In This Episode: It’s said women and minorities have to work a lot harder to compete in business, and I believe it. But how might they actually do that? Well, they apply Uncommon Sense — and we can all learn from a good example.
Just a quick note before I tell the story: this is the first episode in awhile — the first one this year, even! — because I was working on a big project that I started in August. Sorry for the silence, and I’ll be revealing what the project is in upcoming newsletters.
Frieda Rapoport Caplan was determined to break into a business that, especially at the time, was completely male dominated. Caplan didn’t think the way to break in was to try to be like the men.
“I couldn’t compete with all the boys on the big items,” she told a reporter from the Pasadena, California, Star-News in 2003, “so I built the business selling things that were different.”
What was she selling? Produce, to supermarkets. It’s a tough, cutthroat business. But let me tell you how she got there.
Born in Los Angeles to Russian immigrants in 1923, Frieda Rapoport was raised in the same neighborhood my mother was, Highland Park. Mom was born just a short time later. In 1945, Frieda graduated from UCLA with an economics and political science degree. She got a job in a lawyer’s office; he represented the CIO — the Congress of Industrial Organizations, a federation of labor unions whose name lives on today in the union AFL-CIO. In 1951 she married the president of a longshoreman’s union, Alfred Caplan. A few years after that, they had their first child, a daughter, Karen, and a second daughter, Jackie, after that.
Frieda wanted to go back to work, but she had to be selective in choosing a job: she wanted a flexible schedule so she could breast-feed Karen. Her husband’s uncle owned Giumarra Brothers, a seller at the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market. He hired Caplan as a bookkeeper, even though she didn’t know bookkeeping — or the produce business.
She had to learn fast, because not long after the owner went on vacation, and Caplan had to work the sales floor. It’s the late 50s now, and produce markets looked a lot different than they do today. It was typical for them to have onions, apples, and lettuce, but they probably would only have one variety of each. It wasn’t “give me a case of Fuji apples and a case of Braeburns,” it was “give me two cases of apples” and they took what was available, and they probably had never heard of Fujis or Breaburns. They likely wouldn’t even know what “sweet onions” were — the...
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