Column: Broad Foundation chief Gerun Riley on making 21st century philanthropy work


They called the position “office manager,” but it really was the receptionist’s job at the Broad Foundation that Gerun Riley first filled 16 years ago. All this time later, she’s risen to head the foundation, with its $2.5-billion endowment. Where its new leadership could take the mission of a philanthropy that was co-founded and shaped by its retired president, Eli Broad, could change Los Angeles as well as the foundation. She and Broad share some qualities — drive, self-confidence, and an aptitude for all kinds of building, symbolic and literal; one of her family’s favorite stories is the time she went to show-and-tell in second grade and taught the other kids how to hang drywall.

What is the mission of the Broad Foundation?

The Broads and the foundation have always been committed to public education, to scientific and medical research, to the visual and performing arts, and to the city of Los Angeles. How we’ve approached each of those areas of focus has changed over the years, and the mission itself has in the past, and may going forward, evolve again as we explore new areas of giving.

He's handed you the keys to the foundation; is he keeping a set himself? How is your relationship working when it comes to directing the future of the foundation?

I’ve been at the foundation for almost 16 years. I started at the front desk. I've worn many different hats since then and taken on increasing responsibility. And when he asked me to assume this role a couple of years ago, I knew that that there would be a transition period.

He has always identified successors at KB Home, at SunAmerica and now at his foundation. The difference right now is that unlike leaving K.B. home or sun America, there's no next job for him to go to. And he’s worked since he was 8 years old, so not working is not something that comes easily to him.

What I can say is he's less and less involved in the day-to-day operations of the foundation. He still chairs the foundation board. He serves on the museum board and he's deeply committed to the projects and institutions and efforts that he has started and supported. He continues to have really good ideas about how to make each of them better.

He's someone who likes a challenge and he likes people who challenge him. Is that the nature of your relationship?

He reminds me a bit of my high school swim coach, who expected more than you thought you could give or do — and inspires you to get there. And then, when you do, gives you a slight nod of approval. I think you either wilt or thrive in the face of someone like that. I take it as a challenge to rise to the occasion.

When he talks about you, he sounds very proud, and he likes to tell the origin story of how you came in as a temp — not exactly a filing clerk kind of temp, but not too far off from that.

I had the title of office manager but I was the receptionist. I was at the front desk. It was it was the most entry-level job in the organization. When I went through the process of applying for that job, my eighth interview was with him, which was surprising to me that someone at his level and his accomplishment would take the time and care to interview for such a junior level position.

It was a brief interview, which you would expect from him. We covered a lot of ground very quickly, everything from talking about how you measure success in philanthropy to hiking in L.A.

You may know that he has a bad back, so hiking is not something he can do anymore. And he [recently] brought me all of his old trail maps, which I think is a testament to his memory, that he remembered that that was something we had talked about all those years ago.

How do you see the philanthropic mission in Los Angeles as different from what is established in cities like New York?

Los Angeles was certainly a place of opportunity for [Broad]. It has been for me. I came here 17 years ago, had never been here before, and I was lucky; I think that's something that he and I share, an understanding that the experience we've had here is not one that everyone has,

And philanthropy has a role in making sure that students have access to the learning opportunities that prepare them to participate in the workforce of the future, that teachers are supported, that families are given a voice. That is where philanthropy can be part of a solution.

Of course he has been a big donor to education projects, education programs, but those have also been controversial.

He was the child of Lithuanian immigrants. His father was a house painter. His mother was a seamstress. Eli struggled with dyslexia as a child. His public school teachers gave him a leg up and he's always been grateful for that. He's always understood that that was what gave him a chance in life, and he wants that for every kid.

And he's explored lots of different ways of doing that over the years. He's worked with labor. He's worked with school districts. The foundation has explored personalized and digital learning and over the course of that exploration, we've also supported charter schools,

And that's where some of the investments have not been received in the spirit in which they were intended. I do believe that his intention is that he simply wants all kids to have access to high-quality, safe public school.

Something that we've learned and that we're trying to incorporate into the work that we do going forward is that you need to bring all of the people who are impacted by a change in a public school system along with you.

I think years of distrust, years of maybe some misinformation, have led to a place where we don't even know how to have a conversation together — not about how we should make our schools better places to teach and learn, but even just the more basic conversation about what do we want for our kids, what do we as a community value.

I’ve been on a listening tour; we’ve gone all over L.A., we covered over 600 miles talking to over 300 teachers, parents, students in different schools all over Los Angeles,

He’s hands-on, I’m hands-on, but in slightly different ways.

Foundations are of all different sorts. Joan Kroc, the widow of the McDonald's founder, had a foundation which she eventually dissolved and gave away all her money. Is the Broad Foundation meant to be an ongoing and constantly changing kind of foundation, rather than saying, in X number of years we will have given away all the money and close up shop?

That's a conversation that we've been having for the last several years. And what I will say is that we do not want to crawl across the finish line; whenever that happens, we are going to sprint across, and we want to be active and relevant and not just writing checks. And we're still trying to figure out how to do that, exploring new ideas and new areas that make sense for us to invest in.

Are there any subjects that have come to mind, that you think, Maybe we should be putting money into that?

I think it's become obvious to a lot of people — but not necessarily all of the right people — that climate change is real, and I believe that 20 years from now, we're going to look back on this moment and wonder either why people didn't step up and do something, or be grateful that some people did.

So we’re thinking about that. We’re thinking about the future of work, and how we better prepare students and especially students of color and from underserved communities how to participate in a rapidly evolving workplace environment where we need a different skill set.

We’re turning over a lot of rocks right now. I'm excited to think about the ways that we can move the foundation forward and not radically transform it, but recognize that we live in an evolving world and that we do need to think about how we approach the work and make sure that it is relevant and meaningful and impactful and sustainable.

You wrote for Huffington Post a very passionate post about young black men who die at the hands of police in Los Angeles. Why is this such a personal subject for you?

I grew up in a suburb in Connecticut. I had a very charmed childhood. I was lucky that my mother was an activist and took us to protests and rallies in New York, so at a young age I was starting to understand how lucky I was. But it wasn't until I met my husband, who is black, who was born in South L.A., who is the son of parents who were born and raised in Jim Crow Texas.

We have two young daughters and I started to see the world through their eyes and how the world responds to them based purely on the color of their skin, that I really started to grapple with my own privilege.

My husband has two brothers who have sons, and they're young black men, and it's been a really moving and eye-opening experience for me to see and listen to the conversations that we've had about what it means to raise children who don't have the same safety that I had as a white girl growing up in Connecticut.

Edye Broad has even commented that she has learned a lot just in getting to know Jason and me and hearing some of the experiences that we've had as a couple, as parents raising two brown-skinned daughters.

As much as we all like to think that for the most part, those of us who live in Los Angeles are progressive and open-minded, it does change things when you have a personal experience with some of the injustices and indignities that other people face on a daily basis.

You’ve lived here now for, what —

17 years.

Can you describe what's different about how L.A. regards itself, its sense of community, its future?

Oh I think L.A. is one of the most exciting cities in the world right now. When I moved here, I moved here very impulsively. I was on this very prescribed path in New York. I felt like I needed to jump off and try something new, and so I did the most American of things, and I came west.

I came here without a plan, without knowing anyone, and I fell in love with the city. I loved the access to the outdoors, I loved how creative it is, I love the people who have come here with a dream, and I sense that that pioneering spirit that has always been part of the American West is now in L.A.

We’re seeing how this community is grappling with issues, and I do think that we have committed as a city to acknowledging and addressing the housing crisis in Los Angeles, immigrant rights and dreamers, and respecting the diversity of our community. LA continues to have that pioneering nature, but in a way that is now respected by the rest of the world.

Which I'm sure you, growing up on the East Coast, heard that it was not for many years; it was the subject of mockery.

When I go home and see my mother and her friends, who are all very smart, interesting, creative people, they increasingly now will say, We're all looking to you, California, to show us the way. It’s very exciting to hear that from people who are who are very committed to New York and New England.

The chairman of the Broad Institute said that you and Eli Broad have developed a relationship “like I've never seen.” What’s so special about it? What made you two click?

It was a trust that built up over many, many years, and over the course of me doing different jobs for him and always asking for more and more responsibility.

I think he learned to trust me and that's not something that comes easily. But I think it's something that he really values. And I've never been afraid to push back, I have a voice, and I think that that is something that he respects and values.

The Broads are known for their great collections of modern art, contemporary art. With all of that, what hangs on the wall in your office?

Well, that all changed when the museum opened. Most of the art that had been in the foundation went to the [Broad] museum, although this is an insight into Eli: [in] our old office, in Westwood, he had some photographs, one of Trevi Fountain, one of New York City, and he used to joke that he gave us those photographs so we didn't have to go on vacation. I think he values hard work.

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