Jessica Goldman Srebnick
by Danielle Cantor
Jessica Goldman Srebnick is the second-generation CEO of Goldman Properties, founded by her father, real estate developer Tony Goldman. The company transforms depressed urban areas into iconic neighborhoods, such as SoHo in New York City, Center City Philadelphia, and Wynwood, site of the acclaimed Wynwood Walls in Miami, Fla. In 2015, Srebnick co-founded Goldman Global Arts (GGA), a creative collective that produces thought-provoking art projects in venues such as Hard Rock Stadium and American Airlines Arena. Srebnick was recognized as one of Forbes’ Icons of Impact in 2018. Now the mother of three teenage sons, she lives in Miami Beach – far from her native New York City – and continues working to make the world a more beautiful place.
Tell me about your early life.
I had a very unusual upbringing in New York City. My parents divorced when I was seven, so half the time I lived with my dad in SoHo, which was not developed the way it is today, and half the time with my mom on the Upper East Side. Then, when I was 16, my parents remarried each other. It was really a gift for me, because I got to develop these amazing relationships individually with my parents. My dad founded Goldman Properties and my mom founded a jewelry company called Fragments, and it was really interesting for me, as a kid, to see the evolution of two businesses pretty much starting from scratch; how, through the entrepreneurial spirit, my parents both developed and struggled; what their challenges were; what their successes were. Everything they learned along the way I got to share with them at the dinner table. It was a pretty extraordinary life lesson.
My dad put me to work when I was 12 years old. I did everything: I was a coat check girl in one of our restaurants, I worked as a cashier, my dad sent me to bartending school when I was 17 so I could always be financially independent. My parents wanted me to marry a prince of a guy, but they also wanted me to be able to take care of myself. Both of them always had my brother Joey and me thinking about business structure, what we are providing to the customer, and how we differentiate ourselves.
Did Judaism play a role in your early life?
My dad didn't have a very strong Jewish upbringing. My mother, on the other hand, was raised with a much more structured, more religious tradition. She sent me to Camp Blue Star in Hendersonville, North Carolina. That's where I got my first taste of Judaism in an environment that was loving, supportive, and really, really fun. It was prayers before and after every meal; it was Friday night and Saturday morning services in the chapel with no walls up on the mountain top; it was singing Jewish songs arm-in-arm with friends. I spent nine years of my life at Blue Star – every summer, as a camper and then as a counselor – and now I've sent all three of my children there. My family feels very, very strongly about the State of Israel: Two of my three children have been bar mitzvahed there, and my oldest son just returned from a asummer High School in Israel program. We certainly feel a deep connection to Judaism.
Did you always plan to take over the family business?
When I graduated Boston University, I went to work for what I thought would be one year, and then I planned to go back to school and get a PhD in child psychology. My mom had a friend who worked as a buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue, and she told me about an executive training program there. I thought, "I like fashion, and they're going to pay me to learn. That sounds nice." I stayed for five years and became the associate fashion director for Saks Fifth Avenue corporate. Since I feel it's important to be known for your first name, not your last name, I worked really, really hard. First one in, last one out, smile on my face at all times, always willing to jump in and do whatever was necessary. I moved pretty fast up the ladder and it was an amazing experience as a young woman, because the majority of Saks’ leaders at that time were women. Eventually, though, I realized that I wanted to lead my own company. As I was applying to business school, my mom convinced me to take advantage of my father's brilliance and visionary thinking and go to work with him. I like to say I went to the Tony Goldman School of Business, where I got a real education about leadership, big thinking, deal structure, and trying to make the world more beautiful and viable. At first I gave him a one-year contract, because family business can be a bumpy road and I didn't want to damage my close relationship with my father. I've been with our family business for 22 years now. My dad and I shared a partners’ desk and he named me the CEO of the company on my 15-year anniversary. He passed away five days later. It's hard enough to lose a parent, but to also lose the founder of your company and at the same time go from being the copilot to sitting in the pilot seat, it can be intimidating. If you believe in yourself, you learn from your experiences, and you are always willing to improve, then you can't fail.
Do you have a leadership philosophy?
For me, being a leader is about learning to listen and listening to learn. I studied psychology and I love human nature; understanding the way other people think and behave is a powerful tool that helps you have better personal and professional relationships. I find pearls of wisdom in the people I meet – like when I watched my mother start her own business, struggle, and ultimately succeed. And I still study: I will be completing a nine-year leadership program at the Harvard Business School this January.
I think there's something really special about women leaders. We think differently. We can multitask like no one else, because we have to. And we're more patient and empathetic. The people that surround me want to work for me because of my inclusion, kindness, and empathy, and because I want to make the world more hopeful, beautiful, interesting, and accepting. I learned from a very young age that if you have the privilege of a platform, then you have the responsibility to use it for good. That's what I believe as a leader.
You’ve also used your platform to give artists a platform.
I work with hundreds of really incredible artists – men and women, based in the U.S. and all over the world, and they all have their point of view to share with the world. The street art movement started with artists going out in the middle of the night and trying to make their mark in a public domain – illegally, really fast – and get out. Now everybody wants to live, work, or play in an artistic environment. I've created a whole other business because there's such a desire for creativity to be infused into everything, whether it's in a neighborhood, on a product, on a bicycle, or on a Super Bowl ticket. What we're trying to do as a company is to elevate the platform and make it accessible to everybody. So we have something like Wynwood Walls, which is popular because the environment is not intimidating and it's a style of work that speaks to people on a host of different topics. It's a way for people to be curious, to learn something that they wouldn't have been exposed to in the past, and now that's resonating around the world where you're seeing people much more open to and desiring of public art. To me, that's super exciting.
How do you describe the impact on a community where you establish a public art installation?
The energy of a neighborhood changes when you bring color and texture and creativity. People are naturally curious and they want to be around that. Nobody cared when we started investing in Wynwood because it was a downtrodden neighborhood. There was nothing there – no windows, no reason to walk around. You could literally roll a bowling ball down the center of the street. In 2005, my dad stood on what is now called Tony Goldman Way, which is Northwest Second Avenue, and said, "This needs to be the center for the creative class." The Wynwood Walls was a gravel parking lot, and we invited artists from around the world to come paint, because he believed that if you do something creative, creative people want to be around it. This year we're tracking to have about 3 million visitors there, which is more than some national museums. At the end of the day, our business is real estate, hotels, hospitality, and art. But it's also a profound mission to make the world better. If I can create projects that do that, and inspire people to think and live their lives that way, then then I feel like I'm succeeding in leadership.
Has your company ever been accused of gentrification, as opposed to transformation?
Gentrification doesn’t have to be a bad word. My dad coined the term "gentlefication," but I think “transformation” is a much more beautiful one. There are always going to be people who look for the bad instead of the good. But when you have a track record of improving things the way we do, it's really hard to argue. Look at where we started; look at the jobs and businesses and opportunities we've created. To me that far outweighs any discussion of gentrification.
What are you working on next?
I am one of the co-chairs of the Miami Super Bowl 2020 host committee, so I'm looking to infuse art and creativity into the Super Bowl like never before. Part of my involvement is a campaign to stop sex trafficking, which becomes heightened around big sporting events. The Super Bowl host committee, the NFL, The Women's Fund, and the State Attorney's Office came together to create a media and training campaign to teach people working for Uber, taxi companies, and hotels how to spot sex trafficking. We're also working on a project in Deep Ellum, Texas, which is already a really cool little neighborhood, where we're going to infuse further creative spirit. And then we have some more development sites to work on in Wynwood as it continues to evolve. And of course I'm always working on being an outstanding mother and wife and daughter.