A Father and Daughter Prepare to Speak at Babson’s Commencement

Portraits of Eric Johnson and Erin Tolefree

In 1976, businessman and entrepreneur George Johnson H’76, P’72, G’08 delivered Babson’s Commencement address. 

Nearly 50 years later, his son and granddaughter, Eric Johnson ’72, P’08 and Erin Tolefree, are preparing to do the same. They are both leaders at Baldwin Richardson Foods Company, one of the largest Black-owned businesses in the food industry. 

“I’m humbled to be in front of this audience,” said Johnson, chairman of Baldwin Richardson, “especially because I’ll be there with my daughter who represents the next generation of leadership in our family.” 

The company’s president and CEO, Tolefree added, “It is especially meaningful to internalize being the third generation to participate in delivering this speech. It is an honor to walk in the footsteps and path of those that came before me.” 

Commencement will continue Johnson’s long involvement with Babson. A member of Babson’s Board of Trustees, he has supported term chairs and full-tuition scholarships at the College, and his son, John Johnson ’08, graduated from the school. Johnson considers Babson’s entrepreneurial education to be essential. 

“The world needs people who are independent thinkers, and those with entrepreneurial backgrounds tend to be independent thinkers,” Johnson said. “Babson gives students that perspective.” 

Johnson and Tolefree will deliver the graduate Commencement address together, the first time in Babson’s history that the ceremony will have a joint address. In the days before Commencement, they took time to answer questions about being in a family business and what advice they have for the Class of 2024. 

What’s it like for the two of you, as a father and daughter, to work so closely together at Baldwin Richardson? 

Tolefree: My dad and I are very different, and that’s been a gift. We bring different perspectives and experiences and come at problems from different angles. This is our secret sauce. We are united by a common vision, and we respectfully discuss and debate. The very best ideas and accomplishments throughout our journey have come from the sweet spot that emerges from that process. 

Johnson: Erin and I have had a mentor-mentee relationship, but I’ve always given her the space and room to evolve on her own. My job, once she became president and CEO, was to coach and counsel but not be engaged in the day-to-day business. That’s an important part of succession.  

Tolefree: I have a tremendous amount of gratitude for my journey of succession. My dad, from day one, has always given me the space, flexibility, and freedom to succeed or fail on my own while knowing that I always have his counsel and his 100% support.  

Another member of the family, Cara Hughes (she is Tolefree’s sister and Johnson’s daughter), also works at Baldwin Richardson, serving as vice president of customer and community. What is the key to having a successful family business? 

Johnson: The biggest key is to have mutual respect and a desire to work toward a common goal. Once we walk inside the company, we are still family members, but we’re here to run a successful business. That approach allows us to work together toward the same objectives whether we agree or disagree on something. We each play a unique role and Cara brings many strengths that have contributed significantly to the success and growth of our customer relationships, our community impact, our people, and our organization at-large.  

Tolefree: When Cara and I work together, one plus one always equals more than two because we, too, are united by a common goal and purpose. We each have our unique strengths and are fortunate that they complement each other. Our partnership breeds the innovation that drives our organizational strategy and success. We’ve seen a lot of family businesses mired in conflict, so we know how special what we have is and we protect it with rigor. We work to make each other better and stronger. 

What hopes do you have for Babson’s Class of 2024? What advice do you have for them? 

Tolefree: Find your why, your purpose. Be clear on the values that will guide you and the impact you want to make. It will provide the energy, motivation, and resilience needed to succeed. Entrepreneurship isn’t always fun and glamorous. It certainly can be, but not every day, and if you don’t have a clear why, you won’t have the stamina to keep going through obstacles that sometimes can seem unmovable. But if you have a why, no problem is too big to tackle and overcome. The energy you bring will drive you to achieve limitless possibilities. 

Johnson: I hope that they are at least as successful as the previous classes have been. We need the best leadership we can find today for this whole country. My other hope for the Class of 2024 is that they follow the example of Roger Babson, who believed in giving back to communities. He believed that was part of what made a good entrepreneur, and I think it’s at least as important today as it was then.

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