Notes from the Family Innovations Summit

Written by Pierre duPont

cornell-2018-0523-0105Thanks to Daniel Van Der Vliet and Cornell’s Smith Family Business Initiative for a stellar event earlier this week. This was a day of private discussions between family-owned businesses of all types and sizes – from some of the largest in the world with 20-50 family members to some small and with only two or three family members.

Across all the sessions, I heard one overriding message: communicate with your family about your business and understand your family’s views and needs – now. Do it openly and as soon as possible, as the business starts and grows, and even if the business is large or it appears to be too late to start such communications. And do this whether you think your family (and the business) needs it or not.

Another message seen clearly: many families with successful businesses have visible and not-so-visible dysfunction, and that dysfunction can create nearly-insurmountable hurdles for continued success or a leadership transition to the next generation. And yet, dysfunction CAN be overcome as we heard several times.

In one case (all will remain anonymous given the incredible amount of openness, and even raw emotional pain, expressed by some of the participants) we heard of several older generations of the leaders in a family-business who appeared to want to limit the continuing success of the company – the next-gen leader overcame this across ten or twenty years through perseverance, many creative ideas, standing ground when faced with strong family pressure, and even by walking away to force the family’s approval of the desired business-change. The result? A household-name business expanding in new directions and generating new levels of success, to the benefit of the whole family.

In another case, we learned of a family faced with discord amongst the older leaders at the top of a large and prominent global company. The discord was clearly hurting the business, so the next-gen came together as a whole to drive leadership changes and new family-control-mechanisms which proved to be the right steps for all generations and for the business itself.

We learned of family-communication done well, too. There were several examples of 20-something and 30-something children who were given leadership roles in their family businesses, and who then rose to the challenges of evolving markets and changing technologies – with appropriate guidance from their parents to the youngers, and from the youngers to their parents.

And we heard an illuminating example of a very prominent family where the elder-generation cousins who lead the business meet regularly to have their business arguments and ‘family squabbles’ behind closed doors, rather than in the public view.

Tactical advice was given by two family-leaders regarding how to strengthen multi-gen families and their businesses, and how to head-off or repair the dysfunction that can arise: engage external family-business advisors/consultants/therapists early, whether or not you think you need to do so today. I was pleased to hear this said several times, confirming the value such external and independent advisors can have – partly that value arises because such advisors have no ‘horse in the race’ (and be sure to look closely for that – sometimes there are hidden agendas and unclear profit-opportunities for external advisors), and partly it arises because the better advisors have seen and learned from many situations.

Contact Daniel if you are a family business who might like to participate in future events like this week’s. And even if you don’t want to participate, I am sure Daniel will welcome calls (as do I 🙂 from family-business owners (whether you are the older generation or a younger generation) to talk confidentially about successes and challenges and failures – lessons can be identified and shared, and paths-forward found, just by talking it through with a suitable outsider.

Pierre duPont is an advisor, entrepreneur, investor, partner and business owner.

What To Do When Your Path In Life Is Chosen For You


I am a typical twenty-three-year-old who just finished my first year in the workforce. I’m adapting (and sometimes struggling with) post-grad life in solidarity with my peers: I’m learning how to cook, I’ve lost at least 40 percent of my sock collection to the laundry, and I’m trying not to screw anything up at work. But what makes me atypical from my contemporaries, who intend to stay at their current jobs for the next two, maybe three years, is that I intend to keep my first job for the next forty-plus years.

When I arrived at work on my first day in the “real world,” and every day since, it was my name on the door in big, bold letters. I wish I could say this is because I have done something extraordinary this year to bring meaning to that name, but its reputation has been built by many Gersons before me, first by my grandfather and now my father. It’s a lot of weight on a twenty-three-year-old shoulders. An eighty-two-year legacy, more than one hundred dependent workers, and an expectation that it will be my responsibility to care for all of it in the decades to come.

Growing up, this duty was met with a lot less trepidation. If asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would joyously reply that I knew I was going to be the CEO of Gerson & Gerson, Inc. Perhaps as a result of a childhood shaped as much by family events as the ups and downs of the fashion industry, the business became an integral part of my identity. With the understanding that the name Gerson had meaning beyond my nuclear family—a reputation for ability, integrity, and honesty—I spent most of my childhood trying to achieve these ideals. With each nomination to the class council, captainship of a sports team, citizenship award, and finally an acceptance to an Ivy League university, I continued to crave validation.

The privilege of having a family business is a double-edged sword. The reputation of the next generation’s perceived entitlement is an insecurity I have combatted my entire life. I have long accepted that I would need to work harder than my peers to receive the same recognition of ability for my roles, especially since I belong to a generation that is largely characterized as entitled and narcissistic. At some point, I realized that the notion that I could be recognized purely on my own merit was unrealistic. The reality is that I am in this very extraordinary professional position due to my name, and not my achievements. The best I can hope for is that by virtue of my competence as a student, as well as my dedication and work ethic, that the people around me will view me as worthy of the entitlement.

I graduated college at twenty-two, armed with a business education and a lifetime of industry knowledge. I entered the firm just one month after graduation. Some might call my inexperience an impediment, but I view my ignorance as an asset. I will never know as much as my predecessors do about the business they currently run, but asking disruptive questions and bringing a fresh perspective is often my most valuable contribution. The freedom to ask any question that might seem otherwise embarrassing, without fear, has allowed me to acquire both an understanding of the industry and a chance to make small improvements along the way.

My education had taught me the practical skills of business planning, and I was fully prepared to leave my mark on the company with grand ideas of modernization and branding. I discovered that I was not only stepping into a business, with its operational and industry challenges, but I was also inheriting a culture: a rich company history that has engendered a culture of dedication and honesty but at the same time, inflexibility and entrenchment in a “way to do things.” When an entity has been building momentum for so long, the slightest change in direction is difficult to achieve. This is exasperating to an energetic, entrepreneurial thinker eager to chart a new course. It is also something I have grown to regard as the most precious asset in our firm. The invaluable passion for protecting and maintaining something we have all worked to build must be met with enormous respect. I learned that effecting change within the company must strike a constant balance between honoring tradition, maintaining the culture, and shifting toward a new vision.

Ironically, the legacy that I initially found so daunting has become the most comforting part of this journey. I arrived eager to prove myself and my abilities, spent so long focused on combating an impostor complex, and finally found something much greater. Being third generation to a company is not only my journey; it is the story of the past two generations, the people who work for and with Gerson & Gerson, who have become part of our family along the way, and hopefully the generations who come after me. Letting go of my ego and allowing myself to serve the company and the people connected to this legacy is both my greatest challenge and my most powerful motivation.

My love and dedication to Gerson & Gerson are what has helped me to gain credibility within the firm, to push myself to accept this position at a young age, and to be part of the 13 percent of third generation family businesses that succeed. I strongly subscribe to the notion of following your passions as a means for success, as belonging to a family business goes far beyond seeking financial gain. There are endless ways to work toward particular interests within the company; focusing on branding and innovation in small markets is where I have found my satiation for an entrepreneurial and fast-paced environment. Beyond personal interests, it is also the opportunity to work in a place that is worth fighting to protect. Where a business is more than just business, it is family. I will continue to carry on the Gerson legacy, out of necessity, drive, and passion for this eighty-two-year journey.

Millennials like me were raised in a world where we were constantly told, “chart your own course.” But sometimes you don’t get to choose your own path. Sometimes it is chosen for you, for better or for worse, by your name, a circumstance, or a series of events. It is up to you to decide what you want to do with it, and how to grasp what is both an extraordinary opportunity and an extraordinary challenge.

Jessica Gerson is a 2015 graduate of Cornell University, where she earned a B.S. from the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. She is the third generation of her family business, Gerson & Gerson, Inc., which she joined after graduation. Gerson & Gerson, Inc. is a leading design house and manufacturer of children’s clothing and is most known for its brand of girls’ dresses, Bonnie Jean. The company is celebrating its eighty-second year of bringing the joy and beauty of a new dress to girls around the world. Within the company, Jessica focuses on bringing innovation to small markets. She is an advocate for family business, and you can learn about Gerson & Gerson, Inc. at

This excerpt was borrowed with permission from the book 3 Billion Under 30 and its author, Jared Kleinert.

Embracing patience is key to creating an innovation culture

cornell-prof-allan-filipowiczNew executives can lead innovation at family firms by accepting failure as a necessary part of the innovation process, Cornell University innovation expert Allan Filipowicz said at a CKGSB-Cornell University event in New York.

“Innovation is going to be very, very slow,” said Professor Filipowicz, who is the Clinical Professor of Management and Organizations at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell. “You will do something, nothing will happen; you’ll do it again, nothing will happen. And so what happens is we give up, much too soon.”

Companies, he told an audience at the CKGSB Americas learning center, should focus more on process than outcome – no small task. “Process goals are a measure of effort,” Professor Filipowicz said. “We love measuring outcomes. We hate measuring effort.”

Professor Filipowicz’ lecture helped reinforce how family enterprises represent a growing force in the economies of China and other emerging markets. With family-owned businesses expected to represent nearly 40 percent of the world’s large enterprises by 2025, they also come with built-in challenges – developing global leaders for the future of the enterprise and sustaining wealth into the next generation and beyond.

Daniel G. Van Der Vliet, Executive Director of the Smith Family Business Initiative at Cornell, began the presentation by saying that in China and Latin America, it is estimated that 90 percent of businesses are family-owned. In India, 98 percent of businesses have family ownership. In the United States, 70 to 90 percent of businesses are family-owned.

If innovation is important to an emerging leader, then he or she must track daily and weekly how much effort is being put into developing innovation, Professor Filipowicz said. A leader needs to answer these questions: How much time have I spent setting low expectations? How much time have I spent giving people time autonomy? How much time have I spent developing psychological safety, developing a belief in one’s ability to get the job done?

Originally posted in: CKGSB-Cornell Session: Embracing Patience ‘Key’ to Creating an Innovation Culture

The story of Nurse Next Door

The story of Nurse Next Door: Uncovering your values and putting them into practice – a matter of sheer survival!

Having grown their start-up to 1,000 employees, John DeHart (Cornell ’96)  and his co-founder knew their company was doomed if they didn’t make a major shift. They dismissed 40% of their corporate staff and embarked on a journey to identify what their values are. Most importantly, they decided how these values would be implemented in daily operations. Following through was everything. They hire their people on 50% skills and experience, and 50% value fit. The value-interview is done by a different person who can’t be the future supervisor. Today they have 140 offices with 7,000 employees. Keeping seniors out of nursing homes!

Key Lessons:

  • Identify your values and make them intentional
  • Operationalize your values: You don’t want your employees to be cynical about values that are only declared but not lived.
  • Integrity and passion are entry conditions, not core values
  • An intentional culture vs. one by default (direction dictated by circumstances)
  • Once values are clear, decisions are easy (Walt Disney)
  • Everything and everyone that doesn’t fit your values should go! You can’t be everything to everyone. This also means firing customers.
  • Go through all your policies and delete or change those not compliant with your values.

Shared from Stefan Voswinkel (

The Smith Family Business Initiative Turns 1.


It has been a great first year for the Smith Family Business Initiative (SFBI). After the gift from John (MBA ’74) and Dyan Smith was announced in January 2014 to establish the program at the Johnson School, the doors officially opened on September 10, 2014.

Development of the Smith Family Business Initiative in year one has focused in three primary arenas; inreach – our ability to connect and educate students, outreach – our ability to grow the global network of business owners, and scholarship – our ability to create and disseminate new knowledge in the family business space.


Our first major accomplishment was to launch the Johnson Family Business Club. Already with 95 members and four meetings during its first year, the club is poised for 2015- 2016 with the election of four officers and recruitment of future leadership. The club focuses on three primary pillars: networking, education and recruiting. This would not have been accomplished without President Christopher Pletcher and his leadership team. Nice work.

The presence of the SFBI at Cornell has heightened the interest in Johnson for numerous current and prospective students from family enterprise, as well as many alumni. As courses are developed, programs launched and opportunities expanded, we fully expect family business to be a real differentiator for not only the Johnson School but for all of Cornell. Consider only a few of these interactions from year one:

  • A prospective MBA student from Pakistan shared: “This initiative was one of the many reasons I was attracted to Johnson’s MBA program as it not only provides access to learn about other family businesses across cultures and geographies but being housed within Cornell, it serves as a good launch pad to develop a global network.”
  • A recent Cornell alumni who completed the inaugural iLEAD program. Her grandfather, also a Cornell alumni and one of the pioneers of founding the E @ C program, sees herself as a pioneer much the same way her grandfather was and looks forward to future engagement opportunities with the Smith Family Business Initiative.
  • An Executive MBA student working as a non-family executive in a family business and seeking opportunities to learn, participate or contribute.
  • A current student in Dyson, whose grandparents and mother are all Cornell alum, seeking to join the Johnson Family Business Club. His family’s business is a 5th generation insurance business in New York City.
  • A Cornell alum of a 3rd generation family business in NYC, with two children now attending Cornell. He learned of the SFBI through an article in a jewelry industry trade publication – his quote: “This is so long overdue at Cornell and we cannot wait to be involved in any programs or courses you offer.”


The SFBI played a significant role in the campus-wide Entrepreneurship at Cornell Celebration in April. Hosting the opening session – “Entrepreneurship, Family Business and Going Global,” we invited Peter Cuneo, Managing Principal of Cuneo & Company, LLC. He shared his story of turning around Black & Decker and then Marvel Comics, as well as the many connections between entrepreneurship and family enterprise.

This June, in partnership with China’s Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB), we launched the iLEAD program, a pioneering international exchange and leadership program for high-achieving young business leaders from American, Chinese and other international family enterprises. Twenty students, including one Cornell alumni and one current student, became our first cohort.

In partnership with the Family Business and Office School, the SFBI will offer three-day, executive-level programs in governance, M & A, and family business to an extensive network of LATAM family businesses owners. The first program is scheduled for December 2-4, 2015. For 2016, we plan to deliver anywhere from 4 – 6 family business courses for owners, officers and advisors in family enterprise in New York City as well as additional offerings in Miami.

Already, the Smith Family Business Initiative has garnered global attention in the media as well.

  1. The 25 Best Business Schools for Family Businesses
  2. Family Biz 101: Schools That Actually Prepare You for Your Stint in a Family Jewelry Store
  3. B-Schools Take On the Family Business


In April of 2015 the SFBI offered an opportunity for Johnson faculty to submit proposals for research that focused on family business. This effort was to stimulate current faculty to begin to explore areas of family business and enterprise that are tangential to their current areas of expertise. To date, two proposals have been funded and research has commenced on the following:

  1. “Family Matters: A Proposed Research Agenda on Family-Business interactions in Emerging Markets” by Professor Wesley Sine (Johnson)
  2. “Production Efficiency at Family-owned Floricultural Firms: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Ethiopia” by Professors Hyuncheol Bryant Kim (College of Human Ecology) and Hyunseob Kim (Johnson)

What has been so encouraging during the first year have been the many touch points for family business to nearly every facet of Johnson and more importantly Cornell wide; prospective students, current students, Executive MBA students, faculty, alumni, global reach and future programs. As more progress is made to establish connections with other Johnson centers and institutes, faculty members and student programs, the Smith Family Business Initiative will play a significant role in touching Johnson and Cornell students and educating all on the importance of family enterprise, both in the United States and globally.

The synergies between what happens on campus with students, off campus with alumni and business owners, and the continual pursuit of new knowledge in this space will position Cornell and the Johnson School near the front of the pack. As this space is still rapidly red-number-1emerging, the SFBI has the resources necessary as provided by this gift which allows the Smith Family Business Initiative to be innovative, bold and well positioned to set the standard of family business education.

Come see for yourself. We invite you to join the Smith Family Business Initiative on October 8 & 9 as we celebrate “Families in Business across Cornell,” the inugrual gathering of students, alumni, business owners and affiliates to explore the breadth and impact of family enterprise.

Happy 1st birthday!

University Directors Meet to Discuss Ways to Enhance Value to Family-Owned Businesses That They Serve

FBA REptile Gardents 2July 21, 2015 (Keystone, SD):  In the shadows of Mt. Rushmore in Keystone, South Dakota, Executive Directors from universities throughout the United States and Canada converged last month, to discuss how they could better meet the needs of the family businesses that they serve.   For over 20 years, these Directors have met in various locations around North America, with one objective:  to share ideas on how to be of better service to the family-owned businesses that they serve on a day-to-day basis.

Representatives from California, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Wisconsin, and Alberta and Nova Scotia, Canada attended this year’s gathering.

Discussions on workshop and seminar topics, current research in family business, aligning with the university, peer affinity groups, specialty programs, awards, and other aspects of running a family business center at a university were held. Each participant left with more motivation and ideas that would make their respective centers a more valuable resource for family businesses in their regions.

“Every year, I look forward to attending this conference because it is tough to come up with ideas that will benefit our members and keep them engaged in our monthly events,” stated conference host and Director of the Prairie Family Business Association, Beth Adamson, from the University of South Dakota.  “Each time I attend this conference, it is inspiring to meet with my counterparts, and get new, fresh ideas on how to do my job better.  We all leave much more motivated and educated, and so many of the ideas that have been implemented at Family Business Centers around North America are a direct result of this conference, and these people.”

Directors from universities all over the United States and Canada were in attendance this year.   With over 70% of businesses in the world being owned and operated by families, the need for universities to enhance the value that is offered to these family businesses has never been greater.

“Too many family businesses become a story of how things can go wrong when there is not open communication, education, and trust,” stated Doug Box, founder of Box Family Advisors, and a guest speaker at the Alliance Conference.   “To meet with so many educators in family business was inspiring to me, and I encourage family businesses to take advantage of the resources that are available through such prestigious universities around the globe.”   Box, from Dallas, Texas, works with family businesses to assist with their success, today, and into the future.

The Family Business Directors Alliance Conference will be held again in June 2016, in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Johnson at Cornell University and CKGSB Form Unique Partnership as U.S. and China Compete Economically

ITHACA, NEW YORK (February 12, 2015) –  

An Ivy League University MBA program and leading Chinese business school join forces to create an immersion program for family businesses. The Smith Family Business Initiative (SFBI) at Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management and China’s Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB) have formed a partnership that will immerse next-generation leaders from American, Chinese and international family businesses in a unique, cross-cultural, executive education program called iLEAD — Intergenerational Leadership Entrepreneurial Accelerated Development. The program is a landmark collaboration of two of the world’s most respected institutions. It was created to help bridge the business and cultural gaps between the countries, and follows the International Monetary Fund’s October 2014 announcement that China surpassed the U.S. as the number one global economy.

“We are very excited that Cornell and CKGSB are partnering on the design and delivery of iLEAD,” said CKGSB Dean Bing Xiang. “The result will be a powerful combination effectively positioning participants from family businesses and high- net-worth families to network and master wealth over generations. Participants will benefit from the rare opportunity to interact directly with top global wealth creators, CEOs, business leaders, and subject matter experts while creating long-lasting business and networking opportunities with their iLEAD peers.”

“CKGSB has a keen understanding of the business world today, and their global expertise and faculty will make iLEAD the only program of its kind in the world,” said Elizabeth A. Mannix, associate dean for Executive Education and Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Management at Johnson.

iLEAD prepares 20-30 next-generation leaders of primarily U.S. and Chinese family businesses for ever-increasing responsibilities in a complex global business environment. The program begins with 11 days in the U.S. in June and moves to China for another 11 days in July. In both countries, participants will meet with and work alongside senior executives from leading global companies such as Alibaba, Fosun, Lenovo, NYSE, Google, Tiffany & Co., and Brooks Brothers.

“Often faced with the burden of legacy, family enterprises need to be vigilant about constant innovation, be it in the first generation, second generation, or any subsequent generation,” said Daniel Van Der Vliet, founding director of the Smith Family Business Initiative. “Our new program, iLEAD, will help leaders of legacy businesses to understand that enduring, cross-cultural collaboration is necessary to be successful in this shifting global economy.”

For more information visit iLead at Johnson Cornell or iLead at CKGSB, or contact Daniel Van Der Vliet, founding director of the Smith Family Business Initiative, at 607-255-4881 or

About the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management

The Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University is a leader in innovative business education for the connected world. Consistently ranked as one of the top business schools in the world, Johnson offers six MBA programs, spanning North America, Mexico, and China. Its two most recent innovations in MBA education are the Johnson Cornell Tech MBA in New York City, and a dual-degree MBA/FBA with Tsinghua University in Beijing. Johnson is home to the renowned academic journal Administrative Science Quarterly; its 59 full-time, tenure-track faculty members conduct award-winning research and educate some 650 MBA and PhD students each year.

Founded in 2014 from a generous gift from John and Dyan Smith, the Smith Family Business Initiative provides education, networking and research for family business owners, successors and students from across the globe.

About Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB)

Established in Beijing in November 2002 with generous support from the Li Ka Shing Foundation, CKGSB is a private, nonprofit, independent educational institution. The school offers innovative MBA, Finance MBA, Executive MBA, Finance EMBA, DBA and Executive Education programs. CKGSB’s mission is to generate differentiated insights through engaging its world-class faculty who are global authorities in their respective fields, with the goal of developing existing and aspiring business leaders for a new era of global business both in China and beyond.

Over the past 12 years, CKGSB has developed into a prominent business school with over 43 full-time professors who have received over 67 global academic awards and whose research has provided the basis for over 300 case studies of both China-specific and global issues. More than half of the 7,000 CKGSB alumni are at the CEO or chairman level and, collectively, lead one-fifth of China’s most valuable brands. Together, their companies shape over $1 trillion in annual revenue. Last but not least, nine of the 25 individuals voted as the Most Influential Business Leaders of China by China Entrepreneur Magazine 2013 were CKGSB alumni, demonstrating the impact and influence of the institution.  In addition to its main campus in the center of Beijing, it has campuses in Shanghai and Shenzhen and offices in Hong Kong, London and New York. For more information, visit