Smith Family Business Initiative creates connections across Cornell’s ecosystem


Daniel G. Van Der Vliet is the John and Dyan Smith Executive Director of Family Business at Johnson. We caught up with him recently for an update on the Smith Family Business Initiative.

Tell us about the Smith Family Business Initiative (SFBI).

We’ve tried to create a portal for all things family business—for students, for alumni, and for those who are within our network for any of our programs and offerings. Globally, family businesses represent as much as 90 percent of all firms, so it’s a significant slice of the world economy. Members of family businesses often have many opportunities coupled with complex challenges to figure out—whether to return to the business or not, whether to innovate and change or stick with what’s worked for generations.

At SFBI, we connect students who come from family businesses with alumni and business leaders who want to remain engaged with Cornell and see this as a much-needed resource. It’s exciting, because we get to work with businesses from across the economic spectrum, from the corner store and entrepreneurs just getting started, to some significant global players and iconic brands.

2016 Families in Business ConferenceNick Matt, MBA ’73. CEO and Chairman of FX Matt

Johnson just hired Margarita Tsoutsoura, associate professor and the first John and Dyan Smith Professor of Management and Family Business. What impact will this hire have on SFBI and Cornell?

Professor Tsoutsoura comes to us from the Chicago Booth School of Business, and she is a rising scholar in the family business field. Family business is still emerging as a research space, so the body of literature is rapidly being formed. Tsoutsoura brings added capacity for the initiative to increase family business–related curriculum across Cornell, and she is considered a genuine thought leader in this area of study.

Tsoutsoura will help elevate the field and get more family business articles published in top-tier journals. We hope she will also inspire other faculty, here at Cornell, but also in her own network, to engage in top-level family business–related research.

SFBI is expanding its course offerings this year. What information can you share about the new classes?

Professor Tsoutsoura is currently developing two new courses. The first will be an undergraduate course covering the basics of family business—call it a “Family Business 101.”

The second course will be graduate level. Tsoutsoura’s training is in finance, so this course will be more technical in nature, dealing with how money flows in and out of the family and the business. The graduate course will likely appeal to those working in, or potentially with, family businesses. We’re finding that many of our students end up in consulting, investment banking, and other fields where, unbeknownst to them, they will find themselves working with many of these families.

We expect the undergraduate course to be delivered in spring of 2018, and we hope the graduate course will be ready by then as well.

What role does SFBI play within the SC Johnson College of Business?

Having a program like SFBI with academic as well as programmatic capacity, embedded within a university like Cornell that has such great breadth and depth of expertise across many different academic areas, really helps to differentiate not just the College of Business but all of Cornell, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

We are beginning to see students choose Cornell because of the family business program. As SFBI continues to develop and the network and academic offerings grow, it will only help to further differentiate the college.

There are so few schools that embrace family business wholeheartedly. Particularly among our peer schools, very few have comprehensive programs. If Cornell continues in this direction, it bodes well for the future.

What are SFBI’s long-term goals?

In entrepreneurial terms, we’re just getting started. Eventually, SFBI needs to grow into a center, meaning cross-disciplinary, cross-college activity at the undergraduate and graduate levels, with multiple faculty members engaged in research and as practitioners.

That’s going to require additional funding for research and additional staff and faculty lines. Because of the SC Johnson gift, with its challenge component, we’ve already started to see some gifts coming in benefiting family business, and we hope that will continue.

Whether you are a student, a member of a family business, or someone seeking resources to help you work with family businesses, I see Cornell becoming the global resource for family business.

2016 Families in Business Conference
L-R Jessica Gerson, 15, VP, Gerson & Gerson, Marisa Sergi, 15, CEO, Redhead Wines, Pablo Borquez Schwarzbeck (MBA 15), CEO, Produce Pay

How can people connect with SFBI?

There are numerous opportunities for alumni to come back to campus and participate in a conference, be a panelist, or be a supporter. In 2018, there will be more opportunities to connect in New York City as well. Because we’re still young, it’s all about growing the network. I encourage alumni to reach out and get added to our list, since we are actively trying to connect students, alumni, and businesses in the Cornell ecosystem.

The 2017 Families in Business Conference, “The Future of Family Business” will be held October 25–27, 2017, at the Statler Hotel in Ithaca.

The Sweetest Job in Seattle

ico_feature4_quote3As a girl, Andrina Bigelow would walk to her mother’s Parisian-style patisserie — the internationally renowned Fran’s Chocolate’s in the Madison Valley neighborhood of Seattle — after school and help wrap the shop’s signature chocolate gold bars, and in high school, she and her brother worked the cash register of the first retail store. But as an undergraduate studying economics, and later, as an MBA candidate at Johnson, Bigelow had no interest in small-business entrepreneurship; she was most excited about working in brand management for bigger companies — which is exactly what she did, at Mattel, Johnson & Johnson, and T-Mobile.

Even once she, her husband (Mark Eskridge, MBA ’03), and their daughter had moved back to the Seattle area to be closer to family, Bigelow had no thoughts of joining the family business. But then one day in 2006, she was talking to her brother, Dylan, the head chocolatier at Fran’s, about how fast the business was growing. That’s when she discovered there was a need for a leader with pretty much her exact skill set — and realized she really was the perfect person for the job.

“Of course, now, looking back, I can’t believe it ever was even a question.”

A lover of fine foods, wines, and desserts her entire life, Bigelow says that “working for chocolate” is fantastic. Since she took on the role of CEO in 2007, Fran’s Chocolates has more than doubled in size, launched a successful mail-order business website, opened two more retail stores regionally, and moved its entire operations into a former brewery that she and her brother were able to build out to their exact specifications. (Highlights include a temperature-controlled ganache crystallization room and a viewing area that looks into the chocolate kitchen.) It also didn’t hurt business when President Obama and the First Lady professed their love for the company’s signature smoked salted caramels during a Washington State campaign swing in 2008 — to this day, the White House gifts the sweets to special visitors in a box embossed with the presidential seal.

The company’s 33-year success, and the devotion of its loyal and growing clientele, Bigelow says, can be explained by the company’s exacting standards in sourcing its ingredients, her brother’s commitment to constantly improving even its signature products, and the attention to detail and work ethic of the employees in production. Because most of Fran’s employee are first-generation Vietnamese immigrants, the company has developed a strong relationship with this community, and Fran’s has become a big supporter of Neighborhood House, a nonprofit devoted to helping mostly South Asian refugees become self-sustaining members of the community.

As for her future as CEO and the future of the company as a whole, Bigelow says she envisions herself staying on the rest of her career — and expects the company to continue to grow regionally, but at a manageable pace.

“We want to make sure that whatever we do, we can maintain the quality of our products, first and foremost,” she says. “Everything we sell, we want to be really proud of.”

Andrina Bigelow, MBA ’03, is CEO of Fran’s Chocolates, a Seattle-based family business started by her mother, where her brother is head chocolatier. Under her leadership, the company has more than doubled in size, launched a successful mail-order business website, opened two more retail stores regionally, and moved its entire operations.

Johnson Family Business club elects new slate of officers.

The Johnson Family Business Club at Cornell University announced its new officers for 2016 -2017. Joining the leadership team are the following:

  • President: Bryan Wong
  • Treasurer: Ck Chua
  • VP Communications: William Ng
  • VP Event Planning: Serdar Mizrakci
  • VP Cornell Relations: Ben Rashbaum (undergraduate)
  • VP Public Relations: Alex Messados (undergraduate)

Many thanks go to the outgoing board members: George Read, Tim Batty, Farouk Appiedu, Ben Song and President Christopher Pletcher. Under their leadership, the Johnson Family Business Club grew from a fledgling student club into a professional organization with more than 1oo members.

The Johnson Family Business Club serves as a forum for students with an interest in privately held corporations. The club’s foundational pillars are education, recruitment and networking. The club has hosted frequent meetings and numerous campus events and a CWG (career work group) for emerging leaders in family enterprise. Among the most popular events on the schedule are the CEO speaker series. The next event will feature Johnson alumni Dwight Vicks III visiting campus on December 1 to share the story of Vicks Lithograph and Printing, a 97 year old family business in Utica, NY. The event is open to the public.


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!

Entrepreneurship, Family Business and the Global Enterprise


At a business roundtable hosted by Johnson’s Smith Family Business Initiative, Peter Cuneo, managing principal at Cuneo & Company, shared his views on leadership today and family businesses at Entrepreneurship at Cornell Celebration 2015.

By Jay Wrolstad

Successful entrepreneurs are made, not born, with demonstrable leadership attributes that all too often are lacking in people seeking positions of power in business today, Peter Cuneo said in opening the Entrepreneurship at Cornell Celebration 2015 on April 16. His roundtable talk, hosted by Johnson’s Smith Family Business Initiative, was followed by a discussion moderated by Daniel G. Van Der Vliet, executive director of the Smith Family Business Initiative, and including Rhett Weiss, executive director of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute.

Cuneo, a business turnaround specialist and architect behind several high-profile success stories in rescuing firms, including Marvel Entertainment and Remington Products, also touched on the dramatic changes in corporate America since earning his MBA from Harvard 40 years ago, and a new international family business initiative he helped launch.

“Today, there are 1,000 billionaires in the world, some of whom are 25 years old. That’s a far cry from when I got my MBA and entrepreneurs were few and far between,” he said. Big corporations dominated back then, he noted, and operated at a snail’s pace compared to the real-time, 24/7 business activity ushered in by the digital revolution.

There are some positive developments for entrepreneurs from these swift advances in technology, said Cuneo, such as enabling instant communications that essentially shrink the world through Internet-based global conferences and allowing a business to start anywhere, at any time, including a garage or a dorm room. “It’s a very different world; there are great opportunities now, more than ever before,” he said.

Still, there is a downside to this reliance on technology and instant gratification that prevents new business leaders from seizing the moment. “Younger people are glued to their screens — phones, computers; they are locked into online social media, Cuneo said. “There is little face time, which is the best way to communicate, especially when there is conflict, or bad news.”

In fact, he added, many among the new generation of business leaders can’t deal with conflict or failure, or learn from it, because they lack exposure to meaningful misfortune that builds character and a willingness to accept criticism. That, in turn, makes them avoid risk, a critical component of entrepreneurship. “You cannot become a great leader without experiencing great difficulty in life,” Cuneo said.

Most MBAs today don’t know how to lead; they’re smart, but they can’t work effectively in a corporate setting, he said. “They rely on what others tell them defines success rather than focusing on what makes them happy. We have 30-year-olds seeking venture capital who have big dreams of striking it rich and retiring when they are still young, which rarely happens. Dreams are good, but you can’t be delusional about your professional goals.”

Leadership skills are the single most important thing young people can obtain to achieve success, said Cuneo, who maintains that leaders are made by experience and by mentors.

Cuneo left Marvel Entertainment five years ago to form a consulting business with his two sons, and hopes to point future leaders of family enterprises and entrepreneurs in the right direction via iLEAD (Intergenerational Leadership Entrepreneurial Accelerated Development), an  educational program he helped establish that links Johnson with the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in China.

Cuneo describes iLEAD as a foreign exchange effort, creating new opportunities in China and worldwide through networking and collaborative learning. Among the key components, he said, are the transfer of cultural values and maintaining family wealth, particularly in China, where a one-child mandate makes establishing and maintaining family businesses very difficult.

Cuneo has learned a few lessons from his own family business. “You have to keep an open dialog. Working together means being open about both family dynamics and professional dynamics. Be open about family wealth and how that wealth is shared. In my case, our company is experiencing much smoother sailing than five years ago,” Cuneo said. “I am fortunate to have two sons with different skills who want to make their own way in the world and see their family members happy.”

During the moderated discussion following his presentation, Cuneo, Van Der Vliet and Weiss all agreed that problems arising in failing businesses start with failed or failing leadership, and anyone taking a leadership role in a family business must be especially clear about roles and sensitive to the family culture.

hili_PeterCuneo Peter Cuneo_page Photo Apr 16, 10 18 42 AM

Smith Family Business Initiative Comes to Johnson

By Jeff Gordon MBA’15

In January Johnson received a $10 million gift to establish the Smith Family Busi­ness Initiative (SFBI). For many students this large influx of cash passed by without much notice. And that’s for a reason. The term ‘family business’ is often used interchangeably with ‘small business,’ and both can carry an image of a gas station, generational dysfunction and insularity. For many students this is not the path to paying down their mountain of debt.

Dann Van Der Vliet would like to change that. Dann is the Executive Director of the SFBI, and according to him, one of his first tasks is to dispel the negative misper­ceptions around what constitutes a family business. After all, Ford and Wal-Mart are family businesses, and they are some of biggest corporations in the US. They grew that large by innovating and applying the same business practices that the more ‘traditional’ public companies have done.

The SFBI differs from a ‘center’ in that it does not have coursework and it does not produce its own research. Dann has aspirations for both, and they may be out in the Spring of 2015, but for now his job is mainly to build a network of people in­terested in family enterprises. The SFBI’s principal goal is to create a common place where people involved in family business­es can come together, network and seek solutions to the unique challenges these types of businesses face. What doyou do when your dad dies, if he’s also the CEO and main shareholder? How do you pass on the business? Or deal with the family infighting? Or create new ideas halfway through the third generation? Eventually, Dann suggests, there may be a Family Business Immersion or concentration. This emphasis on family businesses is some­thing that will help to differentiate Cornell. There are very few similar programs of this scope in any business school, and together with the resurrected Family Busi­ness Club, Dann believes Johnson has something that appeals to a broader range of potential students. However the MBA student at Sage is not the main focus of the SFBI. The Initiative’s offerings and the Family Business Club are open to students across Cornell, and 5 of the Club’s 40 current members are undergrads. In the near term the SFBI is looking overseas for its revenue and growth. In tandem with Johnson’s Executive Education Program there will be non-degree program offer­ings for high-income students from China and Latin America. Attracting international students is a byproduct of the SFBI, and in the future Dann does not expect the SFBI’s growth to be limited to any one part of Johnson.

For the average residential MBA stu­dent, the SFBI and the Family Business Club offer a connection to a different type of business. Many Johnson students have a business in their family, and though they may not have any immediate plans to return, ten years on they may want to go back. By becoming involved with the SFBI and the Family Business Club now these students can be better equipped to one day make that transition.

Originally published in the Cornell Business Journal, December 11, 2014