Growing up, Dana Weeks Ugwonali ’03 was deeply inspired by her mother, Nathalie Weeks ’79 (’78SW), who ultimately used her MBA to manage social service agencies, helping some of the most vulnerable populations. “She was one of the first in everything she did,” says Ugwonali. “I never realized how unique and special that was, but in looking back and being a working mother myself, I appreciate and admire her even more.” Ugwonali is one of several women profiled here who followed in her mother’s footsteps and earned a degree at Columbia Business School. While each daughter made the decision on her own to enroll at her mother’s alma mater—with perhaps a tiny bit of motherly encouragement—all these women grew up seeing how the MBA helped pave the way for their moms’ successes—as well as their own.
Nathalie Weeks ’79 (’78SW) and Dana Weeks Ugwonali ’03
When she was a kid, Dana Weeks Ugwonali ’03 and her older brother would line up their Playmobil figures on the lawn outside Uris Hall and wait for their parents, both of whom were earning their MBAs, to return from the library. Two decades later, when she returned to Uris, it was as an MBA student herself. By then, Ugwonali had spent years being inspired by her parents, Dennis Weeks ’78 (’78PH) and Nathalie Weeks ’79 (’78SW).
“I’m in service and community work because of my parents,” says Ugwonali, an early advisor to startups through her work with the Black Angel Tech Foundation, which aims to increase representation of people of color and women in tech; she is also chief innovation and marketing officer for Medtrans Go, an Atlanta-based startup.
Before coming to Columbia, Ugwonali served in the Peace Corps. It was what her parents had done—and how they’d met—years before in Nigeria. When they returned to the US in the 1960s, they started a family, then turned to the Business School to pursue careers in public service.
Ugwonali’s father is in international development and has worked at the World Bank and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A social worker, Nathalie Weeks headed mental health agencies in New York. In the 1990s, she was deputy executive director of Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Ugwonali recalls her mother volunteering to speak at sparsely attended funerals for victims early in the US AIDS crisis. “I think of that every time I prepare to give a speech, and I gain strength through her past actions,” Ugwonali says.
Weeks, who now teaches social work and counsels refugees through the African Services Committee, says her Business School education has proved invaluable: “So many of the skills I learned at Columbia— managing, marketing, accounting— were essential in nonprofit and government jobs.”
When it was time for graduate school, Ugwonali again followed in her parents’ footsteps. “I was inspired,” she says, “by how my mom and dad saw business school as important for success professionally and in the community.”
While Ugwonali was a student at Columbia, mother and daughter shared a life-changing experience: a Chazen Study Tour to Vietnam and Thailand. Ugwonali, adopted at 16 months by the Weeks, was born in Vietnam. The trip was her first time back. “To return more than 20 years later with my mom and business school classmates,” she says, “was an amazing homecoming.”
For Weeks, the trip was a reminder that her daughter had survived a difficult infancy in Vietnam and gone on to thrive, becoming a New York state track champion who attended Stanford before business school. “She’s kind and generous but also tough and fearless,” says Weeks. “She’s always tried everything there was to do.”
Emma Reilly ’15, Betsy Palmer ’82, and Allie Reilly Strack ’11
Betsy Palmer ’82 was thrilled when her daughters—one an economics major in college, the other an art history major—ended up following their mother’s lead and earning an MBA from Columbia Business School. “I let them make their own decisions to enroll,” Palmer says, “and once they did, I was jumping up and down.”
Her eldest daughter, Allie Reilly Strack ’11, says, “I saw how hard my mom worked, and I admired that.” Strack started out in banking—the industry in which both her parents worked—but later pivoted to marketing, a switch she says she could only have made thanks to her Columbia education. She is now enterprise engagement director at tech startup OpenSlate, a social-video analytics company.
Listening to her parents talk about the stock markets’ fluctuations over family dinners also sparked an interest in business for Strack’s sister Emma Reilly ’15. “Growing up, it was pretty powerful to see my mom working full time,” she says. “In my town, that was not the norm.” She landed her first job—in business development at HuffPost—thanks to an introduction by one of her Columbia professors. She is now director of business strategy and development at Verizon Media, HuffPost’s parent company. (Palmer’s youngest daughter also works in business development but is not a CBS alumna.)
Palmer went into the investment business after discovering, during a required first-year class at Columbia, that she loved finance. “That was a complete surprise to me,” she says. Now head of North American marketing and client services for Lindsell Train, a London-based boutique asset management firm, Palmer says, “I know from experience that the Columbia Business School name will keep opening doors for my daughters throughout their careers.”
Renée Simons ’78 and Kourtney Simons ’12
When Kourtney Simons ’12 was little, she didn’t play with dolls— “I played office,” she recalls. “I sat at a computer and had meetings.” The games were inspired by her mother, Renée Simons ’78, who spent decades as a marketing and communications executive at companies including Philip Morris and JPMorgan Chase before establishing her own firm, specializing in marketing, advertising, communications, and organizational change.
A lifetime of watching her mother in an executive role convinced Kourtney that she wanted to be an executive herself. She knew her mother wanted her to attend her alma mater, but her mother trod lightly, says Kourtney, knowing that if she pushed too hard, her daughter might not consider Columbia. “I made the decision on my own,” says Kourtney, adding that she chose Columbia because she thought it would give her entrée to the entertainment field.
More than 30 years earlier, Renée had chosen Columbia as a way to transition out of the education planning field and into business. She found her Columbia MBA essential to her success. “It gave me validation going into the business world as well as access to primary companies in my field,” Renée says. “Columbia was very competitive, and women were on an equal footing with the men at the School.”
For her part, Kourtney valued the connections Columbia provided to the entertainment world, which led to her first post-MBA job, at Disney. She now works at Netflix as director of content marketing in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Her mother is “an unsung superwoman,” Kourtney says. “She paved the way for me.”
Toni Trobe Kestenbaum ’65 and Heidi Kestenbaum White ’00
Toni Trobe Kestenbaum ’65 was one of three women in her class at Columbia — and usually the first woman in the positions she held in finance after graduation — but she never let that diminish her confidence. “Some men resented having me as a boss, but I just took it in stride,” says Kestenbaum, who was a vice president for more than two decades at BNY Mellon in Philadelphia.
That attitude impressed her daughter, Heidi Kestenbaum White ’00, who decided to pursue an MBA at Columbia after falling in love with the business world while working at J.P. Morgan. White followed her mother’s example again when she took time off from her career to raise her children.
“I felt emboldened by my mom’s choices,” White says. “She took turns in her career when she needed to because of her children, and that gave me the courage to believe my career would still be there, even when I was zigging and zagging.” She credits Columbia mentors — and having an MBA from a top program — with helping her transition from finance to marketing. “When I made nonlinear moves, my Columbia degree gave me a foot in the door,” says White, who is now head of marketing at Navigate Corp.
Kestenbaum visited her daughter when she was attending Columbia and accompanied her to her finance class. There, Kestenbaum provided the correct answer to one of the professor’s questions. Recalling the experience, Kestenbaum says, “I was thrilled to see how many women there were in the class.”
Cheri Friedman ’76 and Jenny Friedman ’17
When Cheri Friedman ’76 walked the halls of Uris, students were more focused on tracking the stock market than inventing the newest tech startup. Much has changed since, and her daughter, Jenny Friedman ’17, is proof.
Jenny, who is a partner at venture capital firm Supernode Ventures, jokes that her mom, who entered the business world at a time when venture capital wasn’t a regular part of the business vocabulary, likes to compare her daughter’s work to the TV show Shark Tank. “I think there is a focus on entrepreneurship now at the Business School,” Jenny says. “Students can still flourish on Wall Street but there are new opportunities that didn’t even exist a few years ago.”
Cheri worked at Lehman Brothers and Chase before moving into the nonprofit sector. She has served as the executive director at Stony Wold-Herbert Fund, an organization that fights pulmonary disease in New York, for 35 years. Cheri notes that her career allowed her to have a family and be a hands-on mom as well as a business leader; Jenny says she grew up striving to find that same balance.
“My mom always told me that I should find something I have a passion for and want to do long term, and that would allow me some flexibility,” says Jenny. “It has always been important to me to find those things in a job and to not have to rely on anyone but myself.”
Cheri and Jenny, who describe their relationship as both best friends and mother and daughter, prove that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree: Both went to the University of Pennsylvania for their undergraduate educations before earning their MBAs at Columbia. Each was pulled towards the Business School for its location—both its proximity to family and the endless opportunities New York City offers. Though their paths look similar on paper, their careers diverged drastically upon graduating from Columbia.
“She followed me up until a point,” says Cheri of her daughter, “and then she went out on her own. She did something our family was completely unfamiliar with and carved out a niche for herself. I’m really proud of her.”
“She is a self-starter, a good friend, a loyal and kind person, and so fun,” Cheri continues. “She embodies everything a mother could want her child to be.”
That admiration is mutual: “She’s persistent, she’s a go-getter, she is extremely resourceful, and she has an energy that is unmatched,” says Jenny of her mom. “She is always striving for excellence and I’ve wanted to emulate her morals and values since I was young. She set the standard high.”
Read the original piece on Columbia Business School’s Ideas and Insights blog.
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