Tillie Lewis, 1896-1977
Tomatoes gave Tillie Ehrlich-Weisberg Lewis her start, but dieting made her rich. Myrtle Ehrlich changed her name to Tillie at an early age and continued to reinvent herself throughout her life. Opening a cannery, the media-savvy entrepreneur developed a nationwide brand: Tasti-Diet. Despite her spectacular success, the California business community only grudgingly accepted her. Behind her back they often spoke of her in slurs against her gender and Jewish ethnicity.
Born to a poor Jewish immigrant family, Tillie Ehrlich sought a different life. She escaped her parents’ control with a loveless marriage of convenience. While married to Louis Weisberg, the young entrepreneur worked hard in their small grocery store but also carried on a romantic and business relationship with Italian food importer Florindo del Gaizo (21 years her senior). During the roaring twenties, she and del Gaizo opened a stock brokerage.
Passage of the 1930 Smoot Hawley tariff provided Tillie Ehrlich-Weisberg Lewis a business opportunity. To avoid the 50% tariff on the canned tomatoes that the del Gaizo family exported to the United States, they gave her expertise, money, and a 15% share in the new cannery, Flotill, that she founded for them in Stockton, California. In 1937, after the death of Florindo, she bought out the del Gaizos’ shares.
Tillie Ehrlich-Weisberg Lewis was driven by a combination of altruism and pragmatism. She was known for her commitment to hiring a diverse workforce. Of course, women, the elderly, and people of color were paid less which kept her operating costs down.
Wildly successful, the flamboyant Tillie Ehrlich-Weisberg Lewis expected much of herself and others. She launched the Tasti-Diet brand in 1951, telling Americans “Two out of every five people should be on a diet.” The nation ate it up. Starring in most of the promotional ads, Lewis became famous and changed Flotill to Tillie Lewis Foods. She lived a lavish life, giving many presents to friends and family. Never close to anyone, she died alone in the hospital.
Tillie Ehrlich-Weisberg Lewis lived by several gender-based axioms including:
- A woman has to be five times as good as a man to get one-fifth the recognition.
- Never ask a man “Do you understand?”
- If a man makes a pass, don’t recognize it.
- Never accept an inappropriate romantic invitation in the workplace.
- Be a good listener but a short answerer.
- Finger pointing, finding blame, is a waste of time.