

How did she succeed? She started small – a sales job at Gimbels department store – and worked hard in college. (“The discipline you get in college relates to everything. And there’s the networking, too. The people you meet in college keep popping up,” she told a student audience at New York University in 1988.) As the head of Pandora, she crafted multi-year business plans. And she treated her employees well, a lesson she said she learned from her first husband:

“My husband believed in that ridiculous thing called the Golden Rule,” she said. “If you treat people right, they’re going to treat you right, too. I don’t know how to be more plain.”

And, she said, she worked hard to surround herself with allies. “If a woman becomes an entrepreneur on her own, she should build up her own team of loyal supporters,’’ she told the AP.

Gruber also used the influence and money she earned as a business success to help the causes she cared about. She helped found the New Hampshire chapters of the League of Women Voters and American Civil Liberties Union. She gave generously to arts organizations across the state. She helped the Democratic Party and, in her old age, joined the Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York.

On a website connected to a film about Gruber called Sweater Queen, there’s a list of tips that seem to make good sense for women entrepreneurs and, really, anyone else. Among them: “Tackle whatever terrifies you – the rest becomes boring.”

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