Meny Hoffman is joined by the CEO and President of Leviev Group USA, Chagit Leviev-Sofiev, to discuss her personal journey becoming the leader of the U.S. arm of a multi-billion dollar business—and what she's learned along the way.
Sometimes in the world of business, we’re thrown into the deep end and faced with two options: sink or swim. This week’s guest, Chagit Leviev-Sofiev, the CEO and President of Leviev Group USA joins us this week to tell us her fascinating story and the lessons she learned along her journey—which all started with moving from Israel to America to run the U.S. arm of a multi-billion dollar business founded by her father, renowned businessman and philanthropist Lev Leviev. Chagit discusses what happens when you’re thrust into a new situation as an outsider and forced to make difficult choices; how to hire the right people; the unique challenges facing women leaders and entrepreneurs; the importance of giving back to the community; and more. There are so many golden nuggets in this interview. I encourage you to listen and enjoy!
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Becoming a Leader in the Family Business: A Personal Journey—with Chagit Leviev-Sofiev
Chagit, thank you so much for joining me on the show.
Thank you. It’s my pleasure.
I’ve been following some of the stuff you do. For our audience, they’re going to learn so much more on the show. Let’s start with a little bit about your story. I know that you came from Israel to New York in 2012 to get involved in the US arm of the Leviev Group, something that was founded by your father who’s very well-known, Lev Leviev. He ended up rebuilding it from the ground up. There’s a lot going on over there. Tell our audience a little bit about it.
As you said in 2012, I was already working for the family business in Israel in a different capacity. I did not start my career working for the family. I was working for Deloitte, an accounting firm after I graduated college because I wanted to feel what it is to be an employee and not having the benefits of, sometimes there are benefits, being the boss’ daughter. I started my way there. I worked there for two years. I worked for 2 or 3 years in Israel for my father as a CFO in one of his holding companies. We had a discussion about him expanding one of his activities in the US and maybe that I should go there and see what’s going on. I didn’t know what to expect.Some people who grow up wealthy immediately expect to be at the top of their field. Click To Tweet
We moved with two kids to New York in the middle of the winter. That itself was a big challenge because it’s a new country, a new place, a new mentality. It’s very different from what I was used to. My husband is an American so he felt back at home. For me, it was something completely different. Getting involved in businesses that I didn’t know what they were, how they were, what was going on. I was trying to get involved. Unfortunately, I was not welcomed in the businesses and that’s when I understood that they were not run in a certain way that we assumed they were. That’s where I had to step in.
You mentioned a couple of points that I feel our audience will appreciate if we could dive deeper a little bit. The first thing you mentioned is a critical point. It also shows the character of who you are as a person. You wanted to be first an employee. We see this pattern a lot of people growing up and their family is wealthy or they have businesses going on. Some people will right away say, “Where’s my mahogany chair and my desk? Which one is waiting for me?” The other people are saying, “I want to try on my own. I want to get into it. I want to earn it. I don’t want to be given it.” Could you expand a little bit on your full process for our audience to understand what went through in your mind when you said before that I would rather first be an employee?
Even when I was a teenager, I used to go to my father’s office in the summer, pick phone calls, help the secretaries open the doors. This is how we technically started. After I’d graduated from the university in Israel, I didn’t know where I was going to fit in. I always knew that I wanted to work for the family business because my father built an empire. Who would he build it for? What’s a bigger joy for a father to see his kids continuing his legacy, getting involved, helping him expand, and being someone that he can trust. I knew that I was eventually going to join my father, but I didn’t want to run right in and people telling me, “This girl came from college. She doesn’t know anything. She expects everything.” I wanted to avoid that. I wanted to get my feet on the ground and start from bottom up.
I was working in the Economics Department at Deloitte as a financial advisor. It was a very interesting experience because of the tactics of being an employee. Everyone was going on a family vacation. I was worried to come to talk to my boss about taking a vacation because we came back from the festival vacation. I was debating. In the end, I did not go on that vacation because I didn’t have the courage to even ask for another vacation. It was very tough. They were tough on me. It’s not like they let me do whatever I want. I was working late hours just like a hardcore accounting firm. I had nights where I was still in the office at 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning. It was a very interesting experience and it taught me a lot about being on the employee’s perspective. Now that I have employees, I can relate much more. I can understand them much more. I’m trying to be an understanding boss as much as I can. It’s easier for me to look at both sides of the table.
This is where I wanted to get to how much would you say is the leader that you are and the empire that you’re overseeing, how much did that affect the way you approach employees, team members and so on and so forth?
Everything that you go through in your journey affects the person you are in general. If it’s a mother, a woman, a boss, anything that you experienced in your life is the person that you’re going to be. I also took all the experiences that I had and I tried to learn as much as I can from them. I try to be a very patient boss. I have a lot of patience when explaining, training, showing them how I want things done and what do I expect from them. It’s up to them to perform. I did my part and now it’s up to them to show me that they understand and they’re willing.
Let’s also discuss one other point you mentioned as you came to New York. You mentioned that was a hard part coming from Israel to New York and everything’s changed because it’s not only the place you live but it’s the type of work you do, the people you meet and you’re coming into a company that’s already operating. You mentioned that at first you weren’t as welcomed as you should have been and you saw that things need to change. This is something that we’ve seen both sides of the coin. I speak to lots of entrepreneurs and leaders and owners of companies that have taken family members. Sometimes the kids are very welcomed and sometimes they are not. From your experience, what you’ve seen at that time, what could you share with our audience, people looking out for that stage in their life where their kids will be coming and joining their business? What would you say that experience as somebody that you could share with the audience?
It’s very hard for me to relate to other people like that because people who manage businesses and their kids join the business, it’s very different. The father or the mother, whoever that is, is very much involved in the business and is running the day-to-day. The kids come and tell, “Dad, he didn’t do this. He did this to me and he told this to me. You should fire this guy and hire this guy.” You have someone to talk to. The father knows what’s going on. There’s much more involvement. I came to the place where my father is not here. He has businesses worldwide and all over the place. The way his business is structured is that he has people he trusts in every single business that is running the business and are reporting to him. It’s very different. I had to rely on the people that are running the business because they were living the business and they were here. First of all, I had no one to run to. No one welcomed me. It’s very simple. There was no office, as you said, with mahogany chair waiting for me. It’s not what I expected at all.
One of my understanding is that you’re split between doing a bunch of real estate parts of the business and then you’re also running the diamond business on the side. It’s totally two different animals in the business world. Tell us a little bit about how you split your time and how you’re juggling between the two.
My move here was focused on the diamond business. We had a massive operation hereof diamonds in the US. We control six companies of diamonds, wholesale, and retail. That was my main focus. In 2013, not even a year after I came here, the former CEO of Africa Israel USA informed the company board that he was quitting. He was taking another position. They needed someone to fill out space. One day, I get a phone call was like, “Chagit, we need you to step in.” It was a shock to me because I said, “What, real estate? Me? America? This is way too big for me. I don’t think I can handle this.” It was very stressful and I wasn’t sure I was able to do it.
I knew real estate from Israel. The real estate in Israel is very different from America. I didn’t know what I’m getting into. I thought that I didn’t want to take too much on myself because I was under a lot of pressure already on the diamond side of the business, but I did it. It was okay. It wasn’t as bad as I thought. It was a learning experience and you learn as you go. It’s like anything in life, no one comes ready to manage any company and no one becomes ready for anything. There’s no school in the world that can train you running an empire or running a small company or becoming a real entrepreneur. The bottom line, you’ll have to learn. Experience is going to teach you. You learn as you go.
Let’s speak about the most important part of any business and every business will be the people. When you speak about people, the first person you’re talking about is the leader. Give us a little bit of a sense of how do you look at hiring when you’re trying to vet a person, a candidate for a specific job. That person needs to have the skillset. As a leader, what do you look at that person to bring to the table?
First of all, it matters what type of position you’re hiring. If it’s an administrative position, it’s usually easier. If it’s someone on a higher executive level, it takes much more on the hiring level. For a higher position. I always look outside of the resume. I would like to hear from people that I know that person and how he is. It’s not like, “Look at my resume. I’m qualified to work for you.” Characters and personalities have a lot to say. I have good instincts for people. I always say that you never get to know a person through an interview or anything. Until a person doesn’t start working, you don’t know them. You can be best friends with someone, but you’re going to see the real face when you work with each other. That’s how I see things.The real estate industry in Israel is vastly different from the industry in America. Click To Tweet
From a company perspective, on the logistics of hiring a person, you mentioned that you don’t get to see the person only after you start working, but sometimes that’s a little too late in the process. Do you have multiple interviews, go through a rigorous process or your instinct is telling you like, “This is a person that I would want to be around with?”
It depends on what type of job. If it’s like more administrative work, I always liked to tell people that I would like to try it out for a few days. They can try out if they like it. I can decide if they like it. A resume can look great but in practicality, it’s not working out. There’s no chemistry. Someone is not getting you. You’re not getting them. It’s not working out. I always like to tell them in advance, “Let’s try for a few days.” You’ll see if you want to do it. We see if we want to do it. Most of the time people are happy with that.
Let’s turn to another topic that I feel very passionate about, which is woman entrepreneurship. I always say people could speak about topics, but people could put the money’s where their mouth is or dedicate time, which is something that you cannot buy more than you have. Running your empire into different things you’re involved with, you still make time to be on the board of different organizations. Why is that so important to you?
There are still little women that can be role model women, that are executive, women that are founders of huge operations. There’s not enough of it. Women should see women succeed because it pushes them and it reminds them that they can also do something. There are so many things that happen to women that are so easy for them to push back and say, “It’s not for me. I’m having a baby. I want a family. My husband doesn’t let me.” There are so many reasons that can push us away from achieving your dreams, goals, making a name for yourself and building a company for yourself, and even being financially dependent. There are so many aspects to women that should succeed. There are not enough women that get the drive because they don’t see enough of it.
What would you say is the biggest challenge for women entrepreneurs in this day and age?
It’s very simple. Women are expected to do more. You’re supposed to run a house, raise a family. If you want a career, that’s an extra. That’s why there are women who choose a career path and have to give up on family and women who pick a family over a career. The ones who choose to fight and not let each one of their dreams go are the women that are struggling the most.
I have my direction of how I look at work-life balance regardless of women or men. You don’t want to give up one or the other. You’re a mother. You mentioned four children and you’re running the business. What would be your way of operating to making sure that you have the proper work-life balance that you can share with the audience?
The easy answer is there’s no balance. It’s the way you make it work for yourself. You know better than anyone else is going to tell you how important a class play is that you want to be there or how important a meeting is at work that you have to be there. For me, I’m extremely organized when it comes to my schedule. When it comes to my work, I have lists of everything that I need to do. I’m prioritizing for everything. What comes first, what comes last, meetings that I can push off in a few weeks, meetings that need to happen this week. I’m very on top of my schedule. Taking into consideration the fact that I need to be home this day for this kid, take this child to this place and be there as much as I can for whatever they need. It’s a matter of planning everything correctly, being on top of your schedule as much as you can. There are always things happening, but try to control your schedule, be prepared and organized.
I love how you said that there’s no work-life balance and this is exactly how I feel. I call it the work-life priorities. My version of it is sometimes you have to be invested in your business. Let’s say you’re building something fresh or you’re having meetings with people out of town coming in. All you need to do is let your family know that the next few days I’ll be less active because I’m involved and let them appreciate when you’re with the family. When you had to play or you would take your kids to the park and all of a sudden, somebody is sitting at the bench and looking at the phone, you’re not spending family time. It’s the priorities that require what. As you mentioned, running your schedule and owning that, nobody else could tell you that.
When people say what is the proper work-life balance, nobody could tell you that other than you created your priorities and your boundaries. I want to get into one more topic, which is philanthropy. I know that you’re coming from a family. Your father is world-renowned on his philanthropist, his efforts, and stuff like that. There’s a line that I’ve seen you speak about which is, “Honor is not awarded for what one receives a life, but from what one gives.” Maybe you could share a little bit of when you were brought up and understanding that this is something that you created. Maybe you would expand it on it, but it’s something that you live by every single day when you saw your father doing stuff like that. What can you share certain lessons that your father taught you as you were younger that gave you a platform now to continue on that?
There’s so much that he taught me when it comes to philanthropy, giving, and doing for other people. First of all, as a kid, we always used to join my father on trips to small towns, small communities, small villages in Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Vienna. We used to travel to all these places where every time we would come in, the community would welcome us and sing songs to my parents and thank them. They have built hundreds and hundreds of schools, community centers, and mikvehs and orphanages throughout Europe. We used to always like to travel here and there to see the places, to see the community, and to see how everything flourishes from my parents’ donations. You cannot be filled with emotion when you see those things of how one man’s actions can change an entire world for generations to come.
There were stories of kids there that were talking and saying how they found that they were Jewish. There are many touching stories. You grow up and you watch this. One of the main topics that my father was always talking about in fundraisers. Many times, we don’t talk about the charity that we do. I also don’t like to talk about the charity that we do. You do it quietly. No one needs to know what you’re doing. On the other hand, so many people get inspired by seeing that you are doing something so they can chip in. They can help out. For example, a few years ago, my father bought another building for the community. It’s a new Jewish center here in Queens and he came in and said, “I’m putting the first $500,000 down. Who is joining me?” We made a fundraiser.
Every people from the community was like, “I’m putting $5,000. I’m putting $10,000.” Everybody chipped in and we were able to buy a $2 million building. This is how you bring everyone together and you make everyone a part of this. People think that charity is a mitzvah for wealthy people. It’s not true. Charity is you give 10% of what you make. It’s not yours. The 10% is not yours. It doesn’t matter how much money you have or you make. Whatever you make, 10% is you have to move forward.No one needs to know what you're doing, but people get inspired seeing it anyway. Click To Tweet
That’s a great way of looking at it. Being brought up in such a family and seeing those trips are a natural extension to continue on this path.
The part of the things that I do here, I’m the President of all our non-for-profits here. We have schools and a few organizations here that I’m very involved in with decision making and as much as I can to help. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in the community. There is so much more to do.
I appreciate you being candid in an open conversation for our audience because the stuff that you’ve discussed, nobody is exempted. Everybody has their part in the world. We always say the line that you could change the world, one person, at a time. Some people end with one person at a time, but that’s also a world. They could change the whole world. By being outspoken about doing the stuff that your family has been doing, by being outspoken and that it’s not one way, it’s not working or life or not giving up on any of those things and having a fulfilled life, it’s very inspiring for our audience. Thank you for that. Let’s close with the four rapid-fire questions. Number one, a book that changed your life?
I don’t think there were any books that completely change in my life. It’s going to sound awful, but I don’t have time to read many books. If I do have time, I grab a Tehillim book.
Number two, a piece of advice you got that you never forget?
There are many things that I grew up watching. One of them is to treat everyone with respect. Try to be humble and kind to other people.
Number three, is there anything you wish you’d go back and do differently? You have a lot of experience in the past.
Even though I have many experiences, I don’t think there would be anything that I would go back and change. Whatever I went through, I went through and I used it the best way possible. I learned from it. I grew from it and I became the person I am because of it.
Last question, what’s still on your bucket list to achieve?
As a child, when I was growing up, I always wanted to be a fashion designer. As funny as it sounds, life took me to a completely different direction. One day, I would want to do something fun with fashion.
Chagit, thank you so much for joining us. I know your time is very valuable and that is why in the name of our audience, we will forever be grateful.
Thank you very much for having me.
It’s our pleasure.
About Chagit Leviev-Sofiev
Chagit is President & CEO, Leviev Group USA, the U.S. arm of the multi-billion-dollar international conglomerate the ‘Leviev Group of Companies’, founded by renowned businessman and philanthropist Lev Leviev, investing in a wide range of dynamic industries, including real estate, mining, energy, technology, diamonds & jewelry. Headquartered on Fifth Avenue, Chagit runs Leviev Diamonds USA (LLD), the largest privately held diamond firm to control all facets of the diamond pipeline, from mine to market.
In addition to her roles in the Leviev Group, Chagit was named CEO for prominent real estate firm Africa Israel USA in 2013. AFI USA built a reputation of excellence in its residential developments by introducing some of the top brands in the real estate market over the past decade. In 2015, Chagit presided over the firm’s trophy sale of the former ‘New York Times’ building in Times Square, bringing to bear her broad expertise in real estate financing, investment, development, asset management and leasing.
Chagit, wife of Greg Sofiev and a mother to 4 children, follows in the footsteps of her family’s philanthropic spirit, while devoting her time and resources to select nonprofit organizations focusing on Jewish education and Women Empowerment. She is an Israeli native, raised in Israel and Belgium, a fluent speaker of 6 languages and holds a B.A. in economics and business administration from Bar Ilan University.