Brenda Levis | 40 Outstanding Global Women 2023
Serial entrepreneur Brenda Levis is the founder and President of destination services provider NYC Navigator. Leaning into her love of travel and living overseas, Brenda is building businesses that empower globally mobile families and champion women, wellbeing and inclusion in global mobility.
Brenda Levis has a truly international career. Crossing borders and helping hundreds of individuals and families to do the same and feel fully at home on assignment, Brenda has established several successful companies along the way.
Among them is NYC Navigator, a New-York based award-winning independent destination service provider. The latest addition to Brenda’s portfolio is New England Navigator, which is now formally rolling out the empathetic, client-focused and professional approach NYC Navigator has built its reputation on. Both DSPs are part of an independent global network helping hundreds of individuals and families connect and find their feet on assignment.
“Many businesses are now making a conscious effort to support women in business because it offers something different to the norm. The nature of our business requires you to have a lot of nurturers on your team to be able to support folks that are relocating.”
The origins of an international career
Entrepreneurship has been a consistent theme in Brenda’s life. Her father, a poultry scientist, always nurtured the idea of running a farm. Together with Brenda’s mother, her father made this dream a reality, inspiring Brenda and three of her four brothers to follow in their footsteps and go on to set up their own businesses.
Brenda’s can-do attitude and appreciation of family, home and international travel was formed during these early years. “On the farm, nobody ever told me that I couldn’t do the job; they handed me a pitchfork or shovel and said, ‘go help your brothers, go help your dad’, so I never really felt that glass ceiling that affected a lot of my female colleagues,” recalls Brenda about the influences on her career and mindset.
“Growing up in a small town I was also very excited to explore other parts of the world. A skiing trip to Europe changed my lens altogether and my idea of what the world was all about.” A year or so later at age 18, Brenda took up the opportunity to be an au pair in Switzerland. This was the chance to stay true to a promise she made to herself while on the ski trip of living in Europe. The time also offered some first insights into the life of globally mobile professional people. “The woman that I worked for was remarkable,” says Brenda. “She grew up in Switzerland, was very independent, travelled a lot and spoke eight languages. She was one of my very first inspirations.”
Brenda returned to the US to start her first business – a highly successful gourmet baking company – after college in Germany and France. “This business was not much to do with relocation. But during this time, my parents sent me to go visit one of my brothers, who was living in the Netherlands at the time. While I was away, my Mom and sister-in-law ran the business.”
While Switzerland brought Brenda into contact with globally mobile individuals, living in the Netherlands gave Brenda her first experience of the business of relocation, as well as quenched a real need to be around people who had a more global outlook. “Being in this environment with expats from all over the world, I realised I needed to be in an international environment,” says Brenda. “My Mom actually anticipated that I would want to stay in Europe and took over my business while I stumbled into this wonderful world of relocation.”
In the Netherlands, Brenda worked for an international mover. She then returned to the US, where she worked with an international relocation company in Massachusetts. “My first account was Goldman Sachs. After a few months they asked me if I would consider relocating to New York City to work onsite. I did that and then saw an opportunity at Lehman Brothers, where I went first as a relocation coordinator and then grew into the global mobility manager for Lehman Brothers.
“That was an incredible opportunity,” says Brenda of this pivotal moment. “It gave me the chance to have my own business with a large budget within a big organisation. I learned a lot about relocation and got to work with people from all different countries and cultures. I did that for about eight years. When I stopped learning about relocation there, I got itchy to get back into entrepreneurship and decided to start a destination services company. That was 17 years ago.”
Supporting families to navigate New York and beyond
In those two decades, NYC Navigator has become one of the leaders in its field. This at a time when women- and minority-owned businesses in the US have been supported by federal government initiatives. This includes the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC), and the intentional promotion of equity in supply chains and RFPs for example.
This legislative climate was a factor in Brenda’s decision to set up her business in the US. “There are so many resources for women-owned businesses here. I considered starting my business in another country, but between having so many contacts in the global mobility world in the United States and in New York in particular, I realised that as a woman I had a lot more advantages here.
“Over the years, we have definitely seen supply chain and procurement give us a lot of support for being a woman-owned and women-run business and to be certified for that has certainly been an advantage and an asset,” continues Brenda. “Many businesses are now making a conscious effort to support women in business because it offers something different to the norm. I think the nature of our business requires you to have a lot of nurturers on your team to be able to support folks that are relocating. We do have a couple of males on our team, and we have found some nurturing men out there, but most of our team is women.”
Today, Brenda and her 20-strong multilingual team are proactively supporting wellbeing and positive employee and family experiences in international assignments, whatever the assignment type. “We’ve integrated career coaching into our programmes and also educational services so that transferees don’t have to choose between a destination services benefit, educational support and coaching services for the stay-at-home partner who may be looking at their own career options in the US,” says Brenda. “We fold all of those services into our settling-in programmes.”
As this approach suggests, wellbeing is a core feature of NYC Navigator’s ethos. Brenda is actively developing the approach partnership with other DSPs in her professional networks around the world. “It is hard to make a transition,” acknowledges Brenda. “People always have lots of other things going on in their lives. Covid has also made these past few years much harder. All our awareness of mental health has improved. There are things relocation management companies and destination service providers can do to smooth the passage for people relocating from country to country.”
One recently added service is a formal bereavement programme that offers all-round support to an assignee’s family members and their employer when tragedy strikes. “We want to be able to provide support to the family, so we can step in without thinking about what needs to be done. It’s all spelled out. They are probably the most impactful cases that we’ve dealt over the years and it’s an opportunity for us to help.”
Alongside offering flexible support, coaching, and widening the scope of wellbeing support, Brenda and NYC Navigator host community ‘Compass Club’ events to connect relocating families with one another. This included an event to celebrate International Women’s Day, which included fellow entrepreneur speakers at NYC Navigator’s offices.
“All three had amazing stories. But some of the consistencies between them were about manifesting your dreams,” says Brenda. “Most started very young with ideas of what they wanted to become and what they wanted to have in their lives. They all went through trials and tribulations to get there, worked really hard and had a lot of grit. They’ve all become tremendous successes, so it was a really inspiring event. “The impetus for this luncheon was to inspirit my team, and then we wanted to share the experience with our clients and transferees. The energy in the room was incredible.”