Gail Friedberg began her career as a corporate lawyer, which was ideal when her husband, Harvey Rottenstrich, decided to start his own company in the early ’90s. She could provide legal support. Rottenstrich was an engineer who had worked for a company with a fastener division when he decided to venture out on his own.
Today, the wife and husband duo is nearing 30 years of success with ZAGO Manufacturing Co., which they built up in New Jersey to become a global manufacturer of high-tech, custom sealing fastener solutions and components (read more about the company here).
“It was always very much a joint partnership…and useful to team up,” shares Friedberg. “As a lawyer, I could handle the corporation, original templates, intellectual property, and the legal side of the business. My husband is an electrical engineer so he could focus on the products and manufacturing.”
Initially, Friedberg continued her work as a lawyer while supporting the family business, until she was pregnant with her third child.
“I practiced law for 10 years, but it was important to me to meld family life with work. By working for yourself, it’s possible to make your own hours and schedule it around the kids. And with three of them, it just made sense,” she says.
So began a life of balancing parenthood with entrepreneurship, discussing business strategy with her husband at night and on the weekends.
“Our dinners together often became a board of directors meeting,” she laughs. “And yes… there are challenges when you’re working with your spouse. It’s like marriage on steroids, but we’ve made it work.”
Friedberg says awareness and a certain level of caution are essential for such a partnership. “It’s important to recognize when you’re bringing the marriage dynamics into the business relationship. It’s also helped that we have different skills that we bring to the company.”
One such skill Friedberg has offered throughout the years is her dedication to supporting women in the industry.
“It’s hard as a woman in a male-dominated industry, but everything is male-dominated,” she says. “Sure, it’s changing but it hasn’t fully changed. When I see a new CEO appointed to this or that company, I hope it’s a woman. But most of the time, it’s a man and typically a white man in his 40’s or 50’s. Every industry is still facing this.”
Friedberg has considered it her responsibility to help change this narrative by encouraging women to think beyond conventions. “I’ve spent much of my adult life empowering women to pursue their passions and, oftentimes, bringing them with me.”
The team at ZAGO strongly reflects this value, with women working in several departments including in shipping, assembly, marketing, and on the factory floor, as well as in management. Plus, the company vice president, Jackie Luciano, runs the day-to-day operations.
“One of our newer employees said it best when she admitted that she had never pictured herself doing this kind of work, but now that she’s seen other women in manufacturing, she’s imagining a different future for herself,” she shares. “Now she wants to go to school and learn how to be a machinist.”
Friedberg says it’s important to never underestimate the power one can have on other people — and how important it is to encourage women to believe in themselves.
“It’s worth taking a page out of men’s books, so to speak, which is this assumption that they’re capable and can do something — a task, a job, school, whatever — whether they can or not. I think women too often assume that they’re unable or unqualified, so they don’t even try,” she says. “I’ve spent a lot of time with women in a lot of different fields, encouraging them to try and showing them what’s possible, regardless of gender.”
Friedberg’s passion for equality extends to her commitment to her community. She serves as the example and dedicated spokesperson for the values she holds.
“In 2017, I could no longer sit around, waiting for someone else to be the change I wanted to see in the world,” she says. “So, I ran for council in my town and won and was recently re-elected for another term in 2021, which is four years. It’s important to me to share my values and work towards them.”
Part of these values, for Friedberg, is a commitment to sustainability and working with the green team in Fair Lawn, NJ.
“I work with the planning board and on environmental issues. I try to practice what I preach at work, home, and with community service.” One example includes the use of solar-power arrays at her home and at ZAGO’s manufacturing facility. “Plus, more than a decade ago, we started talking about climate change and how our products could sustainably protect machines,” she adds.
ZAGO provides components to several industries, including the medical, marine, automotive, energy, military, and aerospace industries, where it’s often critical to seal out elements, such as moisture, air, fuel, dust, precipitation, etc. Unlike standard fasteners, ZAGO sealing fasteners are corrosion-resistant and inherently “green”— engineered with a rubber O-ring that when tightened, creates an air-tight, 360-degree seal that prevents contaminants from entering or exiting equipment and into the environment.
In 2019, the company launched ZAGO Sustainability 360, a social impact initiative that provides education and skills-based training to staff members who strive for continuous improvement and career advancement, as well as to stakeholders in the local community.
It’s, perhaps, not surprising that Friedberg was named one of the top manufacturers in late 2021 by New Jersey’s business trade publication, NJBIZ. In fact, she ranked fifth out of the Manufacturing Power 50 list
So, what advice would Friedberg give to others, and particularly women, interested in entrepreneurship, manufacturing, or simply pursuing their dreams?
“Go for it! Anything is possible and it starts with taking the first step,” she says. “Never think that a path to success is closed off because there are many routes that lead to success. It’s not just one way.”
She adds: “Also, it’s OK not to follow conventions. Push through any doubts, take risks, and just keep moving forward. It’s often quite rewarding.”
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