Held in M&T Bank headquarters in New York City, the Women and Family’s Business Roundtable was an intimate session with a group of 30 women in the various stages of their family business – running it, exited in, thinking of entering it and so forth. What united the entire group was the privilege and probably burden, of being part of a business legacy.
The morning opened with welcome remarks from Kimberly Eddleston, ’95, Cornell Family Business Scholar, Professor of Entrepreneurship, D’Amore-McKim School of Business, Northeastern University and Daniela Scur, Postdoctoral research fellow, MIT Sloan School of Management. Both of them touched on the challenges and difficulties that as a female faced in family business succession, and how can one overcome that. Each participant chimed in on their own experiences, and how each of them came into the business in their own way and the extra effort they had to put in, just to prove their capability to manage or run the business.
The second session was moderated by Margarita Tsoutsoura, Cornell University, and Stefanie Kasselakis Kyles, Vassilaros & Sons Coffee, and they discussed how in family businesses, the lines between work and family were often blurred. The daily operations and problems at work were often brought up at the family dinner table, as recalled by another participant, Surabhi Chaturvedi, MBA 19’. This allowed the next generation to develop a keen sense of what running a business meant, at a very young age. However, working with family had some drawbacks too, as shared by Stefanie. She mentioned how everyone in her family called her about the business, at all hours, to share their opinions, despite not being directly involved.
During lunch, Niki Russ Federman, from Russ & Daughters shared her own personal story of how she came to enter her family business, started by her grandfather with simply just a pushcart. Everyone’s story is truly different, and hers was one of self-discovery and meandering paths before she finally came back into the business. Russ & Daughters is one of my favorite restaurants in the city, and to hear the legacy and heritage from her perspective is truly like reliving a piece of New York City history. She said – “I’m so glad that my mother had the foresight to save her part of the business so that it gave me an opportunity to return when I wanted to.” That truly left an impression on me, that her mother gave her a chance to come back to the business when Niki was ready. Whether we admit it or not, we truly are products of our families, parents and their efforts.
After lunch, Alvina Lo, Chief Wealth Strategist from Wilmington Trust discussed her experience in advising clients on setting up trusts and foundations. It was truly interesting to hear perspectives from various spectrums: with a structured and formal approach to encourage the next generation (as shared by Kelsey, the 4th generation in her family business); to a more informal way, as told by Chelsey Kingsley, CEO of Kingsley Made, by simply having conversations with her children and instilling in them a sense of ownership through seeing furniture manufactured by the company around Ithaca.
The last session of the afternoon was led by Kimberly Eddleston, Northeastern University and Niki Russ Federman, CEO and Owner, Russ & Daughters, who discussed how female leaders impacted the business differently. It was clear that females had made strides in the corporate environment over the past decade, yet so far from having an equal number of females in the boardroom, and as senior executives. The participants also brought up how being in a family business could possibly be advantageous for females to advance professionally, as opposed to being in the traditional big corporate environment, as being in a smaller environment required each individual to be more flexible with all kinds of roles and allowed individuals to take on more responsibility.
Overall, I found the entire day to be extremely invigorating, and it was really interesting and insightful to hear so many different perspectives on the changing role of females in family businesses today. In Asia, where I’m from, many family businesses still are figuring out their governance structure, and how to successfully transition from one generation to the next. Listening to these women in the roundtable, who manage family and business so well, has been very encouraging, for my own personal journey forward in figuring out how to balance and integrate both professionally, and personally.
Jade Neo is a 2019 MMH Candidate at Cornell University, as well as a 2019 MBA Candidate at CEIBS in China. Her family’s business, Hai Yong Engineering, started by her father, is in the construction and real estate business in Singapore.