Interview With Associate Dean Michael Strauss

By: Eli Saperstein  |  October 29, 2020

By Eli Saperstein on behalf of the YU Observer

Michael Strauss is the associate dean of the Sy Syms School of Business as well as a clinical professor of strategy and entrepreneurship, entrepreneur-in-residence and director of The Rennert Entrepreneurial Institute. From 2017-2019, he served as the interim dean and from 2011-2017 as the associate dean at the Sy Syms School of Business. Before joining Yeshiva University, Dean Strauss was involved in many different industries, from being the chairman of Sherwood Consulting Group, Inc., a management advisory firm dedicated to steering emerging growth companies, to serving as CEO of multiple companies, delivering expertise in turn-around management. Dean Strauss’ industry expertise was forged during his twelve years at American Express which he departed as one of only three executive vice presidents of the Travel Related Services Division. Prior to American Express, he served in several financial and management capacities at American Airlines, the Bank of New York and CitiGroup. He has a BBA from The City College of New York and an MBA from Baruch College, City University of New York. Dean Strauss was born and raised in Israel and is fluent in both Hebrew and German. 

I had the honor and opportunity to interview Associate Dean Strauss about his past experiences, talk about current and upcoming initiatives at YU, as well as hearing the advice he has for the current students.

YU Observer: What was your background before you came to YU and what led you to want to stay?

Associate Dean Michael Strauss: I came to America from Israel at the age of fourteen with my parents who had left from Germany before the war. From the day I arrived in NY, I had to work in order to support myself and my parents who were extremely poor. I could not afford to go to Yeshiva University at the time, so I went to City College where I received my undergraduate degree, and then to Baruch at night, to get my MBA. My first two jobs were in industrial engineering, a good field, but one which I did not enjoy. After two years I got a job at CitiBank, in the operations department where I learned some programming, and from there I went to Bank of NY where I got into sales: selling the bank’s services to its corporate clients. I enjoyed the financial services industry, and was attracted by an ad in the NY Times, (in those days, companies advertised for open positions in the newspapers), looking for an assistant treasurer at American Express. I applied and was hired. I worked at AmEx for twelve years heading the Gold Card Division, their Canadian Subsidiary in Toronto, the U.S. Marketing business, and the U.S. Travel Division, eventually becoming an executive vice president.

After 12 years at AMEX, and the broad exposure that I received to run different businesses there, I decided to become more entrepreneurial, and over a period of several years worked with different investors, who acquired companies in need of “fixing,” as CEO. My mandate was to do whatever it takes to position or reposition the company for substantial growth. The investors strategy was to sell the companies that they acquired within a reasonable amount of time, of course, for more than they paid for them. We would invest in these companies, turn them around and sell them for a profit. I learned that the basic principles of any business are the same no matter what the industry is, the end goal is usually the same, offer the best product or service to the customer, while maximizing profitability, at least in the for-profit world. This was my approach when I was asked to join YU to help revitalize the business school. 

My first experience with Yeshiva University was when a professor from YU, whom I met, asked me to speak to his class about my experiences in business. I gave the presentation, and as I opened the floor to questions, I marveled at how respectful, inquisitive, and polite the students were. After the presentation, several students came over to ask questions; we stayed in touch. I came back again and again to the school and eventually was asked to develop my own course called, “Turnaround Business Strategy”. In 2011 I was offered the position of dean, to help in revitalizing the school. 

O: What was it like switching from the corporate world, where you were the chairman of Sherwood Consulting Group, and served as CEO of multiple companies, to Yeshiva University, and what made you decide that you can settle down at YU?

S: As I said before, business is business except that the environment of Yeshiva University which is a very Jewish environment was a new and very enticing experience for me. At American Express there were very few Jews in upper management. I cannot speak for the entire company or other companies, but the corporate world was at that time a very secular environment. Many Jews felt that to be successful they needed to become entrepreneurs and start companies on their own. They wanted to be able to make their own decisions and be their own bosses; many became very successful.

I came to YU because I wanted to give back, after many successful years in the corporate world. That gave me a bit of freedom to voice my opinion and make some changes that I felt would benefit the school. I forged a very close relationship with the students, one of appreciation and respect. Respect for each other was key to having a positive and productive relationship. 

O: What led you to become so interested in entrepreneurship and business management?

S: It was a necessity. When we first got off the boat from Israel and got to our apartment, my parents had no jobs, no money, and no food. I went out at 14 looking for a job. I saw a grocery store on our block and with my few words of English asked for a job there; I was promptly rejected, so I waited outside the store and would help those who needed — particularly the elderly by carrying their bags back to their homes for which they would tip me. 

After deciding to leave engineering and becoming successful at a management position at American Express, I decided that private equity had the most potential for myself with my background in turning businesses around.

O: This year has been incredibly chaotic for everyone, and based on your experience in “turnaround management”, what does it mean for the future of companies as we know them? Will this new world of virtual business become the norm, and will it be good for companies and their employees or worse?

S: These are definitely very tough times for many businesses. The businesses that will thrive, and are thriving, and growing, are those that are creative, flexible and willing and able to change and adapt. The companies that can adapt, re-imagine themselves, will not only survive but become stronger and better. The others that cannot, may disappear. IBM, one of the world’s largest computer and technology companies, recently announced that they are moving towards more cloud-based services. They have been around for a hundred years and decided that they needed to reinvent themselves in order to survive. That shows adaptability and persistence as opposed to stagnation. The worst thing for a company is to stagnate. Employees are very much the same. They too need to adapt, accept change, and show flexibility.  

One of the things that I am extremely proud of is YU’s response to the pandemic and how quickly it adopted and changed. In March, we were one of the first to shut down and reopen with a whole new method of teaching. Teaching online has its challenges and there were of course some hiccups as we went from face to face to online learning, but we pulled through. Over the summer, there were many training sessions for the teachers on how to teach more effectively in an online environment, and how to engage students in the virtual classroom. We are doing our best with the resources at hand, but for the most part this semester is not being plagued by nearly as many issues as we had in the spring, and overall, while not ideal, this semester is extremely productive given the circumstances. 

O: As a FTOC (First time on campus) student, the first time I met you was during the Sy Syms orientation where you shared that “If anyone has any ideas regarding an invention, please contact me.” What inventions have you helped create? 

S: When I first joined YU, many students, knowing my entrepreneurial background, asked me if I can help them take their business idea and assist them in creating a path to launching the business. I saw many ideas. Some were very good and some were not so good. This led to my becoming the Entrepreneur in Residence. I helped many students in drafting a business plan, identifying sources of funds, introducing them to patent lawyers, manufacturing facilities, and more. 

There have been many great ideas that I have seen since becoming “Entrepreneur in Residence.” Two unique ideas that became businesses were relatively simple ideas for which there was a market and demand. Remember that Apple, which has been dominating the smartphone industry, is a relative newcomer to the scene. How did they do it?  It used to be the Blackberry which everyone used, particularly businesses. Where is Blackberry today?

The two ideas that I am going to talk about are relevant to everyone now that winter is coming. One was a student who came up to me with a few pages of diagrams describing how she created a sweatshirt that turns into a handbag. She told me how she would go running around campus and she didn’t want to have to stop by her dorm every time before class to drop off the sweatshirt, and that she wasn’t comfortable tying the sweatshirt around her waist or carrying it around. So, she created a sweatshirt that, by pulling a few strings, became a handbag that she could carry on her shoulders. She manufactured it and sold a bunch. As with many other business ideas that became small businesses, she abandoned it when she graduated from Syms.

Another idea that was actually very successful came from a student who had come to me with the following problem. He lived in the Bronx and worked downtown in the financial district. He had to take the elevated subway to work. On very cold days, he wore a very heavy coat. He did not like it but could not find a light very warm coat. After much research he decided to make his own, very warm but light coat. At first, I did not think he could do it, but eventually the idea got off the ground, and today the company is very successful, called “Norwegian Wool.” 

O: How do you feel about the Syms online program and are there any advantages now that everything is online and how can students best take advantage of them?

I believe that the online program is a success; is it ideal? No. We have put a lot of work in restructuring the curriculum and training the professors on how to deal with the challenges of online learning. How to make sure that students are more engaged and more attentive. I speak to students every day, and the feedback so far is very positive. 

There are advantages to some to work from home, and there are disadvantages to others. It depends on several factors, the privacy that one has, bandwidth availability, technology, and more flexibility. There is no question that all of us miss the interaction with others. 

O: Going forward what will Syms look like? Will the online portion be a permanent edition?

Not likely. Once we get past the pandemic, we may offer some online courses, but the hope is to get back to face to face learning. Efforts are being put towards improving online learning while at the same time creating the smoothest transition back to on-campus learning as soon as possible. 

O: What problems are you seeing with the online program, and what advice can you give to students on how to deal with virtual learning?

None of this is ideal as I have mentioned before. In an online environment, students are usually at home, competing with other family members’ needs for laptops, bandwidth, and privacy. We are attempting to do everything on our end to provide the students the best education that we can,  given the circumstances. I am pleased to let you know that we have received a tremendous amount of positive feedback from the faculty, the students as well as the parents for the job that we are doing. I myself am extremely proud of all the hard work our faculty and students are putting in to make this semester a success; let’s keep it up!

O: What questions do you wish students would ask you about your experiences that you never get to share/that you feel they would benefit from? 

S: My relationship with the students is a very open one, there is nothing I haven’t talked about nor anything I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing with them. My advice to all the students is to ask and ask and ask again. I keep my door open, (pre pandemic), and enjoy occasionally “ambushing” students to ask how things are going and to ask them how things can be improved. I like to have the relationship be less formal, more of one akin to a grandfather and grandson as opposed to dean and student. In most universities, students do not know who the dean is. They only get the opportunity to meet the dean, when they are expelled. Not at YU, all the deans, academic advisors and faculty are accessible to the students, and know most, if not all of them in person. We are one family……