Cornell’s 2023 Families in Business Conference Ignites Thought Leadership
By Clarence B. Rivette, MBA ’25 (Executive MBA Metro NY)
The Smith Family Business Initiative at Cornell University’s Cornell SC Johnson College of Business held its ninth annual Families in Business Conference, themed “People, Profit, and Purpose,” October 26-27. The conference showcased thought leadership from faculty and students, practical insights from distinguished alumni, and contemporary policy issues concerning family business on a regional and global scale. The two-day event, held at the Statler Hotel on Cornell’s Ithaca campus, provided a diverse forum for discourse on the key issues being addressed in family businesses today and featured panels on impact and family office investment, research on family business structures in international contexts, governance and succession planning, public policy initiatives, and philanthropic efforts.
Family business research and thought leadership: Day one
The conference began with welcoming remarks by Dann Van Der Vliet, the John and Dyan Smith Executive Directive of Family Business at Cornell, who highlighted the importance of research and collaboration and thanked John and Dyan Smith for their generous support of Cornell’s Smith Family Business Initiative.
The subsequent panels were led by distinguished alumni who shared experiences from their careers, including how they navigated challenges and highlighting the successes of running family businesses. Among the panelists were Kevin McGovern ‘70 and his son, Jarrett McGovern ‘04, who provided insight on entrepreneurship in the family business context; Wes Sine, PhD ’01, John and Dyan Smith Professor of Management and Family Business, and Grady Raines, a PhD candidate at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, who delivered a presentation on current research in the field of family business; and Pat Soldano, president of Family Enterprise USA, who spoke about family businesses’ contribution to the U.S. economy and the advocacy of the Family Business Caucus.
The first day of the Family Business Conference concluded with a stellar welcome reception showcasing diverse family-owned or operated beverages and food, some local to Ithaca and some sold nationally, including Junior’s Cheesecakes, L’uva Bella Winery, Red Jacket Orchards, Rise Brewing, Salamida, Sheldrake Point Winery, Spekld, Teddie Peanut Butter, Via’s Cookies, and more. The reception was followed by an engaging dinner panel conversation facilitated by Matthew Unger, MBA ’23, founder of Focus Asset Management, and featuring four alumni who shared their stories and experience working in their respective family businesses, covering a range of industries. Panelists included Carolina Hernandez, MBA ’20, founder of Colorchain; Marisa Sergi-Shumann ’15, CEO and co-owner of L’uva Bella Winery; Sofia Trifonopoulou, MMH ’23, of Tryfon Leisure SA; and Parth Vedawala, MBA’19, vice president of Kush Gold & Jewel.
The future of family businesses: Policy and continuity
Day two of the conference focused on the unique challenges and opportunities in operating a generational family business. John Smith, MBA ’74, chairman of Hillcrest Holdings, delivered the keynote speech about advocacy and public policy thought leadership to support the future of family enterprises. His keynote was complemented by nuanced insight on issues related to ownership succession, generational collaboration, private equity, and exit avenues from Kevin Juin, MBA ’23, principal at JC Capital Partners; Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, head of policy at Chase Travel; and John Zaruka ’73, founder of Wedgewood Weddings.
Keeping true to Cornell University’s dedication to service and the greater good, the second day also featured a panel on philanthropic efforts through the lens of family offices and foundations. The panel session was facilitated by Angela Mwanza, MBA ’00, managing director and private advisor at Rockefeller Global Family Office, and included real-world applications of philanthropy from Zach Bubolo, MBA ’20, director of operations at the Watson Foundation, and Emma Gergen, principal at Carlson Private Capital Partners.
The conference concluded with a forward-looking note focused on the hard conversations surrounding resiliency in estate planning for family businesses and best practices for ensuring continuity of generational family-owned businesses. It was led by Brian Balduzzi, MBA ’18, who was joined by panelists Alisa Cowen ’76, architect and planner at AST Cowen Design Group, and Brett Tillou, DVM ’04, Tillou Veterinary Hospital.
Conclusion: Key takeaways and the importance of family business
Throughout the two-day event, speakers and panelists presented conference attendees with an enormous amount of practical advice and insight into emerging academic research and public policies. The most rewarding part of the conference, from a personal standpoint, was speakers’ transparency in describing the challenges they faced while working in or joining a family business and how they navigated personality issues, organizational management and governance issues, and succession plans to ensure their firms’ continued success for the next generation. These educational and reaffirming first-hand anecdotes showcased the unique difficulties and opportunities in running a family business and provided great practical tips for moving forward.
It was also inspiring to hear the stories of those who had returned to their family business after pursuing another career, pivoting back after eschewing the family business in the early stages of their professional career. Often, the experiences and skills that they picked up in other industries and positions—from finance and law to jewelry and healthcare—served to strengthen the family business model and allowed the business to attain new and varied financial strategies and leadership style, highlighting the fact that there is no conventional track to joining or running a family business.
Another key takeaway was the importance of multigenerational businesses to the U.S. economy and the need to research, collaborate, and facilitate dialogue on how to best support and grow family businesses. Multigenerational family-owned businesses contribute $7.7 trillion annually to the U.S. gross domestic product and account for approximately 83.3 million jobs, representing approximately 59 percent of the country’s private sector workforce in a diverse range of industries, according to a Family Enterprise USA report. It is therefore important that we persist in our discussions, delving deeper into the significance of family enterprises and fostering a robust dialogue around their essential role in various sectors.
About Clarence B. Rivette, MBA ’25 (Executive MBA Metro NY)
Clarence B. Rivette is a consultant, attorney, researcher, writer, and musician based in New York City who specializes in litigation consulting and alternative investments. Enrolled as a student in the Executive MBA Metro NY program at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, he is an Emerging Markets Institute Fellow. He holds a BA in journalism and ethnomusicology from the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University and a JD from Tulane University School of Law, where he attained a certificate in international and comparative law. He is currently a consultant supporting the Wirt-Rivette Group and serves as an IP Fellow at the Tulane Center for IP, Media, and Culture.