Re-Imagineer #1: Stella Cohan

You have a fascinating background as a French-trained attorney who worked in Hong Kong and a partner and general manager of a textile/manufacturing group that worked with top-tier European and U.S. designers. That job was also in Hong Kong. Tell us a little bit about your Hong Kong professional life.

I was born into a family of entrepreneurs in the textile industry. My dad at 20 years of age was forced to leave a very comfortable life in the former French colony of Tunisia and start all over in France, becoming a successful industrialist in Strasbourg in beautiful Alsace (located in the northeast of France). My father absolutely shaped a great deal of my love of business and my desire to be curious. At 24 years of age, I achieved my PhD in intellectual property law and a masters in business law from the University of Strasbourg. I quickly decided to get out of my comfort zone and move to Hong Kong. My family’s moral principle was to shorten the long school summer vacation and work in the family business, this early experience shaped my character, and perseverance was the biggest takeaway from this time, the drive instilled in me to succeed.

I found Hong Kong fascinating, alive and welcoming, by ex-pats and by locals. The city embraced me immediately, this was the nineties and Hong Kong was open, expanding and a premier cultural and financial hub and for me as vibrant as any city in the world at that time.

I became entrenched and established after less than three years of being there. I was a lawyer in an international firm and became the head of the department. I was also elected Vice President of the French Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong and retained this non-paying position for my entire period there. We were a very important body for the then Hong Kong government which wanted to embrace and encourage the development of foreign business and help them to develop a solid business network throughout Asia.

Hong Kong was a booming metropolis, successful because of diversity, yet everybody felt part of this city, with a strong desire to make the city the business center of Asia.

I remember one event having 18 different nationalities around my table, and a very eclectic mix of people from the world of business, art, law, fashion and people of every age. I watched many ex-pats who tended to only socialize with their own nationalities—though I was too curious for that, as I was not transitioning but creating strong roots on the island. Hong Kong taught me both efficiency and humility, even when you believe you might understand the Chinese culture you really don’t!

Born in Strasbourg, which is a really wonderful blend of French culture with a healthy German influence, as the region was alternatively controlled by both countries hence, my ability to understand different cultures in my early years set the stage for me to move easily in different countries and decode cultural differences.

I took the road of being in law but still being involved in business. I developed my career in a city which was a real mix of British and Chinese cultures. Again I was in the middle of two different cultures.

I always tried to translate what was in the mind of one business team to the other, speaking English for the vast majority of all meetings but always trying to be able to understand the concept and goals each group had in their mind. I say, without doubt, my HK experience reinforced the part of my character which is geared to mediate.

I have been all my life a lawyer but never wanted to be in litigation. I believe in negotiation, arrangements for both parties, whenever possible. I like to be a “go-between.” My role as a lawyer was to help businesses to be established successfully in Hong Kong, and I played this role again upon becoming the Managing Director of the Hong Kong subsidiary of a European textile company.

I certainly learned in Hong Kong that even if people were speaking the same language yet they came from different cultures, they simply might not grasp the concept or sincere objectives of the other person; even if the words were understood, one party might not see the vision of the other party. In fact, they are watching the same movie but do not understand the story the same way! It was fascinating to see how cultures can be so different…

For me, the key to being a “go-between” is to be patient, creative and always humble—to be able to make a bridge between two individuals or multiple diverse groups while always taking out the “drama” of the situation. Staying true to these traits always helped me to find a good compromise, and the right balance, which for me, is one of the keys to any successful life.

In 2009, you decided to move to the United States and decided to be credentialed in law with the Master of Laws, LLM, Environmental Law. Those are some big changes all at once and then you became a real estate executive. You seem to be very comfortable with change. What can you share with people about how they might develop that skill?

I got married to an American (a Red Sox fan, as I have learned the importance of sports in American culture) and finally got my green card in 2009.

My move to New York was a bit more difficult than I had imagined. Moving in your early 40s is totally different than in your 20s. It was impossible for me to be a lawyer in the USA as most of the firms at this time were laying off people, and “I was not an American lawyer” and I “had no experience in the USA” as I was told.

It was by a chance meeting, one person who gave me the idea to become a real estate broker in New York.

Beauty and style were part of my background and my professional life. I achieved a successful business in fashion and textiles, which is like a good recipe, with the right amount of creativity, the right ingredients and always having in mind what the consumer expectations are and at times reaching a compromise between taste and business. In real estate it’s very similar, you always have the element of taste, colors, style and creativity, and at the same time all figures have to be aligned. Bringing your client through this journey of compromise is your role.

In 2010, I applied to various schools to get a master’s in environmental law as this topic together with animal welfare has always been a part of my core and vision. Being part of American life and culture, I felt getting an American degree was essential for me, but I also took a step back and asked myself “who was I when I was a little girl.”

I believe, as most of us do, that one of the most difficult things in life for human beings is change; when you look through the list of the most stressful situations you find moving, divorce, changing jobs, and loss of a loved one… Human beings are the animals most afraid of change, yet we find the strength to go through changes and adapt, to move forward. Candidly, I do not like change at all, but change is a necessity sometimes in your life.

One of the most important things my father taught me was a simple sentence: “Never look in your rearview mirror.” I try to apply most of my life through this saying. Some of the changes that happened in my life were my choice, some were not my choice and were forced upon me, as all of us probably have experienced. I learned how to adapt, maybe more easily than somebody else, because of my character but also the exigence and the flexibility you have to have when you are from a family of successful business entrepreneurs.

I think that change can be productive if we focus on adapting and, above all, keep looking forward.

In one phrase, DO NOT BE AFRAID. My strength up to now has been to quickly to adapt and be flexible, to melt into a new culture and new environment. It’s to face new challenges and it’s probably the best way to feel alive.

Now you are ROARing into what you want to do in your next chapter. You have gone back to school in your early 50s to get a master’s degree in (what is it exactly?). For this next phase of your life, you are focusing on your passion for animals. How did you arrive at this decision? And tell us what you hope to do with this new degree when you complete it. 

At 55, I have decided to make changes in my life and to come back to return to the person I feel has always been at my center. Maybe this feeling might ring true for some of you as well. I need to open a large parenthesis here and explain a bit the idea behind animal studies.

Most of the people who are in animal welfare or animal rights have gone through the same things as I, a deep concern for animals has always been in their life and in their hearts.

In my world, as a kid, the circus and zoo were out of my scope; it was an absolute refusal from me to go to those places. Later in life, I tried to deal with my own conflicts, with animal life and treatment, which is obviously greatly related to fashion and food, and I tried to convince people to change their approach to animals.

Today, I am still concerned by the lack of compassion towards non-human animals and human ones too. I am sad to see thousands of species disappearing from our world. My sadness is for the next generation, but also for the animals themselves and the lack of compassion we have towards them.

However my professional goals go beyond animal welfare. It’s about the marriage of the pressing issues of the new world and where we are heading for a better future for humankind.

Environment, animal welfare, a new way of consumerism, production and capitalism is where I see myself; these issues must be intertwined if the world is to become a healthier and better place for generations to come. It’s about having A VISION and working towards it.

Going back to NYU for degrees in Environmental and Animal Studies has given me the ability and groundwork to now enter the field that is my passion. Without question, I see myself bringing my cultural diversity and business and legal experience to either the business world or an NGO that is focused on being part of the new arena of compliance, regulations and change. 

This century for sure has shown us one thing, everything is questionable; we always knew that what was true yesterday may not be true tomorrow, but this has never been so appropriate. Moral codes have changed, society keeps moving on and America has always been ahead in these changes even with societal resistance.

The population in all OECD countries is getting older. Aging consumers are therefore different and they come with different expectations than a younger consumer; older consumers seek durability and style but they are not always brand-oriented; they are quality-oriented and are open to new products using technology that will answer to these demands—especially in providing products for the improvement of the quality of life for them, the ever-increasing older population.

Management of companies will probably be more in demand for the same profiles of managers as the aging consumers, not only because of age but also because of the strength of this group of people which revolves around their being more flexible, more experienced and not afraid of the unknown.

I am curious to know in the world of today, and with any type of discrimination being a crucial factor, how not hiring 50+ people will be perceived, will maybe even quotas be put in place in large and public companies? It’s maybe also to not accept stereotypical ideas or perceptions and show that the once impossible is possible!!!!!!!

The evolution of our society cannot be ignored, people are living longer and are in better shape than ever, everywhere we look. If society markets this aspect more and more, as I believe will happen, it simply cannot be denied that this group is a major part of the economic and consumer power and I believe the evolving workplace of tomorrow!