December 11, 2018

Lynn Schusterman: Making it possible for Jewish innovators to create

Lynn Schusterman has been at every ROI Summit (see main article) since 2006 and at dozens of other Charles & Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation programs year round, to see for herself how her considerable investment in the Jewish future is yielding fruit. Schusterman can be as tough as you’d expect a billionaire to be (Forbes listed her net worth as $3.5 billion), insisting on high standards for foundation programs and projects. But when ROI participants experience sadness or grief, the petite septuagenarian philanthropist with a penchant for wearing pinks and purples is right there with them to offer words of wisdom and comfort. (When my mother died, I got a moving, personal email from Schusterman, as well as an in-person offer to be a substitute mother or grandmother if I needed it.) 

It is Schusterman’s unique balance of sense, sass, collaboration and compassion that endears her to ROIers and other Schusterman program participants. And she, in return, deeply respects her staff team and the young innovators and creators in her orbit. She is more than satisfied that her money is well spent; in an email interview with the Jewish Journal, she said that the response to ROI has “exceeded our expectations on every level” and “helped to shape her philanthropy over the past decade.”

The past three decades have seen the blossoming of many Schusterman seeds. In addition to funding individual initiatives spearheaded by ROIers (see main story), the foundation also has been inspired to develop opportunities that expand those efforts. During Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in 2014, the foundation created Eitanim micro-grants to support ROIers who were providing relief for families whose loved ones were serving in the Israel Defense Forces, and also to help people better understand Israel’s position internationally. A partnership with Indiegogo helps support ROI network members through matching grants, and Schusterman also is a major sponsor and proponent of the Natan Fund’s Amplifier, a network of giving circles engaging young people to give in meaningful, fun and impactful ways. 

This spring, the foundation launched OLAM, a partnership with many organizations to deepen Israel and the Jewish community’s impact on global humanitarian issues. REALITY trips bring socially minded individuals to Israel for a life-changing leadership development experience. And the foundation is always bringing more young entrepreneurs and influencers into the ROI Community; a partnership with Forbes launched a Social Impact Competition at the Under 30 Summit in October. 

Schusterman is passionate about many things — strengthening Jewish community worldwide and in Israel, investing in her hometown of Tulsa, Okla. But she also has an intensely passionate commitment to what she described as the “strongest thread that binds us as a global people [is] our shared commitment to repair the world, to serve others, to build strong families and communities, to ensure all have the opportunity to learn, to seek justice and to treat everyone with mercy, kindness, care and respect. I am passionate about helping the next generation of Jews draw on these values to inform the way they work, love, live and give. And I am passionate about helping to build a future for the Jewish people that is diverse and welcoming, deeply connected to Israel and committed to making the world a better place.”

An unflinching supporter of Israel, Schusterman notes special pride in the work of young campus and community leaders supporting Israel during what she called a “critical time.” 

“While some of their fellow students and colleagues are focused on isolating and de-legitimizing Israel, they are defining a new narrative. They are finding ways to help more people discover Israel’s promise and potential as a haven for diversity, democracy, innovation and progress. We need more voices, to be sure, but their efforts are a model to all those who believe change is possible.”

At ROI Summits, Schusterman is known to repeat what has become a mantra for her and for the foundation that bears her family name: Her money may “make it possible” for ROIers to pursue their visions, but “they make it happen.” 

When her husband, Charles, known as “Charlie,” died in 2000, Lynn took over as chairwoman of the foundation, moving into a largely male-dominated philanthropic world. “It was not easy, but I was determined, and had benefited from the wisdom and partnership of many incredible role models and peers. I learned to develop my own leadership style, find the core issues on which to focus my energy and, most importantly, develop a talented, professional staff to help me guide the foundation into the 21st century. My experience has taught me that women must play a major — and equal — role in shaping the Jewish future.” 

With more women rising to high positions in Jewish philanthropy and communal leadership and leading the way in Jewish innovation, she sees a future of “smart, passionate, capable Jewish women — my own granddaughters included — who will influence and change our community in unimaginable and positive ways.”

Schusterman continues her relationship with her late husband through her work: One early Schusterman young leadership program was known as “the Charlies”; and she quotes him often in speeches and conversations. 

“Charlie used to say, ‘When you can get a bright and talented mind at a young age, you’ve got a lot with which to work.’ I imagine that when he said those words, he had in mind the types of young Jewish leaders we are engaging today,” Schusterman said. “I see in so many of them the qualities that made Charlie such an inspiring and unique leader. He was an iconoclast, willing to take calculated risks in the pursuit of success. He continued to push himself to defy the status quo, to forge ahead no matter the forecast or circumstance and, time and again, he went out of his way to care for others. Charlie would be so proud of what these young people are accomplishing today and, in true Charlie fashion, would encourage them to walk to the very edge of their comfort zone and then take another step.” 

Despite her loss and her serious approach to philanthropy, Schusterman knows there is much to celebrate — she is famous in ROI circles for always being one of the first on the dance floor. 

“People often ask why I remain so optimistic, even in the face of the complex challenges we are facing in the Jewish world, in Israel and beyond,” Schusterman said. “It’s because I am so impressed and inspired by the young people I meet. It is their ideas and their belief in what we can accomplish together that gets me out of bed in the morning and keeps me traveling the world at 76 years old.”

Schusterman formally speaks at least once during each ROI Summit, providing inspiring overall context, but the rest of the time, she sits with participants between sessions or at meals, asking them about their communities and learning about their projects. While other funders might avoid contact with potential grant applicants, Schusterman seeks it out. 

“ROIers are always reaching out to me to share their appreciation for the experiences, opportunities and connections we have provided and also to express their excitement about taking the next step in their leadership journey,” she said. “I am investing in them because they hold the keys to a vibrant Jewish future, and that investment is paying off. Every day I get to see how much potential rests in the next generation and how eager they are to create positive change. We need their passion, creativity and resolve. And we need it now.”

Much of today’s Jewish organizational energy focuses on drawing young Jews — a demographic ranging from as early as 18 and extending, in some organizational cases, to age 45. With the foundation targeting this demographic with many of its programs, Schusterman explained, the key is to be less “proscriptive” and “rather, to provide opportunities to explore their identities, to connect with the global Jewish community and to find their place in a world that needs them. They will make the magic happen.” 

As for ROI, Schusterman is most proud of the network’s diversity: The ROI Community has members from big cities and small towns in more than 50 countries, including those who are “secular, religious, gay, straight, liberal, conservative and everything in between.” 

She is passionate about inclusion and equality, and has been a particularly ardent supporter of Jewish LGBTQ causes; ROI’s Connection Point gathering for LGBTQ leaders, Eighteen:22 (