Marie-Thérèse, we are so grateful to have you as the Chairman of our Board at Mentor Foundation USA. Could you tell us a bit about why you said yes to this commitment and how long you’ve been at the position and also part of the organization?
I became Chairman of Mentor Foundation USA (“MFUSA”) during early 2021, taking over the position from Ms. Gudrun Giddings after she took on the role as President and CEO of the organization.
I have been on the Board of Directors of MFUSA since 2009. This came about after being asked by then MFUSA Chairman, Yvonne Thunell, to join the board. Yvonne and I met through the Swedish-American Chamber in New York, and after outlining MFUSA’s targeted mission, I was more than happy to assist her in executing that mission as a member of MFUSA’s board.
From 2009 to the end of 2016, in my capacity as a corporate M&A partner working at the New York headquarters of international law firm, Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle LLP (“Curtis”), I also acted as outside counsel to MFUSA and chaired the legal committee on MFUSA’s board. During this period, I was assisted by many other lawyers at Curtis committed to the success of MFUSA’s mission. The lesson being that accomplishing goals in life almost always involves a team effort. This was the extent of my involvement with MFUSA during this period, based on the limitations set by Curtis on its lawyers’ outside activities.
In 2017, with my role as outside counsel having passed to one of my Curtis colleagues, and myself retired from the practice of law, I was no longer constrained to taking on other roles at MFUSA. So, when the request came to assume the Chairman’s role, I was happy and able to fully commit to taking it on.
To see how little, it actually takes to show such a child that someone cares, that their existence and life matters, and to see that child change into someone who believes their hopes and dreams can be achieved, is an extraordinary privilege.- Marie-Thérèse Allen
What would you say is the most important part of Mentor USA and our mission that you, in your position on the board, want to accentuate?
As someone who had an extraordinarily privileged childhood, with loving and engaged parents, who provide me and my siblings with a great education and a safe environment in which to thrive, my involvement with MFUSA is as much about “paying it forward”, as it is about the immense satisfaction one gets in seeing kids from far less optimal circumstances thrive with far, far less than we had. To see how little, it actually takes to show such a child that someone cares, that their existence and life matters, and to see that child change into someone who believes their hopes and dreams can be achieved, is an extraordinary privilege. It has also reconfirmed to me over the years that the USA truly is a land of second chances.
I have seen MFUSA evolve over the years since 2009. In the beginning, with its “in schools” mentoring programs it was successfully able to reach and mentor a small number of teens annually. These were youngsters identified by their schools as benefiting the most from the mentoring programs MFUSA was then able to offer. The weekly “one on one in school mentoring meetings” at which the MFUSA mentors would offer up all kinds of advice on developing and maintaining good and positive life skills, became sought after opportunities by many more students than the MFUSA mentoring programs ever anticipated or, in truth, could handle. It had become a “cool thing” to do. The high school graduation and college admissions’ success of those initial groups of kids showed MFUSA that this programming was achieving many of its mission’s goals.
Gradually, this approach evolved into providing many more teenagers across the United States with access to the life skills and lessons MFUSA was trying impart, through launch of MFUSA’s “peer to peer” programming. This newer approach provides opportunities and platforms through which many more teenagers are able to empower each other to attain and retain such skills.
As the Covid pandemic over the last 2+ years halted any kind of in-person activities, MFUSA sought new opportunities to keep as many teenagers engaged in peer-to-peer life skills activities as possible. Now, with the ability to return to in-person events, the Board of Directors of MFUSA is actively supporting MFUSA’s President, Gudrun Giddings, and her team, as they design and execute the next phase of MFUSA’s critical mission.
As you know, at Mentor USA we always strive to empower and motivate youth to choose healthy alternatives and follow their ambitions. Could you give us an insight into the inspiring journey of your successful business, Naylor & Naylor, that you run together with your sister?
Although born in NY, because of our father’s airline executive job, I was raised first in Germany (where my sister Joan was born) and thereafter till marriage in the U.K. along with my 3 siblings. While some might regard that as a bit disruptive to child rearing, living in a number of different cultures, having to speak a number of different languages as a child (yes, American English is a different language) and getting on planes to fly to distant places, was to have a lasting impact on the way my sister and I view the world (essentially a pretty small place, where most people across the globe are striving to achieve pretty similar goals). In retrospect, we had the very best of both worlds, with our pre-college education in Germany and England, followed by college in the USA.
Joan, who had 2 successful careers in the airline business and luxury hotels business, respectively, and I, both retired at the end of 2016. She still living in the U.K. and me now in the USA.
She had been thinking for some time before that about starting her own business upon retiring. I must admit I had no such thoughts for myself. Having worked hard for some 40+ years in an extremely high-pressure end of the legal profession, I was looking forward to just kicking back a bit. That was not to happen. As she started to bring the pieces of her “dream” business together, we would spend hour upon hour on FaceTime or Zoom discussing the ideal structure of her business, the actual purpose and targeted customer base of her business, and everything in between.
Before I knew it, I had become her partner in not only setting up the business and going about making it as efficient and effective from as many aspects as possible, but also to running the business on a day-to-day basis. This was driven in the main by the business ultimately being established in the USA.
We named the business Naylor & Naylor, after our maiden name, and established it in late 2018 with our headquarters in Naples, Florida. Since its founding, Naylor & Naylor has operated almost exclusively as a web business, although it has also participated in a number of trunk shows when requested by customers to do so. It is also a very proud sponsor of Mentor Foundation USA.
Naylor & Naylor sells a range of handmade leather bracelets, clutches, and other small accessories exclusively sourced from Italian family businesses. These products are made of beautiful Italian leathers and hardware and come in an array of gorgeous colors. Every product that we sell is named after women who have had an important impact on our lives. See: www.naylornaylor.com
Given the physical, but not the electronic, distance between my sister and me, we divided the task of setting up and then operating Naylor & Naylor, as follows: my sister handles all of the website design and editing, the marketing, and the product promotion aspects of the business. I handle maintaining the structure and day to day operations of the business, including the fulfillment of all product sales. Together we select the products to be sold, and work with our leather goods supplier and other suppliers in Tuscany to make that happen.
As everything we sell is handmade of components made and sourced only in Italy, the product order lead time has been the most challenging aspect of our business so far. Unlike something made on a conveyor belt in a factory, where you can order 50, 500 or 10,000 at a time, and have FedEx deliver your order soon thereafter, the handmade nature of our beautiful leather products requires a lot of lead time to source the leathers from the tanneries in Tuscany, and then actually hand make and fulfill our orders.
It takes a big team beyond Naylor & Naylor to make that all happen. From the tanneries to the great people hand making our various products, to the transatlantic shipping companies, to the US customs agents and finally to USPS to get our products from inception to our customers. Behind the scenes are the people working on photography, the website, our beautiful marketing materials and presentations, the beautiful gift boxing that is complimentary with every product sale, and a small team of lawyers, accountants, and insurers to keep it all humming along. And last, but not least, our great customers, without whose loyalty and support we would have no business.
So, if I have learned anything, or had something reconfirmed to me, it is the following: without such a great group of support players and customers, it would all have been far more difficult (and likely impossible) to set up and operate Naylor & Naylor as smoothly as it has operated since its launch, including through the pandemic.
Are there any serious challenges that you have encountered in your life and career, and lessons you’ve learned from this, that you would like to share?
As I have said earlier, my life has been pretty privileged. That being said, I chose to enter the legal profession at a time when there were substantially fewer women practicing law than there are today.
From the attitudes of some older professors in law school, to entry level job opportunities, to the type of law I wanted to practice, to getting on the fast track to partnership, and to the fact that my husband was a career army officer destined to move around every few years, all made the chances of achieving my goals a bit more challenging.
Early on he said to me “If I don’t provide you with opportunities, how can I expect others to provide my daughters with opportunities?``- Marie-Thérèse Allen
I learned pretty quickly that I would have to work harder, longer, and better to keep progressing forward. I started in my chosen field with several positive things on my side. First, my husband has always been my biggest cheerleader, followed by my own family and my in-laws. This was critical. Second, my first job out of law school found me being hired by a prestigious German law firm in Frankfurt, Germany (where my husband was then stationed). Due to its multinational client base that German firm always had an American lawyer on staff. My luck was that the prior American lawyer had just returned to the US when I approached them for a job. An amazing opportunity had popped up and I was there to take it up.
That first job would set the tone for my entire legal career. It provided me with a foreign language skill that set me apart from others when I returned to the USA, it had me working in my chosen area of the law (corporate mergers and acquisitions) for my 3 years with that firm, it had me working with a group of lawyers for whom gender was a non-issue, and lastly, the senior and managing partner of that firm was the father of daughters. Early on he said to me “If I don’t provide you with opportunities, how can I expect others to provide my daughters with opportunities?”
On returning to the US, my luck again was that my husband was now stationed in the Northeast, allowing me the opportunity to look at New York City for my next job. A city in which I was able to stand out with my foreign language skill, overseas experience, and the excellent references of my Frankfurt firm.
I would join a firm in NYC that in many respects mirrored my firm in Frankfurt, including being given opportunities to take on and shine on many different transactions for many interesting clients. A firm at which I would make partner and join just two other women partners in its partner ranks. A firm at which my foreign language skill and knowledge of Germany and the German business sector was essential to my continued path forward.
So, if I have any advice, it would be that if opportunities pop up, and you have even the slightest ability to take advantage of them, no matter how scary, go for it, they often become the impetus of moving you forward to the next level. Also, that you recognize that your successes are never the result of you alone. They always involve the actions, trust, support, and cheerleading of many, many other people. Earning these responses from them is your job.
Your successes are never the result of you alone. They always involve the actions, trust, support, and cheerleading of many, many other people.- Marie-Thérèse Allen
Could you tell us about a role model or mentor that you have had in your life?
I have been lucky to have had a series of what I think have been very effective role models and mentors throughout my life. I have already mentioned a few in my earlier responses. The list of these people increases as you get older and find yourself in changing situations.
Like many people, I look to my parents as my first and most significant role models. Both smart, attractive, and athletic people – the two of them set a high bar for their first born, as they went about starting their young family. They were my earliest cheerleaders, advice givers, task masters, and setters of what was expected of me both within and outside of the family. While setting the parameters of my early life, they unknowingly helped define the general direction in which my later life would go.
The bottom line is that while some of these people have had more impact and influence on my personal and professional life than others, all of them have been willing to support and advise me throughout these different parts of my life.- Marie-Thérèse Allen
Added to their influence were many of my teachers throughout my years of formal education. People who empowered me to think for myself, make decisions, take calculated risks, and not be afraid to take action, even when not always popular.
My husband, accomplished in his own right, has been the most long-term role model and mentor in my adult life. Someone whose advice I have always trusted and valued.
As I entered the workforce, my list of role models and mentors expanded further to include a number of more senior colleagues, other lawyers, and even some clients.
The bottom line is that while some of these people have had more impact and influence on my personal and professional life than others, all of them have been willing to support and advise me throughout these different parts of my life.
Lastly, would you please share your favorite inspirational quote with us?
I have no special inspirational quote but think often of my mother saying to me and my siblings “The world’s your oyster. If you really put your mind to it, there is little you cannot achieve.” Hearing those words was immensely empowering. Looking back, I can see that my parents, our educators, and countless others provided us with most of the grounding, education, and life skills to make that more than a distant possibility.
The ongoing work of MFUSA aims to empower less privileged youngsters to feel pretty much the same. That their hopes and dreams are more than possible too.
Thank you so much, Marie-Thérèse, for sharing these very insightful answers and your experience with our youth, supporters, and our network. We are grateful for the support that you, through your company Naylor & Naylor, as well as through your position as Chairman of the Board, provide Mentor Foundation USA!
Learn more about Mentor Foundation USA’s Board of Directors.