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One-on-One with Laura Kesselman

Copyright © 2012 Albuquerque Journal

THE BASICS: Born Laura Beth Kesselman on July 22, 1964, in Rome, N.Y.; Bachelor of science degree in advertising from Syracuse University; married to Oguz Inonueri since May 24, 2003; sons Benjamin Jones, 17, and Jonathan Inonueri, 17; house full of fish (including a 1-foot-long Oscar), birds and frogs.
POSITION: President of Kesselman-Jones Inc.; vice president of education for Meeting Professionals International; board member for Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau.
WHAT YOU DIDN’T KNOW: “I think this is funny and I’m quite proud: When I didn’t have a job, I took the job as the Easter bunny at the (Coronado) mall. I figured, why not?” Kesselman said. “I thought it was actually pretty funny that they didn’t know that they had a Jewish Easter bunny.”

At the time, Laura Kesselman considered it the worst day of her life.

Move to Europe now, she thought, when I’m right in the middle of high school?

The then-16-year-old Kesselman cried about her family’s relocation plans. She screamed. But she ultimately had no choice but to leave the comfort of her New York hometown after her father, a computer engineer, accepted a Netherlands-based position with NATO.

Turns out the anguish was all for naught.

“It only took me about six months to realize this is the best thing to happen to me versus the worst thing to ever happen to me,” Kesselman said recently from the Albuquerque office of her company, Kesselman-Jones Inc.

Her family settled into a suburb of The Hague – one of the Netherlands’ largest cities – living not among other Americans but in a more traditional community.

“No wooden shoes, but they were fishermen’s wives because we lived by the harbor,” said Kesselman, who soaked up the setting. “It was an incredible thing.”

Kesselman attended the American School of the Hague, studying alongside classmates from all over the world and learning from some of the best teachers she’d ever had.

She grew so enamored with Europe that she chose not to return to the U.S. for college. The thought of leaving caused her just as much anxiety as she’d experienced when arriving two years earlier. She managed to extend her stay in Europe with stints at the University of Maryland’s Munich campus and Syracuse University’s London campus. But she just couldn’t make it work forever.

“No university would give me a (bachelor’s) degree unless I came back to the United States, so I ended up, ironically, back where I began: at Syracuse, an hour from the town I grew up in,” she said.

Coming back was jarring. Having lived abroad through her late teens, she arrived in the U.S. not knowing how to drive or even operate an American pay phone.

“Everything was different. I had culture shock with the people, I had culture shock with the day-to-day,” she said. “I learned how important pop culture was (upon returning). I had never seen ‘The Cosby Show.’ I learned who shot J.R. (on TV show ‘Dallas’) many years later.”

Kesselman ultimately adjusted, finishing at Syracuse and moving to Los Angeles to embark on her career. She settled in Albuquerque more than 20 years ago, but still likes to get away. Give her an open weekend, and it’s possible she’ll head to the airport.

“If I had a day off and I could get an airline ticket, I would go somewhere,” she said. “I do love traveling.”

But such freedom is balanced with the rigors of running her own business. The work keeps rolling in at Kesselman-Jones, which Kesselman refers to as “a communications firm specializing in conference and event management.”

It’s a broad mission, and Kesselman admits she started the company 20 years ago without a true business plan. It was merely a way to organize the myriad part-time marketing, event planning and public relations gigs she’d taken on.

“One day I had all these little projects going on and somebody said, ‘Hey, Laura, you’ve got to pay gross receipts tax on your services. And you probably need to get a license or you’re going to get in trouble,'” she said. “That was my business plan.”

While the nature of the work tends to vary, the company’s vision is clear-cut.

“We only take clients who have a positive impact on the community,” said Kesselman. “It can be our community, a national community, the international community.

“The work they do has to make a difference somehow. (It’s) not big money, not sexy. But if you go to sleep at night and you’re happy about what you’ve done, it makes it all worthwhile.”

As part of that vision, Kesselman implemented a “corporate citizenship” program for her office. Employees get paid days off to volunteer for nonprofits of their choice and also band together for larger projects. In 2011, that meant pro bono management an event for PB&J Family Services that raised almost $20,000.

Q: Why is it so important to keep employees engaged in the community?

A: If our philosophy is giving back to the community, I think you’ve got to walk that walk, and I think it makes people (happy). If I can make them feel good giving back to an organization, it’s only going to give me a better employee. Nobody has not gone and done something pretty valuable with that time. As a small company, you have to look at the kind of benefits you can give. I only have so much money, and if you look at all the studies, they’ll say money is not necessarily people’s motivator.

Q: Do you have a business mentor?

A: No, and that is my biggest challenge: that I haven’t ever had a business mentor and that I wasn’t smart enough to get one.

Q: When you were a kid, is this what you imagined you’d be doing?

A: Looking back, probably yes. In my scrapbook, I have the plan for my Halloween party when I was probably 10 that had a list of the activities, the guest list. I think I would say definitely it was a twinkle in my eye. It doesn’t surprise me.

Q: If you had an extra hour to spend every day on yourself, what would you do?

A: If I had an extra hour, I would spend that extra hour with my family at the dinner table because I think those are some of my favorite moments. We are pretty good for the most part about the family dinner, (but) when you get home at 7:30, sometimes you don’t have that extra time. (I’d) spend time with my family talking. I have two boys, and I adore them. They are fun, fun.

Q: Do you have any hidden talents?

A: I do rock on Guitar Hero.

Q: What’s your favorite meal?

A: I will not ever have a favorite dish, because I love and enjoy food. To me, to limit and say I would only eat one thing is wrong. Usually if it has cheese or cream sauce, it falls in the top 10, but I would never limit myself to one thing.

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