to New York City go to Harlem to see the Apollo Theatre
and to eat at Sylvia’s (www.sylviassoulfood.com),
a renowned restaurant named after Sylvia Woods. Van Woods
is the oldest of Sylvia and her husband Herbert’s
family has been able to do a lot with our family business—a
successful restaurant in Harlem— because of two things:
We are hard workers, and we stick together when difficulties
arise. We are close-knit mainly because of my mother, who
is the nucleus of everything. I believe that closeness in
a family develops because there is a central person whom
others rally around. That person is able to transform negativity
into something positive.
the first-born and the others thought I was shown favoritism.
That was true emotionally, but not materially. Being older
than my siblings, I did not grow up in the family business
as they did. Not wanting to be on the family’s payroll,
I created other businesses. When our generation took over
the restaurant, the family asked me to come back into it.
Since I didn’t know how to cook or serve customers,
I took on buying the real estate and handling the expansion
of the business. I got credit for being the brains behind
things while my sisters and brother were doing the physical
work. (I have always thought my brother and sisters should
get more credit for their work, but the media often focus
on the individual rather than the group.) This is where
some tension started.
always divided everything six ways, among our two parents
and the four children. We now have 17 grandchildren in the
family—so the number of people living off the business
has grown. The rest of my siblings think we should continue
to divide everything equally, but I don’t. For things
that I created, I feel I should have a larger share—to
make up for the sacrifices that I made in the past; I invested
my money in expanding the business and creating new businesses,
rather than investing in a beautiful home.
original business was the restaurant. Then I arranged for
us to create a restaurant franchise. We took on a large
investor—a big, blue-blooded, financial institution,
J.P. Morgan. It was very unusual for them to invest in a
small black business. I also created a packaged food product
that we sell around the country. Because it is food-related
under the Sylvia’s name, even though I did all the
creative work, I’m obliged to share the ownership
equally with my siblings. I believe that as the owner-representative
I have the right to pull more cash from it than they do.
What I have is my creativity, and I feel it’s only
fair for me to be compensated for it.
parents we re unhappy with our disagreements. Since we didn’t
want to see our mother unhappy, we always resolved our differences.
All she had to do was say, “Why are you all doing
this? What’s wrong with you ? ” We were driven
more to please her than to please each other. My father
recently died, but my mother still sometimes steps in as
a mediator. She focuses us on the question, “What
is right?” She plays it not just from a business or
factual point of view, but also from an emotional point
of view. She just wants us to work it out so there is harmony.
She is 76 now and won’t take a side anymore. She’ll
say, “I don’t want to leave this world with
you all like this.” So we work it out. We have always
been able to come up with some framework within which disagreements
can be resolved.
to Harvard University’s executive business program,
which is for owners, presidents, and managers of businesses
worth more than three million dollars. We did a lot of case
studies on family businesses, and I can tell you that family
tension around money is a big issue—and not just for
our family. I have an investor—he’s a philanthropic
investor, a wealthy guy, who has been a mentor to me since
I met him in 1995. He said, “Money can break up families.
Your family is no different. You must decide how to divide
the money while it is small, because the bigger it gets,
the bigger problem it will be.” I would say that’s
right, and when there are disagreements in a family, you
may have to bring in an independent or neutral person to
help you resolve issues. If you have a dysfunctional family,
you will need therapeutic help to work it out. If your family
is kind of functional, you may be able to work it out on
your own or with the help of a consultant. We decided to
try to work it out ourselves. We learned that it’s
best to re move yourself from your customary environment.
We didn’t meet in the home we grew up in, because
that has an emotional history. It works better to get into
another environment, so it’s like a retreat.
and two sisters and I have our petty differences and some
strong friction, but we always try to deal with each other
out of love. If you don’t like each other, you’ll
have more trouble resolving the issues. Our love has kept
us from knocking each other in the head. We have been able
to work out our differences because we care so much for
Based on an interview with Pamela Gerloff
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