Genna Zimmer, WG’20, says Wharton positioned her to help lead REEDS Jewelers through the COVID-19 pandemic and to achieve her goal of seeing the company succeed for another 70+ years.

Growing up, Genna Zimmer, WG’20, didn’t realize the scale of her family’s jewelry business – she just knew that her dad worked at a jewelry store. It wasn’t until she was a teenager that she learned how her grandfather founded REEDS Jewelers after WWII to help celebrate the special moments in people’s lives. From its beginnings, Genna’s grandfather wanted REEDS to be more than just a local jeweler — he was an active leader in the community and among the first in Wilmington, NC to provide credit to minority groups.

In college, Genna took a class on family business and became even more interested in the company. “My grandfather was a remarkable human being and I wanted to continue his legacy and help the business continue for another 74 years,” she said, noting that she worked part-time at REEDS stores in high school and as an undergraduate student.

After college, she wanted to get experience with another family-owned retailer, so she joined the corporate finance and accounting team at Belk Corp. When that company was purchased by a private equity firm, she returned to REEDS as a project manager.

“My goal was to eventually become a senior leader at REEDS, but I wanted to work in all areas of the business first, and our external board of directors had always recommended that I either get an MBA or gain more experience at another company,” she said.

After several years as a project manager, Genna loved working at REEDS and couldn’t see herself at another company, so she decided to get an MBA. At first, she considered full-time programs, but her reluctance to leave the business led her to look for other options. That is when she set her sights on Wharton’s EMBA program.

“I wanted a top MBA program, but I didn’t want to stop working. I’m on the younger side for Wharton’s EMBA program, so I applied and was accepted as a Fellow,” she said. “I only applied to Wharton because it was a perfect fit.”

Genna Zimmer with her classmates on a leadership trip to Gettysburg with Prof. Michael Useem

Benefits of Wharton’s EMBA Program

There were several important benefits of the EMBA program, recalled Genna:

Applied Learning: “I was able to apply what I learned in school to my job right away. For example, I previously had an informal process for checking in with my team. When I learned about best practices for mentorship, I changed that process immediately. I was also able to immediately implement efficiency opportunities from learnings in Operations classes”

Classmates: “I learned a lot from my classmates, who had experience in a diversity of fields. A good example is when Hurricane Florence hit Wilmington and the city was shut down for weeks. I was charged with building out a business continuity plan for the company, but I hadn’t done that before. When I messaged my classmates to ask if anyone had that kind of experience, 10 of them with risk management experience offered to help. We formed a risk management advisory group, which has continued to be useful during the pandemic.”

A Global Independent Study: “I wanted to learn more about retail, so I connected with Wharton Marketing Prof. Barbara Kahn, a world-renowned retail scholar. She became my advisor in an independent study related to retail in China. Two of my classmates who speak Chinese joined my project and we visited China for on-the-ground research. I never would have had that opportunity if it wasn’t for that project. I learned a lot about retail in China and even found lessons that I could apply to my family’s business.”

For our independent study, Genna studied retail in China. They started the trip in Beijing with a trip to the Penn Wharton China Center. Photographed here is Genna with Prof. Mina Fader, Prof. Barbara Kahn, Yupeng Liu, and Daniel Wu.

Global Learning: “I also went to Sweden and Finland to study customer centricity for the required Global Business Week. I found an abundance of ways to study retail at Wharton.”

Leading in a Pandemic

Perhaps the most important classes at Wharton in light of the pandemic were related to leadership, noted Genna. “I learned about leading during times of crisis, particularly that the most important thing you can do as a leader is to show that you genuinely care. Don’t conceal those emotions,” she said.

“When the pandemic began, I was managing the company’s eCommerce fulfillment center. Every day, I reminded the team that coming to work was a choice, and that if they chose to stay home, I would 100 percent understand,” she said.

In addition to leadership skills, Genna relied on her classmates for advice. “Three weeks after closing all 78 stores, the company made the tough decision to temporarily furlough some employees. I shared REEDS’ internal announcement letter with some of my classmates facing similar difficult decisions to ensure that it was transparent and conveyed how much we cared about the employees. It was helpful to have a sounding board of leaders going through similar challenges,” she said.

Recently, Genna was promoted to director of strategy and operations. “Prior to Wharton, my purpose and only goal was to help the company thrive. I wasn’t focused on my title, but getting this education was a great way for the external board and other executives to be confident that I was ready for greater responsibility.”

Lifelong Bonds

Since graduation, Genna has stayed in touch with many of her classmates. Planning a wedding during school, she had looked forward to not only celebrating with many of them at her ceremony, but also celebrating graduation with a group trip to the Cayman Islands.

Of course, that all changed because of the pandemic. Genna and her fiancé were married in a small civil ceremony. Instead of relaxing on a beach with classmates, Genna chats with them during frequent Zoom happy hours.

“I’m so grateful I went through this program and met so many wonderful people who are now my mentors and friends for life. I’m better positioned now to help my family’s business succeed because of the classes and the deep pool of knowledge among my classmates,” she said.

— By Meghan Laska

Posted: October 15, 2020

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