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Women leading the way in family enterprises

How women leaders of family enterprises are defying stereotypes and forging their own paths

Within family enterprises the world over, women leaders are breaking new ground every day, guiding their companies as they seek to fulfill their growth ambitions and their broader purpose in the communities they serve.

Celebrating women family enterprise leaders

Each year on International Women’s Day we take time to reflect on—and celebrate—the achievements of women, both inside and outside of Deloitte. But acknowledging women leaders’ achievements and contributions should not be relegated to a single day—it should be a year-round endeavour, as should the push to create more gender equality in the workplace and in society. We believe that even seemingly small changes can lead to seismic shifts over time, a phenomenon known as “the butterfly effect.”

Inspired by that idea and ambition, Deloitte Private is launching a series profiling some of the most influential women running family enterprises today. Such organisations are uniquely positioned to create opportunities for women leaders—and see them flourish. Many of the CEOs running family firms today are the daughters and granddaughters of their companies’ founders, while others are first-generation entrepreneurs who broke new ground and created a new legacy for their families.

To better understand the challenges and opportunities today’s women leaders face, we first sat down with the co-authors of Finding Her Voice & Creating a Legacy, which takes an in-depth look at pioneering women leading wealthy families. Authors Amy Hart Clyne and Dennis Jaffe interviewed 34 women to learn how their shared experiences affected their success and how they’re using their influence to redefine success and reshape leadership models.

From there, we feature a group of women leaders representing family enterprises around the world. These first-person accounts shine a light not only on the ways in which women leaders approach and break down barriers, but also the enterprising ways they have succeeded in their own right.

Our hope is that the insights they share will resonate and trigger bigger and broader change. This International Women’s Day, we invite you to join or advance the conversation. Think about what you can do to help break the bias and BeTheButterfly.

Meet the women family enterprise leaders

What future leaders can learn from today’s women leaders of family enterprises

On this International Women’s Day, we’re recognising powerful women leaders who have broken down barriers and challenged the status quo to help create a more equitable world.

To begin, we sat down with Amy Hart Clyne and Dennis Jaffe, authors of Finding Her Voice and Creating a Legacy, to discuss the ways in which women leaders of family enterprises are rewriting the script and redefining success—for themselves as well as future generations of leaders.

Q: Your book is a collection of intimate conversations with women leaders of family enterprises. Why did you choose to focus on this group?

Amy Hart Clyne: I’ve worked with women of wealth for many years. And one of the things that I observed is that, on the one hand, these women are very curious and interested and engaged, but on the other hand, they’re reticent to contribute, to share ideas and thoughts and concerns. In short, I heard their silence. And that bothered me, because I’ve seen how instrumental the matriarch can be not only in keeping the business going, but also in creating and preserving a sustainable, multi-generational legacy.

Dennis Jaffe: I also felt there was a dearth of research about women leaders in this space. There’s plenty of data about passive women who are not stepping up to leadership. But what about the women who are? What are they doing differently? I was excited to learn more about that.

Q: For a long time, women were expected to fall in line with the models created by their male predecessors. But as these women stepped into larger leadership roles, did they find themselves challenging those models, whether directly or indirectly?

Amy: What we found was that a lot of these women eschewed the power structure that often exists. They weren’t looking for power over people. They effected change and managed situations through influence rather than domination. They weren’t trying to just get people to acquiesce, it was much more about trying to work alongside people.

Dennis: And I think that’s something we’re starting to see from modern leaders in general. We’re moving away from the model of domineering patriarchs or bosses. There’s much more emphasis on collaboration.

Q: Challenging the status quo generally creates a lot of friction. What kinds of barriers did these women encounter as they endeavored to do things their own way?

Amy: Many feel they had to jump higher hurdles than their male counterparts. They had to deal with acrimony and with being underestimated. There was this sense that, because they were women, the family should have different, sometimes lower, expectations. And there was some resentment in that, as you can imagine.

So these women had to fight harder to prove themselves. They had to be resourceful. And to do that, they had to have an inner confidence, because it can be really difficult to break down some of those older stereotypes.

Dennis: These women are not passive people. They had to stand up for themselves. They had to speak up when they felt that something wasn’t right. They’re assertive. And that challenges the old power dynamics where only men were allowed to be assertive.

Q: For all the challenges they faced, these women ultimately succeeded. Is there something unique about family enterprises that makes them more conducive to a new leadership model?

Dennis: I think a lot of family enterprises are on the cutting edge in terms of their approach to management, collaboration, things like that, because their businesses are often built on a foundation of shared purpose and social commitment. And so it doesn’t matter if you’re a son or a daughter, it matters about upholding those values.

Q: You mentioned that these women have been instrumental in creating a legacy for their families. What does that legacy look like to them?

Amy: A lot of the women we spoke with didn’t like the word “legacy” because it puts the focus on them and they feel like it’s not about them. It’s about sharing their stories so the next generation can benefit. It’s about ensuring that some of the challenges they faced aren’t a problem for their kids. And it’s not just about breaking down barriers for their daughters, because the patriarchal system of dominance isn’t great for anyone.

Dennis: Exactly. None of them said, “I’m doing this for my daughters.” They said, “I’m doing this for my kids.” Because the way they see it, everybody in the family has an equal chance—everybody can go into the business. Whereas in a lot of earlier generations, there was a clear policy that only men could enter the business.

Q: Why do you think it’s important to tell these women’s stories?

Amy: Because we know that when women succeed, everyone succeeds. So this is really the start of a larger conversation about how we share these lessons with future generations. So many of the women we spoke with said to us, “I’m sharing my thoughts and my experiences and the things I learned, not for me, but so that you can go do something with it.” And I hope that by celebrating these women, we can inspire the next generation of leaders. I want this to be the start of the conversation, not the end.

How F/LIST’s List-Nagl learned the ropes and took her family’s business to new heights

Katharina List-Nagl is CEO of F/LIST, a family-owned firm founded by her grandfather in 1950. The Austrian company designs, builds, and outfits the interiors of airplanes, yachts, and residential projects. Since List-Nagl joined the company in 2004, the company’s revenue has grown more than tenfold. Today, F/LIST employs more than 900 staff from more than 30 countries, and eight subsidiaries operating in Europe, Middle East and North and South America. It was recently recognised by Deloitte as one of Austria’s inaugural Best Managed Companies. We sat down with List-Nagl to talk about her expansive hands-on training in the business, the influence of her father on her leadership style, and what sets her apart as a third-generation female leader.

Q: How did you get your start at F/LIST?

I didn’t join the company until 2004 but you could say it was an integral part of my upbringing. As long as I can remember, it was the topic of conversation around the breakfast table, every day. When I was a child, my father would take me with him on buying trips and to visit construction sites and shipyards. I always had to write a summary of what I saw and what I experienced. After my studies, I went to Spain to start my career in marketing and I did not plan to come back so early, but the company at the time was in a crisis situation. My father asked me to come home and support him with marketing and sales material, because we needed projects and we needed work. So I formally joined the company in 2004.

Q: What roles were you involved with before becoming CEO? How did you position yourself to succeed your father?

I rotated jobs throughout the entire company. I started in marketing and then moved over to HR because our aviation business was just starting up and we needed to hire people and onboard them. I did pretty much everything at some point. I checked invoices. I did budgeting and controlling. I joined the executive board in 2009. I didn’t have the role of CEO at that point, and as I experienced later, it is a huge difference being part of the team versus actually being in charge.

Q: So how did you prepare for that? And balance the needs of your growing family at the same time?

When I gave birth to two daughters, in 2011 and 2013, I had to figure out for myself whether I really wanted to take over, and how I could manage that with two little girls at home. I wanted to help secure the future of the company. During that time, I started working with an external leadership coach. It was very, very important for me from the beginning not to be seen as the daughter. I wanted to deserve the role of CEO and be accepted by the team. I think my broad experience within the company helped a great deal with that, but the leadership coaching was also important. My father was right alongside me, as part of a takeover process. We both worked very hard on ourselves. It couldn’t have gone any better, to be honest.

Q: What leadership traits do you think you inherited from your father? How does your leadership style differ from his?

There are several traits that we have absolutely have in common. For one, we don’t compromise on our values. We both have a huge appreciation for what is done on the shop floor and regularly interact with our employees there. And we both also follow our gut feeling as leaders. We also have huge differences in our leadership styles because he was the pioneer. He started out as a carpenter craftsman, and I would never dare to compare myself to him in terms of experience because I’m still learning every day. But now that the company has grown as much as it has, it takes different skills to meet its demands.

Q: Did you ever feel like you were operating in his shadow or like you had to work harder to be taken seriously in your role?

My big advantage going in was that I was his daughter, so I have never been compared to him as a son would. I have the freedom to make my own way because of that. But I still continue to benefit from his leadership, as he remains on our supervisory board. We are very honest with each other and appreciate each other quite a lot. There is no ego in the room when we work together, which I think tends to get in between fathers and sons.

Q: It sounds like it was pretty smooth sailing in the leadership transition from father to daughter. Did you have to overcome any obstacles as a woman in your industry?

The industries we serve are very male dominated, so it’s harder for a woman to be taken seriously. But I think we benefited from the beginning because we had such strong, trusting relationships with our business partners. If there was something I didn’t know, I would take my craftsmen with me. We always employ a team approach, and it’s a team that has worked together for many, many years. Also, my father doesn’t speak English and about 75 percent of our customers do, especially in aviation. So I was an active participant in those conversations very early. I went from serving the coffee to conducting the meetings. So it was no big deal when I actually took over.

Q: Given your experience, do you think we’re seeing progress in terms of breaking down gender biases and bringing more women leader perspectives into the limelight?

I don’t think we’ve made enough progress. It still feels like some women just get leadership roles for compliance reasons and many more are deserving. I don’t see myself as a feminist or anything like that, but I think a mixture between male and female leaders is actually the best scenario to have. Because I think females are better in communication, in social competence, even in strategy, while men are more focussed and better in terms of executing. This is why our management team is comprised of two women and three men, which works for us.

Q: Are there any lessons or advice you would like to impart on rising women leaders at other family enterprises?

I would tell them to believe in themselves and to find their own way. Don’t duplicate and copy someone else along the way. And have courage. Just a couple of weeks ago, a young female leader I know called me because she is pregnant and was considering whether she should step down from her CEO role until the child is older. I told her to forget that, that she would likely never have the chance to come back. There is always a way to balance everything.

Q: Do you think your own daughters will follow in your footsteps?

I don’t want to push them in that direction. Of course, everybody would be happy to see that. But they need to find their own way. It has to be authentic. That said, my oldest daughter just changed schools and the school director asked if our company sold to airplanes and ships. She corrected him and told him we sell to business jets and luxury yachts. So, I guess we’ll see!

Pham Thi Thanh Thao finds success by putting people first at family’s Pham Nguyen Confectionery

Pham Thi Thanh Thao is COO of Pham Nguyen Confectionery, Vietnam’s leading manufacturer of soft cakes, biscuits, chocolates, and crackers. The company was founded in 1990 by Thao’s mother and has since become one of Southeast Asia’s leading snack food manufacturers. Today, the company employs more than 1,000 and distributes its tasty treats to more than 15 countries. We sat down with Thao to talk about the pride she feels in helping grow her family’s business, her values as a leader, and her advice for current and future women leaders.

Q: Your mother founded Pham Nguyen Confectionery in 1990 and your father joined in 2000. What was it like growing up around the business?

My mother started the business while she was pregnant with my sister and had children at home. I love telling her story because it shows you how strong she is. To be able to handle the business, the children, and the pregnancy at the same time, it’s truly impressive.

Our home was basically business headquarters. I would answer the phone and take orders, and I knew when the business was doing well or struggling. It was very fun to be part of a family that ran a business together, and it helped me better understand and connect with my parents.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your history with the company? Where did you start? How did you prepare for your current roles?

I joined the company 11 years ago after returning from university in the U.S., where I studied chemistry. I love data. I love numbers. So, not surprisingly, I gravitated towards research and development.

From there, I rotated into a new department each year, where I was tasked with understanding everything I could about the business from the manager’s perspective, as well as the employee’s. But my favorite part was moving into sales and getting to meet the customer. To be able to see what your product can provide, to visit each individual shop is a very encouraging experience. It allowed me to see how our business was making a difference in people’s lives.

Q: You mentioned that you studied in the U.S. before returning to Vietnam to help run the family business. Did you always know you would be part of the company one day?

From the beginning, I always loved the business. I’m very proud of what my family has built. And watching my parents work hard to build this company, it made me want to do my part to help it continue to grow and prosper.

Q: What did you learn from your parents that you’ve incorporated into your own style of leadership? How do your styles differ?

The most important thing I learned from both of them, the thing I witnessed in how they ran the business, was that they really cared about people. They have always made it their mission to get to know people, to really try to make every employee feel like part of the family. For them, taking care of employees is a way of taking care of the business. And taking care of the business is a way of taking care of the family. So that’s something I’ve really taken to heart.

I was also fortunate to have a mother who is a founder of a business, which taught me that you can be a leader without losing any part of what makes you a woman. She’s still the most caring person that you’ll meet. She didn’t try to make herself less feminine to lead.

Q: Your website says that women represent 70 percent of your management team. Why is that important to you? How does that affect how your company operates?

It’s funny, because that’s just something that happened naturally. We didn’t have a quota or anything. For us, the most important thing is to hire the right person for the role. And because of our company values, and of our highly technical manufacturing business, that means we hire managers who can be both people-oriented and very good with details.

Q: Who do you envision taking over the business when you’re ready to retire? What are you doing to prepare and evaluate them as future leaders?

I would love for this company to continue to be a family business for a long time. My boys, ages 9 and 10, are already learning from our family conversation, because we see the company as part of our family life. We don’t bring the stress of it to the table yet, but we bring the excitement. We get their opinions on new products and we let them have a say.

But they’ll have to put in the same work as everyone else. They’ll have to demonstrate their competency and work through challenges. They’ll have to embody our values and prove that they’re ready. Period. And after that, if they succeed, they’ll be able to move on to a management role.

Q: What advice would you give to other aspiring women leaders?

Women are so strong and so capable. In my experience, they’re the most responsible, data-driven, technologically savvy people at our company. But the one thing that’s holding them back, that’s hindering their success, is that they don’t have enough confidence in themselves.

Women need to find their voices and to be willing to broadcast their successes. And also to have more confidence in their decisions. I’ve found that women often don’t see themselves as leaders even when they are leaders. They’re seen as too soft or sensitive. But I don’t see it that way. I think that’s a strength. And I think that if women can trust themselves to be leaders, they’ll become leaders.

Q: Deloitte started a campaign around International Women’s Day called #BetheButterfly, in which we encourage women leaders to think about ways that small changes could yield wider changes. What sorts of small actions can today’s women leaders take to help make lasting change for future generations of women leaders?

Share your story. Be willing to step into the spotlight, to say yes to the interview, to do the PR. Because you never know how many women could be inspired by your story.

And be willing to teach others. I think women leaders have so much they could share, so many lessons to pass on. Especially in the corporate world, which is still very much dominated by men. Women need to help each other succeed. I think that’s the most important thing.

How Gerrie Electric CEOs Elaine and Heather Gerrie proved their mettle in a male-dominated industry

Elaine and Heather Gerrie are Co-CEOs and Co-presidents of Gerrie Electric, one of Canada’s largest independent electrical distributors and a third-generation family-owned business. Started in 1957 by their father, Ken, today Gerrie Electric employs more than 400 people and boasts more than $200 million in annual sales. We sat down with Elaine and Heather to discuss what it’s like to lead the company together and why we need to encourage more women to take leadership roles.

Q: Your father started Gerrie Electric in 1957. What was it like growing up around the business? What was he like as a leader?

Heather: When we were out of school for summer, our mother certainly didn’t want us hanging around at home, so she would send us out on the road with Dad to call on his customers. And that was where I found my desire to carry on his business. It gave us insight into what he did, and for him it was all about relationships. There were lots of companies his customers could be doing business with, but they went with him because he was so kind, determined, and had integrity. He made a point of talking to every single person in a room, to make everybody feel seen and equally treated. He earned his reputation as a very honorable man, and that’s something Elaine and I have really taken to heart in our own leadership.

Q: Your father said he always hoped that you two would take over the business. Did it feel like a path you were expected to take, or was it something that happened naturally?

Heather: I knew from a young age—maybe by the time I was 10 years old—that I wanted to work in the business. I loved what my father did. I loved watching him with his customers. I remember telling my grandparents that I wanted it to be called Gerrie & Daughter. And that was unheard of back then because there were absolutely no women in this business. So that was my plan, and Dad would have let me join the business right after high school, but my mother said, “No, no, you girls must get a good education first.”

Elaine: That’s right. Our mother went to university, which was not very common in her era. She was extremely bright and very driven. And she wanted to make sure that Heather and I were ready for the future and that we knew there wasn’t anything we couldn’t do, that there were no barriers for us, because that wasn’t the case for her. She really wanted to be a doctor, but my grandfather nixed that idea because girls didn’t do that sort of thing back then. And so she really wanted us to be able to follow our passions, whatever they were.

Q: You each joined the company at different times, but what did your career paths look like? Where did you start?

Heather: Dad wanted us to find our own paths. So for me, I found my path in outside sales because that’s what I watched Dad do and what I loved. After that I transitioned into corporate sales, in which I called on a specific account to develop and grow it into Gerrie’s largest account at the time. And I always had a real affinity for human resources, for interviewing and hiring right. So we did a lot of different roles within the company, and that really helped us identify our interests and let us find our own place rather than being told what to do.

Elaine: We grew up in the business really doing anything that needed to be done. But when I left university, I went into our newly formed automation group, which was very transformational back in 1980. After six years in that very technical division, I decided I needed to understand the electrical side of the business a bit more, so I moved into corporate quotations and later into operations.

Q: How did your joint approach to leadership take shape?

Elaine: The wonderful thing about Heather and me is that we’re completely different in terms of personalities and interests. Heather is great at the people side and very strong in vendor relations, whereas my strengths are in operations and with the customers. So we work really beautifully together because we have distinct roles and passions, and we can leverage each other as needed. We’re very lucky to have each other.

Q: You both joined the executive leadership team in 1988. Did you experience any challenges with the management team accepting you?

Heather: One of the executives actually said, “I’ll never work for Heather.” But he ended up working alongside Elaine and me for years! He didn’t have issues with us, it was just that the idea of women—especially young women—in leadership positions was unheard of. But Dad was very strong-minded and didn’t see any reason why Elaine and I couldn’t become leaders. He saw how our mom was held back, and he wasn’t going to hold his daughters back. So that gave us a leg up. I also think, because our dad was so respected, we probably were treated more fairly than some other women in the industry.

Elaine: Also, because we grew up in the business, and we deeply understood the business, it didn’t take long before people realised we weren’t just catapulted into leadership. We earned our positions. People may have come in with a bias, but once we started engaging with them and demonstrating our knowledge, that all faded away.

Q: What advice would you give to women who want to pursue leadership roles, whether in a family business or elsewhere?

Heather: It’s so important to build a network of diverse people who can offer support at different times and in a variety of different ways. Elaine and I were very fortunate to join our industry association early on, and those mentors brought us into the fold and helped us understand a broader scope of the business—not just Gerrie Electric, but the entire trajectory of electrification and power, of what was possible.

Elaine: I’d also add that, especially in our industry, women are still excluded from a lot. So having a network that can bring you into things you might otherwise be excluded from, that’s a huge advantage.

Q: Deloitte started a campaign around International Women’s Day called #BetheButterfly, in which we encourage women leaders to think about ways that small changes could yield wider changes. What sorts of small actions can today’s women leaders take to help make lasting change for future generations of women leaders?

Heather: We need to encourage women to take new and bigger roles. Especially after the pandemic, when so many women were forced to step down or reduce their workloads to keep the home running. It was a setback for so many of them. As leaders, we need to be watching for women who have the potential to succeed and to approach them with new opportunities.

Elaine: For me, something as simple as making introductions at an event or function can be so helpful, too. Especially in our male-dominated industry, it’s very hard for a woman to just walk up to a group of men and introduce herself or join the conversation. So being willing to take another woman under your wing and help bridge those relationships, that’s something all of us need to do.

Anna Ball is sowing the seeds for a fourth generation of family leadership at Ball Horticultural

Anna Ball is CEO and Chairman of Ball Horticultural, a Chicago-based global leader in ornamental horticulture. The family business, started by her grandfather in 1905, designs, produces, and distributes a wide variety of flowers, vegetables, and other plants to nurseries across 21 countries and six continents. We sat down with Anna to talk about what it’s been like to be the company’s first woman leader and what she is doing to prepare her daughter, Susannah, to propel the family business into its fourth generation.

Q: Your grandfather started the business as a cut-flower grower for the Chicago market. Today the company is a global powerhouse with about 4,000 employees. Given that so many family businesses fail to make it past the second generation, what’s your secret sauce?

I’ve thought a lot about this and I think a lot of it was just luck. If you think about the last 50 or 100 years, and the economic prosperity that’s really developed across the whole world, along with the declining poverty rate, we’ve succeeded like so many other companies by just existing at this time and selling to a burgeoning middle class. Other than that, I think it’s just hard work and staying humble. Big egos tend to get companies off track. We keep our heads down and focus on having steady growth. We reinvest every penny we make back into the company. It’s important for our employees to see that.

Q: Were you always destined to take over the business one day?

It actually wasn’t in the cards at all when I was younger because women just didn’t go into business like that. When I was 28, I was out of a job and needed work, and then I really got interested in the business. I was kind of shocked that I liked it. My dad kind of became enlightened after a while in realising that I could contribute meaningfully. He was a product of his generation and I needed to show him I could work my way up, which I did. I also learned a lot from him. I still think about him all the time.

Q: What kinds of jobs did you hold at the company before taking over the reins, and how did that experience pave the way for you?

I packeted seeds and learned all about the basics of seeds and serving customers. It wasn’t management—it was just doing the work. Later, I did a little marketing and then customer service. And then I became a buyer and later a department manager. Then I started running one of the companies. That experience really helped me earn the respect of the employees because I had held the jobs that they were doing

Q: You took over as CEO in 1995. Was there a formal process for managing your leadership succession?

Yes. I think one thing that’s been unusual about our company is that we’ve had a formal fiduciary board since the 1940s. My father didn’t want us to become a public company, but he felt that public companies have an advantage in that they have the discipline of the market. He knew that we needed to create our own discipline in some other way. He decided the best way to achieve that discipline would be with a formal board, with outside members that aren’t from our industry. So that’s what we’ve always had. They encouraged me at the time to get an MBA so I would have more knowledge and credibility. They continue to put a lot of pressure on me and the rest of the managers to have really strong succession plans.

Q: I read in a previous interview you gave that you felt being in a family business kind of insulated you from the challenges that rising women leaders face elsewhere. What did you mean by that?

I think the fact that you’re an owner trumps the fact of your gender. Not all the time, but sometimes. I traveled a lot in Asia in the 1980s because I helped build up our Asian businesses. I noticed at the time that there were basically no women in management in the region. And so I was a real anomaly. But they still treated me with a lot of respect and I realised it was because I was a business owner.

Q: What about today? Do you think women leaders are being perceived on more equitable terms, whether or not they own the businesses they represent?

Oh sure. It’s night and day. I tend to look at the trends and to me they are so positive. The opportunities that women have now are much broader than they used to be. I know there are still issues, but I’ve always had this philosophy about gender bias that I’m just going to ignore it and do the best job that I can. I’ve always thought that, if you’re resentful about the way you’re being treated, or if you’re sort of out looking for bias all the time, then you’re filling your mind up with negative stuff and you don’t have the energy to do the positive stuff.

Q: Did you notice, on your way up to the top, any differences in the way you were treated because you were a woman?

I did notice differences but I tried to see them as advantages to being a woman. Sometimes back in the early days, I was the only woman in the room. I noticed that, because of that, the men sometimes paid more attention when I spoke because I was automatically different. And I like to think that I brought a different viewpoint to the table. I think a big reason why women have enjoyed so much success in recent years in assuming leadership positions is that people finally listened to them and realised how much their contributions enriched the conversation.

Q: How are you preparing your daughter, Susannah, to continue the family’s legacy? How has her career development been different than yours?

She had an advantage that I didn’t growing up because I just took her everywhere. To me, the business and my personal life are totally enmeshed. Whereas, when I was growing up, it was very separate. I’m teaching her every day just by putting her in a position to observe and learn what to do and what not to do, because I’m not perfect, obviously, which she lets me know all the time [laughing].

Q: Deloitte started a campaign around International Women’s Day called #BetheButterfly, in which we encourage women leaders to think about ways that small changes could yield broader changes. What sorts of small actions can today’s women leaders take to help make lasting change for future generations of women leaders?

I’d give the same advice to any rising leader, be it a woman or a man. And that is: be kind, work hard, stay humble, and read widely. And look for opportunities to help each other. In every country that we deal with all over the world, the growers we work with tend to be family businesses themselves. They’re dealing with the same kinds of issues we do, from accessing capital to succession to what have you. In many ways, we learn from each other. It’s the way we have to do it, building each other up.

How Summer Fresh Founder Susan Niczowski Turned Family Recipes into a Healthy Food Powerhouse

Three decades ago in their home kitchen, Susan Niczowski and her mother began adapting their family’s recipes to fill a healthy food void in gourmet packaged food offerings. Summer Fresh was born. Today, the Canadian company sells more than 85 products and has been recognised by Deloitte as one of Canada’s Best Managed Companies for 17 consecutive years. We sat down with Niczowski to learn how she overcame gender bias when she was forming Summer Fresh, and what she thinks other rising women leaders can learn from her experience.

Q: The other leaders we’ve spoken with so far for this series are second- or third-generation leaders who took over the reins of their family enterprises. But you are a true entrepreneur as the founder of your company. Can you talk a little bit about how you approached that decision?

I didn’t know what I was getting myself into! I just felt that there was a need in the marketplace. Thirty-one years ago, there weren’t fresh prepared foods that were gourmet and available at retail. We came up with technology to preserve vegetables naturally and created 18 recipes at the start. Then it just took off.

Q: How were you first received? Did your gender present any challenges in getting your business off the ground?

Oh, yes. Being a young female in my 20s and starting a food company that was launching into a brand-new space in the retail counter was extremely difficult. They didn’t take me seriously. When I first went into the stores, they thought, “Who is this dumb blonde?” But I had a university degree and the knowledge and a product I truly believed in, and I wasn’t going to take “no” for an answer.

Q: What specifically did you do to crack the code?

It was just persistence. It took a lot of knocking on doors to break down that barrier. I just tried to find a different angle to get myself in front of that buyer or category manager and show them that I knew my stuff. Through many, many, many trials I was able to earn a shot. Once we got products listed at the store level, then it was up to us to make sure that the consumer understood the brand. We did a lot of sampling and a lot of listening. Was the product too salty? Too fatty? Did they want more herbs? Less carbs? We learned a lot in those first few years, and we earned a lot of respect.

Q: How did your experience influence your leadership style?

I’m really focussed on the development of all our employees. We make sure that every team member who is coming on board has a solid base, and then we look for every opportunity to allow their roots and branches to start growing.

Q: How much do you think society has progressed since Summer Fresh’s launch in terms of eliminating gender bias?

I’d like to think we’ve made a lot of progress. I speak to some of my female counterparts at other companies and they tell me there are dimensions that are still very difficult. But being involved like I am in various universities and colleges, I see more female students graduating in a wider variety of tactical science fields and I think that’s really encouraging. I see more women getting what they want out of life.

Q: Your business is a family business in more ways than one, given that your sister still works with you as VP of operations and it was your family’s own recipes that launched the concept. Can you talk about your parents’ influence in all of that?

My parents came to Canada from Poland. They were refugees of the Greek Civil War. As Macedonian orphans, they were taken in by Poland. Although it was tough, they were some of the fortunate ones that were able to get education and housing. They never forgot what Poland did for them. It’s very similar to how we’re seeing Poland come to the aid of those fleeing Ukraine right now. They created a career in Poland and then came to Canada. My mum came in 1956 and my dad came over in 1962

Q: You’ve talked in the past about how your parents’ experience still drives your own feelings about giving back to the community. Can you talk about that?

It’s always stuck in my heart what Poland did for my parents. As a family, we’ve always tried to give back, with a focus on children and the elderly. While healthy food is very important to everybody, it’s especially important for those groups. Infants and children need proper nutrition to aid their development, and the elderly need it to help maintain healthy minds. Delivering on those needs has really been one of the key drivers of our business from the outset.

Q: Deloitte started a campaign around International Women’s Day called #BetheButterfly, in which we encourage women leaders to think about ways that small changes could yield broader changes. What sorts of small actions can today’s women leaders take to help make lasting change for future generations of women leaders?

Everybody needs a role model, for someone to be their butterfly. I was very fortunate that I was surrounded by many butterflies, both males and females, when I started. To this day, I look for every opportunity to be the butterfly for somebody else. I try to be that someone who they can speak to in a non-biased way and give my suggestions and advice and help them move forward. Especially for young women just starting their careers, I think it’s extremely important that women in my position make themselves available to help guide them.

How Empathy Drives Success for Cheerwin Group Chairman and CEO Danxia Chen

While studying abroad in Australia in the early 2000s, Danxia Chen began serving as in-country general manager for Liby Group, the consumer products giant that was started by her father and her uncle in 1994. The role proved to be the launching pad to many other leadership positions within the industry. Since then, Chen has led Shanghai New COGI Cosmetic Co., Ltd, Ousia Australia Pty Ltd, Guangzhou Cheerwin Biotechnology Company Limited, and Cheerwin Group Limited, the company where she currently serves as Chairman and CEO. Rosa Yang, Deloitte China’s Managing Partner for Markets and Global Network, recently sat down with Chen to discuss her perspective on women leaders, what helps them strengthen their organizations, and how they can continue to differentiate themselves and contribute to broader changes in society.

Q: What is your view of women leaders? Do you think there is any difference between men and women when it comes to leadership?

Leadership is not gender-specific. The top requirement of a leader is having the competency for the role. Today, what is most important in being a leader is how to mobilize bright minds to achieve goals and create value together. That said, men and women leaders have different advantages and disadvantages in implementation.

Q: Can you elaborate on that last point? I’ve always thought that women have many soft skills, including emotional intelligence, excelling at thinking in others’ shoes, cooperation, and integration—all of which can unleash enormous potential and create great value.

In my experience, mature women leaders tend to have deep insights into life and diverse ways of looking at the world, and their resilience makes a positive impact on their organizations. They often solve problems in teamwork by leveraging their special strengths, some of which I would list as having empathy, allowing for trial and error, dealing with conflicts, and guiding team members to empower one another for success.

Q: Do you think women are making progress in terms of attaining leadership positions? How should companies approach gender representation in their upper ranks?

In recent years, I have seen more strengths among women leaders at companies. Women account for 30 percent of the leaders at the companies I have managed. At Cheerwin, our COO and the heads of e-commerce, personal care products, the product development center, and HR are all women. It is not necessary to overstate or seek absolute fairness, as there is no such thing. Women should be mindful of this fact as they could owe difficulties faced in the workplace to gender related reasons. This would lead to further misunderstandings in women’s career development. Women certainly face more challenges than men do in the workplace, so women need the capabilities and wisdom to differentiate themselves.

Q: Cheerwin has differentiated itself during the pandemic by understanding its customers’ needs at a time of great difficulty. Can you talk about that a little, specifically the role that empathy for your customers played?

At Cheerwin Group, we’re dedicated to putting our customers first and walking in their shoes. Since the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020, when disinfection products were needed desperately across China, we released a notice ensuring that prices of various sterilization and disinfection products would not be increased. We cooperated with Liby Group to donate RMB200 million [approximately US $31.3 million] in disinfection supplies to more than 2,000 designated hospitals for COVID-19 treatment and helped over 1,000 dealers, 200,000 employees, and hundreds of thousands of sales outlets resume work and production. We also provided more than 3,000 online training sessions for dealers and retailers across the ecosystem to enable them to transform themselves by learning how to deliver daily necessities to consumers.

Q: Women are driving social equality, inclusion, and gender diversity in profound ways. But even very small actions can have a huge and lasting impact. Deloitte started a campaign around International Women’s Day called #BetheButterfly, in which we encourage women leaders to think about ways that small changes could yield wider changes. What sorts of small actions can today’s women leaders take to help make those kinds of lasting changes?

As I see it, staff often feel happier in organizations with women leaders. When preparing for Christmas at companies under my supervision every year, those with women leaders would always have Christmas trees decorated with gifts full of care and love. Seemingly minor actions can fundamentally change the workplace culture and spirit across organizations and reshape better missions and values, advancing society.

How Sarita Handa Empowers Indian Women, One Textile at a Time

In 1992, Sarita Handa brought together a small group of women in the village of Tughlakabad, India, to hand quilt for a new textiles company that bore her name. Today, the business employs more than 2,000 women who’ve mastered that same craft, and the products they create can be found at major retailers around the world, including Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, and Pottery Barn. Sarita handed over the reins to her daughter, Suparna, in 2019. We sat down with the two of them to discuss the evolution of the company, how Sarita was received as a woman entrepreneur, and the kinds of examples they hope to set for other women.

Q: Sarita, what prompted you to start the business back in 1992? What did you hope to achieve?

Sarita: I was only 19 years old when I got married to a professional soldier in this country. Even though I was a housewife, I was always inspired to do something else. I had traveled across India due to my husband’s job and had the opportunity to see a lot of different textiles and gain experience in the industry. When I started the business in 1992, we adopted a small village on the outskirts of Delhi. I found some women who needed work and just taught them how to do quilting and gave them frames. I was very motivated to create heirloom products that had global appeal and met international quality standards. But my purpose was greater: I made a bet that if you empower a woman and give her a source of income, then you feed a family. That purpose was and still is very close to my heart.

Q: Suparna, how did you decide to become involved in the business?

Suparna: It wasn’t really a decision. It was just something I was sure about. I think part of it was mom was always my best friend and I kind of grew up in this industry. I saw her passion for the business and I shared it. I also loved the economic impact the company was having in India as a jobs creator. That’s what really keeps me going.

Q: How do you two manage working together?

Sarita: We have succeeded working together because we abide by a few rules. One is, we don’t talk shop at home. Two, we both understand that sometimes unpleasant things need to be said. That’s difficult in this country, where the culture can be pretty passive-aggressive. You have to have the ability to speak honestly without being bound by the mother-daughter relationship. It requires a commitment and the intent to really make it work.

Q: Suparna, was it predestined that you would lead the company one day or was there a formal process?

Suparna: When I was young, we didn’t have a lot of money but we always had a beautiful home, and I think that became the foundation for me wanting this job. Even though I was being groomed from an early age, the position wasn’t handed to me. I was evaluated and I got the job because I showed them that I deserved it.

Q: Sarita, what was it like starting your own business as a woman entrepreneur in India?

Sarita: I think there’s a lot more focus on gender bias today than there was back then. I actually never felt any bias. The only challenge I had was when it came to raising money. It wasn’t about being a woman, it was about having enough assets to be able to launch the company. There were no venture capitalists, no other kinds of support. You had to prove yourself to the banks, and I was able to fight my way through and raise enough money. I think they could see that it was important to me and that I would not go back on my word. And even though it was a male-dominated industry, I never felt from the vendors or anyone else that they wouldn’t trust me because I was a woman.

Now, I want to be sure you know that I’m not denying the existence of gender bias. Here in India, when a girl is born, people see her as a responsibility, a liability. But we weren’t raised to think that way. My sister and I were raised to be equal to the boys. My husband’s family was the same way. He worked with me and helped me start the company, but if you ask him, he will tell you I’m the one who started it and he’s here to support me.

Q: Thinking more broadly, do you believe women leaders are having an easier time making their case and getting equal treatment?

Sarita: I think a lot of progress is being made because women are being educated and getting equal opportunities. Here in India, when a woman gets married, they’re not just marrying the man—they’re marrying into a family. Women have to learn to juggle those relationships, and I think that helps them develop a natural ability to manage people, which is a great leadership quality to have. As daughters, I think we grow up seeing our mothers in that role and those same instincts get embedded in us from early childhood.

Q: Deloitte started a campaign around International Women’s Day called #BetheButterfly, in which we encourage women leaders to think about ways that small changes could yield broader changes. What sorts of small actions can today’s women leaders take to help make lasting change for future generations of women leaders?

Suparna: I think you need to model what’s possible as a woman leader. This young woman came to me just the other day and she said, “It’s great to see you accomplish what you have because you’re working yet also managing your family.” When my girls call, even if I’m with customers, I pick up that call. It’s non-negotiable. If it’s not urgent, I’ll tell them I’ll call them back. I think it’s important for other women to see that and to help them establish that balance between their family life and their career.

Royal Van Wijhe Verf’s CEO Credits Capable Daughters for Sustaining Family Business Legacies

As the first woman CEO to run her family’s century-old Dutch paint products company, Marlies van Wijhe has brought a greater emphasis on innovation and sustainability to Royal Van Wijhe Verf. Under her leadership, and with support from her sister, Marijke, van Wijhe has expanded the company’s markets and products while introducing bio-based raw materials in its paints and coatings. She was named Business Woman of the Year in 2010 by Veuve Clicquot. We sat down with van Wijhe to discuss her upbringing and career development, her approach to eliminating gender bias by focusing on quality, and what has sustained her family enterprise now into its fourth generation.

Q: How did your family business initially get started?

My great grandfather started the business in 1916. He was a wholesaler of chemicals, baby powders, cough syrups, and all kinds of other products. Our first paint was a coloured powder to which you had to add water. Then my grandfather and his brother took over shortly before World War II. After the war was over, they decided to focus on paint production and developed a product that was especially good for protecting wood, which was timely because there was a lot of wood construction going on as part of the rebuilding effort. My father joined the company in the 1960s. He was a chemical engineer and his focus was on product development, including oil-based technologies. He also introduced our unique (patented) color-tinting system and helped us enter the buildings-maintenance market. Thanks to his innovations and market decisions, we became the third-largest paint producer in the Netherlands.

Q: So how did you get involved? How early did you know that you wanted to have a role?

My father and mother had two girls and no boys and my father admitted to me many years later that he told my mother, “I guess there will be no successor for the family business.” Times change, and when we got older, he asked us if we wanted to take over the company one day. I was 21 and still in university at the time, and he had a very generous offer from another company to buy the business so he needed to know. My sister and I took about three weeks to think about it, and we both said, “Of course.” We didn’t know which of us would end up running the company but my sister later said she would prefer to have a role in the background and put me out front. I joined the company in 1994 and my sister is now Manager, Corporate Marketing and Communications. We complement each other really well.

Q: What changed that made your father rethink his original idea about his successor having to be a son?

There was one important moment around our kitchen table when I was 17. I was thinking of studying to become a biologist at the time—I didn’t want to do what my father did. My mother had to go to the hospital for two weeks. She was always the one my father would turn to for advice and she wasn’t there, so he turned to me instead. We talked well past midnight and he later told me, “You asked several very interesting questions which helped me succeed in what I was doing.” I later ended up studying business administration and I think the moment also opened my father’s eyes about my potential. So I think good communication and our strong relationship had a lot to do with it.

Q: How did you prepare yourself to succeed your father?

Before I joined the family business I worked at Royal DSM, a big public chemical company here in Holland, to get some more education and experience. When I joined the family business, I had the opportunity to run the export department. I really wanted to travel and that allowed me to do so. The department was also fairly small and hardly did any sales, so it allowed me to be an entrepreneur within the company because I had to build that business on my own. After about four years of growing that business, I began slowly began taking over other parts of the company, kind of behind the scenes. My father actually wanted to retire sooner but I said it was too early. I wanted to step in later because I enjoyed what I was doing. We settled on the year 2000 for the transition.

Q: Did you face any challenges as the first woman leader of the family business? How did you win people over inside and outside the company?

As it happened, just before I was about to take over, we faced this especially difficult challenge around the Y2K issue. It turned out to be a non-event for a lot of companies but not for us because we had a computer system that really did end in 1999. We faced some logistical challenges due to our new computer system. Example: When the product was ready, we didn’t have cans. I had to fix all those logistical problems, but we succeeded. And I think that solving those issues proved to be a catalyst not only for my acceptance, but to allow me to speed up and do a lot of other things.

Q: Do you think there’s something inherent in family businesses that allows women leaders to thrive?

Well, in our case there wasn’t the option of a male successor, so it was either one of us or no one. In the past, family businesses were always passed on to the oldest son even if he wasn’t suitable for the job. And that’s probably one of the factors why so many family businesses got sold or went bankrupt and didn’t make it to the next generation. But, like I said, times have changed. I also think that women are more likely to succeed in families that are close and communicate a lot. My family is that way. We all still live very close to one another.

Q: Is there anything else companies can do to ensure that women get a fair shake and get an equal share of management roles?

I think we need to focus more on quality instead of gender. We have quotas here in Holland. Corporate businesses have to have 30% women on their advisory boards, for instance. I was invited to speak on a panel for International Women’s Day and one of the things I said was that I was against quotas. That created a little bit of a stir. But I want quality in my management ranks, and sometimes you find quality in a woman and sometimes you find quality in a man. In my business, 30% of my managers and supervisors is women but it’s because they were the right people for the job. Now, I will say, when I ask our recruiters to fill a vacancy, I might say, “It would be nice to have a woman in that job,” but I still go for quality.

ASAP Skin Products’ Carley Stewart Uses “No” as Her Motivation

Carley Stewart is Managing Director of ASAP Skin Products, a Melbourne, Australia–based leader in skincare products. The company, which was co-founded by her mother in 2001, is Australia’s leading results driven cosmeceutical skincare range providing skincare with fast acting visible results. Formulations contain optimum levels of the most innovative and technologically advanced ingredients. We sat down with Carley to talk about her unexpected path to leadership in her family’s company, how tenacity has helped shape her career, and how a more flexible approach to hiring could help clear the way for future women leaders.

Q: Your mother co-founded ASAP in 2001 and after being part of the advisory board you joined in 2006. Do you feel like you were destined or expected to join the company, or is it something that happened naturally?

To be honest, I didn’t expect to join the business. I had already built my own career and was very satisfied there, and I didn’t really want to work for my mother. But she and her business partner at the time were trying to bring cutting-edge cosmeceutical products to Australia and running into challenges with continuity of supply, and they really needed help solving those logistical problems. I decided if that I could work with my mother as a co-owner then it would be the right fit for me, so I purchased part of the business in 2006.

Q: What leadership traits did you adopt from others—including your mother—along the way, and how did that allow you to flourish in your current role?

Both of my parents are very driven people. They really instilled in my sister Kate (who is also a director in the business) and I that we should never give up on something we believe in. And one of the traits I’ve gotten from my mother, in particular, is that when somebody says, “No, that can’t happen” or “No, we can’t solve that problem,” I’m going to work that much harder to find a solution. She’s very tenacious, and so am I.

In fact, that’s what drove me to become a chemist after I joined ASAP. We would go to these trade shows all over the world and see these amazing technologies and products being developed, and we’d come back to Australia only to have our chemists say they couldn’t achieve what we wanted. The chemists were very set in their ways while we were looking to innovate, so we weren’t getting anywhere. I felt like the only way to overcome those roadblocks was to become qualified myself so we could develop our own formulas.

Q: Did you experience any challenges as your career developed that you believe your male counterparts didn’t have to face? How did you deal with them?

There have definitely been moments that have reminded me that leadership is still very male-dominated, especially in certain cultures. Our products are sold internationally, and in some countries we’ve actually been asked, “Who’s the man behind the business?” I’m the owner, I’m a chemist, and yet they still want to talk to a man. But I’ve found that standing my ground, having confidence, and knowing what I’m taking about can be really powerful.

Q: Do you think there’s something unique about family businesses that enables women to thrive in their careers and as leaders?

I worked in a corporate setting for many years and I’ve found that, at least for our company, there are less politics and good work/life balance, which I think is critical for any employee to thrive. It’s also a very open environment that allows everyone to contribute, suggest products, and work on development. There are far fewer barriers than you might find elsewhere.

Q: What advice would you give to other aspiring women leaders?

Never give up and be tenacious, because it is still a male-dominated world in a lot of ways. You need to be assertive and make yourself heard, because breaking through those barriers will not only benefit you but can really start to make a difference for those who follow.

Q: Deloitte started a campaign around International Women’s Day called #BetheButterfly, in which we encourage women leaders to think about ways that small changes could yield wider progress. What sorts of small actions can today’s women leaders take to help make lasting change for future generations of women leaders?

In my previous corporate life, I witnessed so many women become pregnant and immediately start looking for full time care, schools and nannies, whatever it took so they could continue to work at the level they did prior to starting a family. But I don’t think that’s right for everyone, and I think many women do it because they feel like they have no other options. For us, it’s about attracting the right people, and sometimes that means allowing them to work part-time or have more flexible hours. I would love to see more leaders think outside the box when hiring, because they might be missing out on some great talent by hanging on to that old mindset. I think creating a more flexible, more inclusive workplace will open more doors for future women leaders.

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