To join or not to join?
Alumni who grew up with the prospect of building careers in a family business shared their decisions and stories at the Families in Business conference.
by Jim Catalano
Three 2015 Cornell graduates talked about their decisions to join their family businesses — or not — as participants in the “CEOs Under 30” panel at the 2016 Families in Business Conference, held Oct. 21 at the Statler Hotel and hosted by the Smith Family Business Initiative at Cornell.
Moderated by Steven Gal ’90, senior lecturer of management at Johnson, the panel included Pablo Borquez, MBA ’15, founder of ProducePay, an online platform for produce farmers; Marisa Sergi ’15, founder of RedHead Wine, a wine label based in Ohio; and Jessica Gerson ’15 (pictured above), vice president of innovation at Gerson & Gerson, a family-owned business founded in 1935 known for its Bonnie Jean line of children’s party dresses.
Gerson, who earned a BS from the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, was a freshman studying premed when her father told her he had an offer and was considering selling the company. The thought of losing the family business spurred her to decide that she was up for the challenge of joining the company and eventually running it. “But talking it through that one day was a lot sooner than I expected,” she noted.
Pablo Borquez, MBA '15
Borquez fully intended to enter the family produce farming business, which goes back four generations in Mexico. But he changed his course after enrolling in Johnson’s Two-Year MBA program.
“I was taking classes in financial institutions and started thinking about the problems facing the produce farmers, and realized that there were ways to solve them,” Borquez said, adding that he took advantage of everything Cornell had to offer — from mentorships and meeting venture capitalists to working with the school’s USDA liaison — to acquire the skills he needed. His startup,
, offers unprecedented liquidity to fresh-produce farmers, distributors, shippers, and marketers by connecting them with new ways to access cash flow and increase sales. “I believe you have one or two truly inspirational ideas in your life, and you either catch them or you don’t,” he added.
Marisa Sergi '15
A third-generation winemaker, Sergi drew up the plans for RedHead Wine as a capstone project in Cornell’s Viticulture and Enology program. Noting that she had been bullied for her red hair while in high school, she said: “I thought it would be neat to design a label embracing my insecurities but also making a fun, attractive product.”
All three panelists noted that having a family business they could go into reduced the pressure of the recruiting process. They also emphasized the abundance of resources available to budding entrepreneurs at Cornell.
“Ask the questions you’re afraid to ask,” Sergi said to those considering joining a family business and aspiring entrepreneurs in the audience. “Everyone is afraid of rejection, but my father taught me: ‘The answer is always no if you don’t ask.’ That sounds simple … so why not take that chance?”
After the panel, Gerson noted that the entrepreneurship classes she took at Dyson with Professor Deborah Streeter were invaluable in helping her to create business plans at Gerson & Gerson.
“She [Professor Streeter] really taught you to break down your ideas and present them in a coherent manner,” Gerson said. “And while that hasn’t necessarily prepared me emotionally to run a company, it’s been helpful to have those technical skills in your back pocket, which helps you to build credibility.”