On the occasion of Women’s Month, we had the privilege of interviewing Rebecca Malkin-Chocron, a French-American with multiple facets. From finance to philanthropy, she unveils her professional journey marked by transitions as bold as they are successful. Between two continents and two sectors, she reveals the intricacies of her professional transformation. As a mother, she shares her reflections on balancing family life and career. By highlighting the importance of equality within couples, Rebecca offers an inspiring testimony on personal and professional fulfillment.

MerciSF: Firstly, could you share insights into your academic and professional journey with us?

Rebecca Malkin Chocron: After studying finance in France and Canada and starting my professional life in banking in Paris, I wanted to broaden my experiences to American universities by pursuing an MBA. I was admitted to Berkeley in 1998. I came there to add another generation to the list of accomplishments following my family’s footsteps (my French father and Californian mother met on the Berkeley campus in the 1960s during the Free Speech Movement). My then-boyfriend, who later became my husband, was also admitted, so we settled in Berkeley.

I earned my MBA from the Haas School of Business in Berkeley  in 2000.

MerciSF: After your MBA, where did you start working? 

Rebecca: The initial plan was to return to France after graduation, but during my MBA, I developed a strong interest in the non-profit sector. I was a teaching assistant for the department’s professor at Berkeley and had the opportunity to spend a few months in Zimbabwe evaluating the microcredit model for women in rural areas. 

During my academic journey, I received guidance from experts in the non-profit sector who suggested that gaining experience in the private sector first could enhance my impact when applying private sector skills to non-profit work later on. Following their advice, I ventured into the private sector, intending to stay for a shorter period initially. However, I ended up spending 17 years at Levi’s. This experience laid the groundwork for the theme underlying this interview, which revolves around the fusion of my finance background and a longstanding desire, nurtured during my academic pursuits, to contribute meaningfully to societal endeavors. This intersection ultimately led me to the museum where I currently hold a position

MerciSF: Tell us more about your career at Levi’s. 

Rebecca: My career at Levi’s spanned nearly 17 years, crossing different departments, roles, and countries, always closely or remotely related to finance. I was constantly encouraged to develop my skills and seize opportunities that came my way. For example, my career led me to lead the Latin America office from Mexico, where I was responsible for managing a region in rapid growth and addressing communication challenges with the headquarters in San Francisco. 

Living between two countries, Mexico and the United States, was a personal challenge, especially with two young children at home. It was a challenge I successfully met, partly because of the implicit, explicit, and voluntary support from my husband, who is fully involved in sharing parenting responsibilities alongside his own career. The dynamics changed when the adoption process of our third child was completed. Receiving the photo of our child marked the end of my position in Mexico. It was a family adventure to experience together and united. 

Back in the United States, I had the opportunity to choose from several positions at Levi’s, but the one I chose did not bring me intellectual or emotional satisfaction. Leading reorganizations and relocations was not the path I wanted to take in my career. This led to a period of deep reflection, and I eventually decided to leave Levi’s to take a break. It was time for a “cleansing,” as they say. Almost on a whim, with the call of the “road less traveled” as Americans say, we moved to Guatemala for a year. This radical change allowed me to reconnect with non-profits and community impact missions.

MerciSF: How did your engagement with non-profit initiatives unfold during your time in Guatemala?

Rebecca: Before my departure, I had identified about ten non-profit organizations that aligned with my values and interests. We interviewed each other, and I offered my services vas a volunteer to one of them: Niños de Guatemala. This organization has built and manages the education of 500 students in three neighboring schools in Antigua, financed by international funds. These schools serve families living in extreme poverty. My commitment to this organization was intentionally divided between human and administrative aspects. In the mornings, I provided personalized academic support to some children. In the afternoons, I contributed to developing commercial initiatives to generate a stable income for the NGO while staying aligned with its primary mission. It was an intensely rewarding experience, and at times emotionally challenging due to the extreme poverty and psychological violence observed. Education in Guatemala, while public, is not entirely free, and for the most disadvantaged parents, it translates to a loss of income, a reduction in the workforce in markets, fields, or elsewhere. To encourage parents to send their children to school, the NGO must offer benefits such as free healthcare for the family and other ancillary services that make education more immediately beneficial than child labor. Overall, this immersion in the non-profit sector was extremely gratifying. It allowed me to combine my professional skills with my goal of engagement.

MerciSF: How did this experience influence the rest of your professional journey? 

Rebecca: After completing my tenure with the NGO Niños de Guatemala, where I continue to serve on the Board of Directors, I returned with a strong determination to advance in the philanthropic sector. The experience in Guatemala significantly solidified my convictions. As I recall vividly, during the return flight to California, I meticulously outlined the criteria for my next professional role. I sought a substantial non-profit organization that would intellectually match the caliber of my previous positions in terms of portfolio and team dynamics. The search process extended longer than anticipated as I I didn’t want to compromise on my standards, a stance made possible by the unwavering moral and practical support that allowed me to await the ideal opportunity. Once again, the mutual support within my relationship proved indispensable. Several months later, I was presented with an opportunity in the Finance department at SFMOMA through a recruiting agency. 

Since the start of 2019, an inspiring journey has unfolded

MerciSF: Tell us about your journey at SFMOMA and your evolution, transitioning from CFO to COO. 

Rebecca: I started my journey at SFMOMA as Finance Director. This opportunity seemed perfectly suited. It called for my skills but also offered room for discovery and learning about financial challenges in the American non-profit world. Also, the idea of combining usefulness with pleasure by working in the cultural milieu, surrounded by modern and contemporary art, seemed ideal to me, and I quickly integrated into the team. After nine months in this position, I was approached by the then-CFO, who announced her departure and offered me to take her place. Although I hadn’t anticipated such rapid advancement, I decided, after consideration, to accept the CFO position – not without a mix of excitement and apprehension.

The challenge proved stimulating. I benefited from the supportive guidance of the Financial Committee of the General Assembly and the museum’s Director, who allowed me to find my footing quickly and understand the operational intricacies and philanthropic challenges of this cultural institution. My CFO role was thrust into the spotlight further with the arrival of Covid, which forced the museum’s closure for nearly a year, with lingering effects today. The intellectual challenge is ongoing. Fairly quickly, a COO-CFO model emerged in the museum world and was adopted by SFMOMA under its new director in 2022. He offered me the COO role, which I accepted while maintaining my responsibilities as CFO. My career evolution is the result of abilities, certainly, but also intersecting opportunities along my journey; the outcome of acquired experience strengthened by many supportive figures that help navigate challenges along the way.

Currently, I am privileged to utilize my expertise in contributing to an organization dedicated to enriching and educating the communities of the San Francisco Bay area. I firmly believe that I am in a position where my contributions can genuinely impact and make a difference.

MerciSF: To address the theme of diversity and gender parity, how is it addressed within your organization? 

Rebecca: In non-profits in the United States, there are generally more women than men. At SFMOMA, around 60% of employees are women. At the executive level, we are a majority of women. Out of ten executive members, nine are women. As for the Board, there is parity. Women’s representation is not in question at the museum, and two of my goals are to ensure equal opportunities and pay for equivalent positions and performance. 

I appreciate the guidance and sponsorship I have received from both women and men throughout my career. They have been instrumental along my journey, and I am committed to paying it forward, especially to women forging their own paths, with clarity and determination.

Merci Rebecca!

 

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