Rena Koenig (MBA ’17) Shares How She Used the Tools of Business to Start a Foundation with Her 13-Year-Old Cancer-Survivor Daughter Elana

Rena Koenig portrait
Rena shares what led her to co-found the Koenig Childhood Cancer Foundation (KCCF) in 2020 with her 13-year-old daughter, Elana Koenig, who underwent cancer treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center; how the Stern community stepped up to help; and how an MBA gave her the tools needed to run a nonprofit. 

Tell us about your professional background?

I am from Azerbaijan and worked with KPMG and RJ Reynolds in customer service and relationship management. I also worked with an energy efficient lighting manufacturing company in New Jersey that my husband owned, where I focused on business development. After completing my Executive MBA at NYU Stern, I helped my daughter start the Koenig Childhood Cancer Foundation, which lets me use all the entrepreneurial skills I learned at Stern. 

Elana was diagnosed with cancer after you started the Executive MBA program at Stern? How did you manage her illness with the demands of the program?

Stern was incredibly kind and accommodating. My professors were flexible with due dates for papers and my classmates were supportive. Once, I brought Elana to school and the Dean at the time, Peter Henry, spent time reading and playing with her. When Elana got sick, Dean Henry and my classmates already knew this smart and friendly kid. Because many of my classmates knew what I was going through with Elana’s illness, they have been instrumental in helping us start the Foundation, and staying involved as board members or in other ways.  

What led you and Elana to set up KCCF? 

Elana was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, Ewings Sarcoma, during the second year in the program. While in school, I was working on a case study about hospitals. I started looking closely at how the needs of the families were being met, or not. When families are managing a child’s illness, they are often under financial stress because they can’t work or have to travel for treatment, which is costly. It’s very challenging emotionally but also financially. 

While I was studying all this, I noticed that Elana had a natural inclination for helping children. She would sing songs for the kids at the hospital or buy them gifts. She was eventually invited to make speeches at fundraising galas and organizations were inviting her to share her story. On Elana’s last day in the hospital, she wanted to do something for the children who were still undergoing treatment. She decided to use $900 in her piggy bank to buy gifts for the children. That gave Elana the idea of starting her own foundation as a way to help other children and their families.  

Elana Koenig holding a picture of herself with short hair

Rena’s daughter’s Elana Koenig helped start the Koenig Childhood Cancer Foundation after undergoing treatment for cancer   

What does the Foundation focus on? 
KCCF is focused on helping to save children’s lives by providing financial support for families which can include helping cover the cost of treatments and medical equipment, and other related expenses. We helped one family in New York who were about to be evicted by paying their back rent. We have helped over 70 families through financial support. Our long term goal is to build a clinic house on the upper east side of New York City in the medical corridor for families to stay while their child is in treatment.

How do you identify families who need help? 

Families apply for support online through the Foundation’s website. Families learn about us through social workers and staff at New York City hospitals such as Presbyterian, Memorial Sloan Kettering or NYU Langone. When they see a family struggling, they put them in touch with us. But we are global, and we have worked with families in Turkey, Azerbaijan, Israel, Belarus because of the relationships I have with hospital staff in those respective countries.  

We are actively working to help families in Ukraine. We started a process for a two-year old child who recently had brain surgery to bring him to a New York City hospital, and we are trying to help other families whose children have been evacuated from the oncology center.  

You credit Stern the community with helping you get the Foundation started. Can you share a little about that experience?

My colleagues from Stern have been very helpful. Allison Reilly (MBA ’17), a former classmate who has a private foundation, has been with me on this journey since day one. Through her foundation, she made a matching gift that supported a child undergoing treatment. She has also been incredibly helpful in providing strategic guidance for KCCF and serves on the board. Frank deLucia (MBA ’17), another classmate who is a lawyer, helped set up the Foundation and served on the board for the last two years. Another Stern alum, Bradley Bailyn (MBA ’00), a business lawyer, also joined the board and helps with fundraising. 

Back in February 2020, Mike Blumenfeld (MBA ’65), an entrepreneur and mentor I met through the Berkley Center as a student, and who became a close friend during Elana’s treatment, also played a key role in helping us with the Foundation. Lilliana Petrova (MBA ’11), who runs her own customer experience consulting firm, has been doing work for us pro bono. The list goes on and I am just incredibly grateful for how much the Stern community has helped me.  

We are still in the process of building up the board and I’ve been reaching out to the alumni community through the online platform, Stern Network. 

What made you decide to pursue your MBA through Stern’s EMBA program? 
I had wanted to start my own business and needed to learn entrepreneurial skills. Also at the time, my husband had an energy efficient lighting manufacturing company and I was looking for ways to advance my skills to help with the business. I didn’t think I was going to start a nonprofit, but it requires the same skills as running a business.

What lessons have you learned along the way as you started the Foundation? And, what did you learn while at Stern that prepared you for this challenge?

You have to be persistent and think strategically. This is the first time in my life that I deeply love the work I am doing, and I don’t even get paid for it. At least not monetarily. My reward is the satisfaction I get by helping the individual families. 

Through the Executive MBA at Stern, I learned the language of business and how to look at things from different perspectives. For example, after graduating I could see the value of investing in capital to grow a business. Before I was hesitant about hiring people because I couldn’t see the big picture. But aside from that, the most important thing about Stern has been the community that I became part of.

What’s been your most rewarding experience working with families affected by pediatric cancer?

I don't take things for granted. Whenever I start to complain about little things, I think back to what we went through a few years ago. When you go through that kind of experience it makes you stronger. When I see new families and know how lost, scared, and overwhelmed they are, I remember how hard it was for our family. When we’ve been able to help them, and I see them take a deep breath and relax a bit and knowing that I was helpful in some way–that is my reward. 

I feel like the richest person in the world. The satisfaction that I get from helping other people is priceless. I also internalized Elana’s message: “Never give up!  Keep going! You can do it!”