By: Brian Zwerner, Founder and President of W3 Studio
Published: February 7, 2023
In January 2023 we made the public announcement about the launch of W3 Studio, a non‐profit that will support diverse founders in Atlanta. I recently shared the story of the people that helped my grandparents survive WWII and enabled their pursuit of the American Dream for our family. W3 Studio is a way for me to honor my grandparents’ legacy and pay forward the privileges I was afforded.
Today I want to share how I was taught about teaching and mentorship. This came from my parents, who were great role models of these areas. If you read about my grandparents, you learned that my Mom and Dad were the first in their families to attend college. They both went to small colleges in New York. With my Mom’s parent’s running a small shoe shop, there was no way they could have paid for college. She went to university on an academic scholarship. My Dad’s father saved enough money from his Brooklyn bakery to pay for his kids to attend college.
After graduating from Hunter College NYC in 1967, my Mom started her career as a teacher. She says she went into that profession because she loved working with children. Her first job was at an elementary school in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, a rough area. She worked there for five years while getting her master’s degree in the evenings.
We eventually moved to Miami around 1984. My Mom then started a 15+ year run teaching at Howard Drive Elementary School, a nice school in a good suburban area. My sister and I didn’t attend this school, but it was only about 10 minutes away from where we lived. Many times as a kid, we would bump into my Mom’s current or former students around town. It was clear from these interactions what a great teacher my Mom was. The love and adoration of the kids and their parents was obvious every time we met a new one. My Mom still sometimes runs into former students or parents in Miami today. They always remember her and have such kind things to say about their time with my Mom at Howard Drive. The capstone of her teaching career was when she was awarded the Mainstream Teacher of the Year in 1992 for her work helping special needs students stay enrolled in regular classes. My Mom showed me how big a difference a great teacher can make for their students.
My father graduated from Pace College (now Pace University) in 1968. He started his career in the clothing industry as a buyer at Gimbels, a famed NY department store that closed in the 1980s. This was a popular career choice then as it was the heyday of the iconic department stores in NYC. When we moved to Miami, he began a 15+ year run with Florida department store leader Burdines, which was later subsumed by Macy’s.
My Dad managed hundreds of people throughout his career in the fashion industry. He was often described as a great boss and mentor. I tear up every time I read this tribute entitled “My Best Boss Ever” from one of his longtime team members Becky Dannenfelser. My Dad treated everyone with respect and always wanted the opinions from the store salespeople and his junior clothing buyers. A salesperson as Burdine’s flagship Dadeland Mall store said, “Allan would always treat everyone like the CEO”. Becky echoes this by saying, “he made the assistant buyer on the team feel like the most important person in the world”.
My Dad was often described by his team as a great mentor. He always pushed for the people on his team to get opportunities even though it depleted his resources. Whether it was advocating for internal moves or helping people get jobs at competitors, my Dad was always willing to help. When I met current and former people that had worked for my Dad, the praise they gushed with was embarrassing for my teenage self. My Father passed in 2012, and the outpouring of love from his former team was very comforting for our family.
My parents were great role models for teaching and mentorship, skills that I’ve honed over the course of my career. I expect teaching and mentorship to be a big part of the success of W3 Studio as we work with early-stage diverse founders to help them build amazing businesses. This will come from the incredible team of Board members and advisors we have assembled at W3 Studio. I hope my parents will be proud of the work we do and the way their example influences and inspires me.