The Smith Family Business Initiative

Cornell University’s forward-thinking program educates and connects students, alumni, and business leaders from family-owned enterprises.

Globally, family-owned businesses (the family either has control or influence over the direction of the business) make up almost 90% of all businesses. They include a broad range of businesses from the more familiar mom and pop stores at the smaller end of the spectrum to some of the largest and significant companies like Walmart and Ford. Yet, not many colleges and universities have devoted extensive resources to support individuals from or who plan to work for a family-owned business.

To that end, Cornell University, through a generous gift from alum John Smith (MBA‘74 & Chairman of CRST International) and his wife Dyan Smith, created the Smith Family Business Initiative in 2014. Smith, who attributes his success to his family business, was taking some Executive Education courses at other institutions and saw an opportunity for Cornell to become a major player in this area. Shortly after the Smiths’ donation, Daniel G. Van Der Vliet came on board as the Executive Director to help create and run the program.

Located in the SC Johnson College of Business, the initiative is the hub for everything central to family businesses. (Although the numbers are not in yet, about 30% to 40% of Cornellians own, run, or work for a family-owned enterprise.) That translates into vital educational resources, unparalleled networking opportunities, and pioneering research that supports and strengthens the network of owners, business leaders, and alumni that work in, for, or with a family business. And what’s unique: The initiative is open to current students, alumni, and non-Cornell affiliated individuals who are from a family-run company that want to learn from and utilize the initiative’s resources. 

We spoke with Van Der Vliet to learn more about the program and how alumni can participate.

Why is it important to have a program focusing solely on family-owned businesses?

In addition to the fact that about 90% of all businesses in the world are family-owned or family-controlled, we still don’t know a lot about these companies. In broad terms, they tend to outperform and outlast publicly owned businesses, and when managed effectively, they can foster innovation and entrepreneurship. But, because they are privately owned, a lot of the data that we need to study them effectively is tough to obtain. So, it’s a bit of a research mystery that we’re trying to unravel: Are these businesses truly better positioned or is the fact that the family is involved creates an “X “factor that allows them to outperform other businesses.  

Tell us about the Smith Family Business Initiative’s offerings.

For our students, there is a club that meets frequently where they can connect and engage in meaningful dialogue with other people from family-owned enterprises. The club also visits New York City at the end of every semester. The students spend a day and a half in NYC meeting with advisors and family business owners, asking questions and learning about working for, in, or with a family-owned enterprise.

There is a course called “Leaders in Family Enterprise”—about 40 students have registered so far—that’s primarily a speaker series. We have various alumni and business owners come to campus and share their stories as to how their families have navigated these waters for many years.

Each fall, we host our “Families in Business” conference for students, alumni, business owners, and advisors (about 200 people attended last year). Over the course of two days, there’s a series of various talks, workshops, and discussions exploring some of the things that work or don’t work for family-owned businesses.

In NYC, each year we host a program called the “Global Emerging Leaders in Family Business.” This is a one-week program designed for the next generation of leaders in the family enterprise so they can learn about family-owned businesses, create pathways to entrepreneurship, and strategize about ways their company may position itself to become more global. (Though open to everyone, some workshops are only for people who own a family business or is a family member.)

In addition, there are Executive Education programs and forums geared towards developing strategic and tactical methods for building succession into the family-owned business and understanding its unique challenges.

Can you describe the impact the Smith Family Business Initiative has had so far? 

As for the “Family in Business” conference—our biggest event—people absolutely love it. This will be the third year that we’ve hosted it and it has grown from 100 to nearly 200 attendees. What they love is the fact that they are amongst their peers and there are different types of family-owned businesses ranging from manufacturing and wine to service providers of various types. And when you can bring those different groups together, participants tend to value the opportunity to think beyond their own industries.  

Prospective students who come from a family business, having thoroughly done their research, tell us that there are not many schools offering a program like this, and the program was a key driver in attending Cornell. I had one student come into the office and say, “I’ve looked all around and this is the best school for family business that I’ve seen yet.” I think that speaks volumes and helps differentiate Cornell from its peers, especially in this space.

As for our summer program, the “Global Emerging Leaders in Family Business” is developing its own alumni base. In its young two years, we have a group of about 40 individuals that continually stay connected, create partnerships, and do business together. This past March, we had a panel discussion with some of the alumni from the summer program in NYC. They discussed how that program helped them understand their role within the family business and how they forged partnerships with alumni from the summer program. What’s more, two alumni from the summer program have since applied to Cornell: one as an undergraduate and the other as a graduate student. This could be a wonderful feeder program as it continues to develop.

What’s on the horizon for the Smith Family Business Initiative?

One, we are continuing to develop our network in NYC. We are launching a mastermind group, a peer network of young alumni who are in or may be in their family business in the future. The group will serve as a sounding board where these individuals can ask questions and figure out their paths. We also plan to have a more robust schedule of both networking events and ongoing Executive Education programs in NYC.

And the student club is putting together a Family Business Case Competition that we hope to host at Cornell Tech in NYC in February 2018. This will bring together students from peer schools, advisors, alumni, and owners for a unique opportunity to match wits and help unravel some very complex family business cases. Stay tuned!

So how can our readers get involved?

We would love to hear from you. One way to get in touch with the program is to attend the conference held each fall in NYC, scheduled for October 26-27. The initiative is always looking for people that are interested in and from a family-owned business to speak at a class, connect with students, and serve as a mentor in some capacity where they help current students.

For more information about the Smith Family Business Initiative, visit or contact Daniel G. Van Der Vliet at