Laurie Burns McRobbie

Leading with Passion

Thank you, Trish.

It is truly my pleasure to be here and my honor to introduce our panel this afternoon on “Leading with Passion”.

Our panelists are going to take us on a journey into what how we can unleash the passion, power and promise of women and philanthropy when we fully engage our heads, hearts and hands to strengthen the world around us.

As Gene Tempel noted earlier, it was the Women’s Philanthropy Symposium in 2008 that was the catalyst for the program we’ve established at Indiana University, and the 2011 Symposium gave us even more fuel for what has been a rocket ship of a program.  There is just nothing like the power of a whole ballroom full of philanthropic women leaders to create both inspiration and aspiration

We have been remarkably fortunate to engage thousands of energized alumnae and women friends of IU, especially our leadership group, the Women’s Philanthropy Council.  I want to recognize several members of the Council who are also attending the Symposium:

  • My co-chair, Kay Booth, of New York City
  • Julie Christopher from here in Chicago, who will be speaking later this afternoon along with her mother, Doris Christopher
  • Penny Gaither from Bloomington, Indiana
  • Alisa Hendrix, also from Bloomington, and
  • Jane Jorgensen, formerly of Ft. Wayne and now from Bloomington,
  • And last but certainly not least, Michele Boillotat, director of the Women’s Philanthropy Program at the IU Foundation

We arrived in Chicago yesterday, fresh from one of the signature events of our women’s philanthropy program, an annual luncheon celebrating student leaders in philanthropy and volunteerism on IU’s regional campuses.  The third of these took place just yesterday at IU Northwest.  We honored four remarkable women students for their contributions to the causes they are passionate about, and who are already making a difference to the families of soldiers on active duty in Afghanistan, to those who need support to make it to college, to children with special needs, and to those struggling with substance abuse.  And all this while pursuing their degrees. 

All four of these wonderful women spoke about how natural and right it felt to get involved, and to a sense of being called to the cause they had found.  They all spoke to how the more they gave of their time and their hearts, they more they got back.  They all spoke as women, leading with their heads, hearts and hands, leading with passion.

So we got an early start at the Symposium this week, and I am still energized and inspired by those four students!

My own philanthropic story is probably somewhat like all of yours, starting in early adulthood with engaging just my hands – writing checks, signing petitions – moving to engaging hands plus head – entering the LFSP Master’s program in Philanthropic Studies – and then to hands and head plus heart – finding that my philanthropy is an inseparable part of my identity, and of how I lead. 

My story involves two catalysts, two moments of realization.  One was discovering the history of women’s philanthropy, the legacy that women have created for centuries by their work to improve their communities and the larger society, to work for social justice, and to transform how we all, here in the U.S. and globally, can create transformative, positive change. I was a history major in college, focusing on women’s history, but despite that background it’s only been relatively recently that I’ve discovered the reach and depth of the direct and impactful ways in which women have changed society over the years.

I went from being a history major to a career in technology, and women in tech remains a central focus of what I do at IU.  More to the point, my tech career itself was in higher education, so in particular, learning more about the women who have changed higher education through their philanthropy has been deeply empowering.

Women like Mary Lyon, who founded Mt. Holyoke College, one of the seven sisters, in 1834.

Women like Margaret Olivia Sage, who found her own philanthropic voice upon her husband’s death, and used her inherited fortune to accelerate the establishment of social work as a profession through the Russell Sage Foundation, leading to the creation of schools of social work at universities across the country, including IU.

Women like Frances Morgan Swain, one of my predecessors as IU First Lady, who in 1902 led Indiana University’s first capital campaign to raise funds for what was originally the Woman’s Building.  A matching contribution from John D. Rockefeller stipulated that a wing be added for men, and it is now known as the Student Building.  But the women got more square footage, thanks to Frances!

Women built the nonprofit sector in this country, and we need to recognize that, claim it as our legacy, learn from it, celebrate it, and build on it.

The second part of my story has to do with understanding what it means to be privileged.  I grew up in what I always thought was a normal household – two parents, middle class, values around hard work, doing your best, and helping others.  I never questioned that I would go to college, and as I came of age during the second wave of feminism in the 1970s, I never questioned that I would have a career and a family.  I never questioned my access to good healthcare, never questioned whether my own children would grow up in a happy, healthy household.

Now that I’m in the second half of my life, my perspective has broadened, and I understand that there are lots of kinds of “normal”, and sadly, way too many kinds of “not normal, not okay”, here in this country and around the globe.  And I understand that I, as an educated white woman in the United States of America, I am privileged.  Not “normal”, and not normative.  And with this realization have come both a sense of obligation and a sense of empowerment.

I give because I can and because I must.  And in turn, this privilege also means that I get to experience the deep, quiet joy of giving until it hurts me just a little bit in the wallet and/or in the calendar, so that someone else can hurt just a little bit less.  It is my privilege to do this.

As women philanthropists and change makers, we understand the importance of deep engagement in the causes we care about – this is one of the central characteristics of how women give, whether it’s of time or treasure.  Our panelists, Julie Smolyanksy, CEO of Lifeway Foods, and Jacki Zehner, CEO of Women Moving Millions, are about to take us on a journey into a better understanding of what leading with passion means. 

It is my pleasure to re-introduce you to our moderator for this afternoon’s panel, Dalila Wilson-Scott, President of the JP Morgan Chase Foundation.  Please join me in welcoming Dalila.