Elke Reva Sudin, 29, developed her now internationally renowned company, Drawing Booth, right from her Boerum Hill home in Brooklyn back in 2014. After Sudin graduated from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts degree in 2009, she skipped the day job to launch her art show, “Hipsters and Hassids” based on her blog and illustration subject. After “Hipsters and Hassids” went viral she started the organization “Jewish Art Now” to create opportunities for other similarly minded artists who were working on identity themes with according to Sudin, “no venue for their work.”
Now she is in demand by brands such as L'Oréal, Godiva, Coach and Absolute for the ultimate party favor: sophisticated three minute portraits of event attendees hand drawn on iPads that are instantly branded, shared, and printed on-site.
Sudin also happens to practice Orthodox Judaism but tells me that she cringes at being called the Orthodox Jewish Girl Boss. "I didn't grow up Orthodox and I didn't know being an artist was a possible career path, but in college I found the inspiration to pursue them both equally."
We pick her brain on how she did it.
Note, Sudin defines “artrpreneur” (interviewer’s term) as a creative that treats business from an artist' perspective and the business facilitates their own artistic ventures and also a person who embraces their creativity for business.
How did you decide to become a fine arts painter?
I was always an artist. The question is, how did you figure out there was a market for what you are passionate about? Being an artist is something you are born with, it is like a condition, and the trick is to find a way of not losing your identity and purpose while also still being in the world/part of society.
NY Drawing Booth
Why did you decide to skip the day job and try and be an entrepreneur instead? Tell us about that progression?
I would do anything to not have to go into an office or the same place every day. If it means starting a company with multiple employees, sure--just so I can sleep in when I need to.
Photo by David Zimand
This has been a long road from art student to entrepreneurial success. I tried everything with my art. It is hard. It teaches you to work hard and to consistently change and adapt to the needs or interest of a market that is so driven by emotion instead of necessity.
By starting Jewish Art Now, we religious artists had our own scene and could do whatever we wanted. Even so, I craved institutional support and validation and when offered to start an art-meets-diversity program at Brooklyn College, I jumped on it. I founded a program called Creative Coexistence, which still operates today. Through all this I was still making art, exhibiting, on new subjects and media. I've dabbled in all kinds of things, but at the Jewish start-up accelerator, PresenTense, I was asked, "Okay, but what do you really want to be doing?" and my answer, was drawing. Making something new every day. So I thought long and hard about what really brings me joy, and the answer was in quick portraits. I had done an event for celebrities, drawing my minimalist paint marker style at an event for their cast holiday party, not knowing anything about the event industry, and it was the most fun I had ever had, it paid well, and the celebs loved it! I love people, they give me energy, and they are always creatively challenging and exciting as a subject matter. I knew I was good at it but still enjoyed it so much. So I thought, well now I have all these years of managing experience around art, why don't I focus that on the art I really want to be doing? So I did. Drawing Booth came out of my interest to draw and make my drawing sustainable as a career but also turned out to be an opportunity for me to nerd out on my interest in technology and embrace the technologies that have developed in recent years.
How does your religion influence your work as an artrepreneur?
Since I do not work on Shabbat or Jewish holidays it pushed me to fill in my company with qualified staff who can. Also having a minority identity (though not such a minority in NYC!) allows me to show that religious women can be in business, they can do art, and be proud, which I hope helps other people be proud of their own identities and not hide it for fear of it effecting how their business is received.
What’s the toughest thing about being an artrepreneur?
The toughest thing is having the space (especially in New York City) to be creative and think expansively which is so critical to the artrepreneur experience. This is why I'm constantly on the road.
Do you have a particular daily routine?
What I am extremely consistent about is my gear. I'm an obsessive ultra-light minimalist traveller gear junkie. Each item is a tool carefully chosen and tested for very specific purposes, whether it is my multiple devices for digital needs for drawing or admin work, or cooking kosher meals in odd locations. My tools are everything to me as it opens unlimited possibilities for productivity and creativity.
What is the biggest business lesson you’ve learned so far?
Artists are so mistreated. Most other professionals in the corporate world are not. It's a learning curve to know how to treat others better than what you have received yourself.
Who has been your favorite mentor?
My favorite mentor was the CEO of eShave which is where I first interned in college. She was really inspiring to me. She is an artist turned businesswoman who used her creativity in her business. Now she is living it up in Miami.
Tina Fey is my dream mentor. She is the ultimate lady boss; nerd-powered, self aware, and clever as hell. She knows how to work within the system without it damaging her individuality.
What are your future goals and big plans?
The future is never certain but here are some ideas: Become a creative consultant for companies to vision better, be more creative. I want to draw some very important people.
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.