Entrepreneur, philanthropist, and Hamptons resident Cheri Kaufman is the co-founder of Veteran Services USA, New York Chair of the National Women’s History Museum, the CEO of CiGIVE, and the co-founder of Kaufman Astoria Studios which has housed productions for major films and hit TV shows such as “Gossip Girl,” “Men in Black,” “The Irishman,” “Birdman,” “Orange is the New Black,” “Sesame Street,” and “Succession.”
We caught up with Kaufman to learn more.
Can you tell us a little about your background as an entrepreneur?
Okay, but let’s agree with the simple fact that being an entrepreneur starts with being entrepreneurial — and that, for me, started very early.
I was barely out of college and working in the hospitality industry, where I was recognized rather quickly as a person who gets things done. I was working for Intercontinental Hotels and they approached me to interview with them for a management position.
Wow! I was excited. They offered me the newly created position of Vice President of Acquisitions and Development. There was one catch: I would have to move to Dubai. At that time, it was completely unprecedented for a young American woman in her early 20’s to be executing highly confidential deals in the male-dominated Muslim countries of the Middle East.
I have always had an adventurous outlook and approach to life and an insatiable curiosity about other cultures and people. So off to the Middle East I went, where in no time I was running several hotels meeting with sheiks, and heads of industry, literally making deals seated on the floor in gigantic tents in the desert.
A fast-learner and a persistent negotiator, I even started a steel and cement trading company. Many years later, and many more great experiences as an executive in foreign lands, including Egypt and India, I got to help spearhead the revival of the movie industry in New York, as a co-founder of Kaufman Astoria Studios.
More recently, I started a company called CiGive which aims to support and empower enterprising the next generation of leaders who focus on fostering social responsibility in a variety of industries.
My latest project: Now I am beginning to write my book, which I am very excited about, to give people the tools for success in life and business through my life experiences.
Talk about your work as New York chair of the National Women’s History Museum and tell us a little about the recent Women Making History Awards Gala that you headed.
Now we are talking about a subject that is very dear and important to me. I am fortunate to have been raised by great parents, who encouraged me at every turn, and to have also benefited from the added presence of smart and accomplished grandmothers as role models. We all stand on the shoulders of those who inspired and went before us. And I have always paid special attention to women role models, leaders, and activists.
That is why, when I was first approached to join the board of the National Women’s History Museum, I was so taken back to learn that nowhere in the world, including the United States, was there a museum dedicated to celebrating the accomplishments of women.
Museums are literal vessels through which we pass down the narratives that shape our world. How could it continue to be that the women’s part of the story was going largely untold?
With the opening last spring of a new permanent exhibit space in Washington, D.C., we finally have a start on a real physical exhibit for the National Women’s History Museum, the first in any capital in any nation on earth. Oprah Winfrey introduced the exhibit and that is a moment in history that we helped create.
I was honored to serve as the chairperson for the Women Making History Awards Gala this year, especially because it accompanied the inauguration of the new exhibit space located in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library within walking distance to the White House and just blocks from the Portrait Gallery. The awards every year recognize the incredible achievements of trailblazing women and men who inspire and empower us all.
The museum strives to fundamentally change the way women and girls see their potential and power. Can you elaborate on this for us?
That is so true, but let me point out that it is not only women and girls who benefit when their achievements are recognized, celebrated and truthfully told.
Boys, and men, too, are enriched by witnessing the value of the women — their own mothers, daughters, aunts, grandmothers, and colleagues whose amazing lives helped build and form the world we live in and bring hope for future generations.
My own journey in business and personal relationships, and the persistence I’ve made part of my career, have been deeply influenced by a simple but powerful sentiment: “If you can see it, you can be it.” This idea has guided me and motivated me to pursue goals and overcome challenges.
The National Women’s History Museum certainly is the embodiment of that philosophy, I believe. Being a part of a project that provides a platform for these remarkable stories of women to be preserved and told is really gratifying. We are sending a powerful message of strength and hope and pride for future generations.
At Kaufman Astoria Studios you named the sound stages after women who filmed there. Can you tell us about some of these women and perhaps how they inspired you?
Being a part of the founding of the studio was an incredible experience, very hard work, challenging situations and difficult hurdles, including raising the funding, rebuilding the infrastructure and re-imagining its place in revitalizing the film industry in New York. Now it is the home of “Sesame Street,” “Succession,” and “The Irishman” just to name a few.
As we were bringing the sound stages back to life, I was intrigued by the many famous pioneering stars who passed through the studio gates. There were so many. After all, the studio and its enormous main stage (still the largest on the East Coast) had been a site for productions going back into the Silent Era.
It struck me that it would be special to honor some of the female icons that brought guts and glamor to the big screen.
In the naming ceremonies, we had several living legends back to apply their names to their individual stage. Claudette Colbert, Hellen Hayes, Sylvia Sydney, Gloria Swanson — to name a few.
When we honored Diana Ross for her work on “The Wiz,” we even had a real New York yellow taxi on set to re-create the moment.
There are great stories connected to all the stars we honored. Helen Hayes, for instance, had an incalculable influence in both theater and cinema. And, how about Claudette Colbert? She was the first to portray Cleopatra in a film, blazing the trail of an astonishing movie career with some of her earliest roles right there on the stages and lots of the studio. History truly surrounds you when you visit Kaufman Astoria Studios.
You mentioned that you have an interest in accelerating entrepreneurial socially responsible companies. Tell us more about this.
When you look at it, a natural part of humanity is the wish to leave this a better world. That only happens when we build it as an intention into every endeavor, whether it is in our personal and family lives, in our communities, in our businesses, in the environment, or in our own morality.
We have all got a part to play. I try to be a change-maker, a connector, and a good listener. Make a difference. Act with purpose.
We must foster the next generation of citizens and leaders to be as good as they can be and as responsible as possible about using and preserving the resources available. Some of the most critical aspects of this, as applied to business, include environmental preservation, upholding ethical values and advancing our mutual well-being, particularly in health and medicine.
When I started CiGive, it was not only about addressing current challenges, but also ensuring a brighter more promising future for generations to come.
Tell us about your work as a co-founder of Veteran Services USA.
I have had the privilege of work opportunities in many different fields in many different countries. I experienced cultures I could have not imagined as I grew up in New York and Florida. Throughout this I have always been aware of the exceptional influence our country has in other lands. Our national values of democracy are a beacon for freedom. Protecting and maintaining those freedoms has not always been easy and has come at great human sacrifice.
From my earliest days, when my father, as an enlisted army doctor, repaired the battle-broken faces of soldiers sent home from Korea, I knew that service meant sacrifice and loss and that it lasted beyond the end of fighting.
So, my involvement with VSUSA comes from a real personal place and a genuine sense of gratitude and appreciation for the roles played by our service members, and their families.
VSUSA provides help toward housing, education, employment and physical and mental health care for senior and returning veterans. I am extremely proud of its promotion of access to various treatments for PTS, one of which is achieving remarkable success without the use of drugs of any kind.
We recently partnered with a group of some 15 top fashion designers, including Donna Karan, Tommy Hilfiger, Michael Kors, Thom Browne and others, for a runway show featuring one-of-a-kind creations using repurposed military clothing and gear for the benefit of raising funds and awareness of the efforts of VSUSA.
We cheer and salute the troops as they go off to defend us, but it is important to remember, thank and continue to support them as they return to civilian life. I hope we all can find ways to give back as we move forward to a better tomorrow.
Leadership comes in many forms. You must have the sacrifice and the willingness to break through, build a human capital network, and become great at whatever you choose to pursue in life. If you want a better world, go create it.
How do you like to spend your time on the East End?
You can find me walking the beach on Flying Point enjoying the sunset. I think it’s magical how the sky changes colors and that’s why so many artists move to the Hamptons. We love eating outside at Sant Ambroeus and buying fresh tomatoes and strawberries from the farm stands. Loaves and Fishes is a Hamptons staple. My favorite thing to do is spend time with my friends – the best part about the Hamptons is the sense of community.