Cross-Pollinator Angelica Berrie Tells How To Give Away A Fortune
They met in Manila in 1989. Angelica Urra was 33, a convent-educated Filipino of Spanish and Chinese descent who had built a little business manufacturing and exporting papier-mache jewelry from her home country. Russ Berrie was 55, a Bronx-born secular Jew who started out selling Fuzzy Wuzzies (tiny creatures bearing greeting card messages) from a rented New Jersey garage in the 1960s and had taken his burgeoning business in tchotchkes and teddy bears public in 1984. At their wedding in 1992 (her first, his fourth) their cake was topped with pink- and blue-haired rubber trolls, then among Russ Berrie and Co.’s biggest sellers.
For the next decade Russ and Angelica worked together building up both his business and his charitable giving. The company even made the 2001 FORBES list of the Best Small Companies, with revenues of $302 million and net profits of $44 million. But on Christmas Day 2002 Russ, a type 2 diabetic, died of a massive stroke, leaving the Russell Berrie Foundation assets valued at $420 million, including 43% of the company’s stock, then worth $340 million.
At first Angelica, who had headed up strategic planning, took over as CEO of the company, as well as president of the foundation. But running the business without Russ wasn’t as much fun, and there were problems as the company digested its 2002 acquisition of the Sassy baby products line. So in May 2004 she relinquished the CEO job to a former Toys “R” Us exec and turned to a bucket list (she had made it when Russ died) of things she wanted to do by 60. Among its entries: convert to Judaism, meet the Pope, learn to drive and skydive. “How cool is that, to pursue what you want?” asks Berrie, who at 59 has checked off all those goals and keeps adding new ones.
At the top of her to-do list, however, was figuring out how to make an impact with the foundation’s dollars. For advice, she turned to Forbes 400 member Lynn Schusterman, whose husband, Oklahoma wildcatter Charles Schusterman, died in 2000, leaving her to run their $73 million (now $2.3 billion) foundation.
“We were kind of trailblazers, the two of us women running major foundations,” says Schusterman, who flew to New Jersey to meet with Berrie and found they had other shared interests too. In 2007 their foundations jointly sponsored a conference on building more inclusive Jewish giving, such as giving to groups supporting LBGT Jews, Jews of color and women. Last September, right after the most recent Gaza-Israel fighting, they were in Jerusalem together sponsoring the Sacred Music Festival, a celebration of music of Christians, Muslims and Jews.
Indeed, what looks at first glance like a scattershot approach to grant-making by the Berrie Foundation has an underlying logic. While furthering her late husband’s diverse commitments to diabetes research ($68 million given since 1997), humanism in medicine, Jewish causes, New Jersey and entrepreneurialism, Berrie has added as her personal mission the “cross-pollination” of cultures and ideas and making connections between people. “Usually men who made the money frame the conversation of what they want to do,” Berrie says matter-of-factly. “A wife can have her own personality and add to it.” It’s an issue more widows will face, as a growing number of the richest Americans pledge to leave half or more of their wealth to charity and women continue to outlive their typically older husbands.
In Israel Berrie is constantly seeking out agents of change, making small grants, for example, to a Palestinian woman who teaches her peers (in a discreet, unmarked facility) about birth control and a bedouin woman who helps divorcees start new lives. Her giving in her native Philippines, through both the Berrie Foundation and a small one of her own, often plays off her Jewish and New Jersey connections. She sent typhoon relief through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and brokered a donation of used equipment from a New Jersey hospital to her home village.
But bigger grants, Berrie insists, must still pass her “Would Russ do it?” test. In 2005, for example, the foundation made a $26 million gift (matched by the Israeli government) to create a nanotechnology institute at Technion in Haifa. “This feels authentic to who Russ was,” she says. “It’s in keeping with his entrepreneurial spirit.”
One quintessentially Angelica project is the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue in Rome, which she set up in 2007 at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome to fund priests pursuing graduate degrees in interreligious studies. Among the 60 fellows who have gone through the programs (studying with a rabbi, among other things) is a Nigerian who decided on the priesthood after a priest in the next village was beheaded. Berrie personally accompanies the fellows on an annual ten-day trip to Israel. “I want to know all of them. God forbid, say, one becomes Pope!” says the now Jewish Berrie, who has directed $7.8 million to the project.
As those trips demonstrate, Berrie is an unabashedly happy practitioner of hands-on philanthropy: “You have to do things that feed your soul to see that there’s more than just having money and giving it away. It’s a very personally rewarding journey.” She considers philanthropy her focus and Kate’s Paperie, a boutique paper store she owns in Manhattan, just a hobby.
The biggest problem Berrie has confronted at the foundation was diversifying out of Russ Berrie & Co. stock as the company’s fortunes were sinking. The foundation finally ended up selling most of its shares in 2006 to a private equity firm for $99.5 million, leaving it with $298 million in liquid assets at the end of 2006. (Renamed Kid Brands, the company got rid of the gift business in 2008 to concentrate on baby products. Both Kid Brands and the gift business have since gone bankrupt.)
In 2011 Berrie coauthored a book, A Passion for Giving, hoping to inspire other philanthropists. Her advice? Don’t go it alone. Among the resources she credits with helping her find her philanthropic way: a Montana spiritual retreat sponsored by Peggy Dulany, a fourth-generation Rockefeller philanthropist. She also reached out to Sanford Bernstein’s widow, Mem Bernstein, who is charged with spending down the Avi Chai Foundation by 2020, to help her decide how quickly to give away assets. Currently the Russell Berrie Foundation is making around $20 million a year in grants and plans to exhaust its funds by 2033, if not before.
When she’s not traveling, Berrie keeps fit with a 5- to 10-mile daily walk along the Hudson River. But with her 60th birthday looming, she worries about a succession plan. A stepson, Scott Berrie, is the only person on Russ Berrie’s handpicked six-person foundation board who is younger than she is; the oldest is 91.
“How do we transmit what we know of Russ to future trustees?” she asks. For now, the office joke is that if she does something wrong, micromanager Russ will e-mail her from heaven.
Bergen County Philanthropist Angelica Berrie Profiled in Forbes
Bergen County Philanthropist Angelica Berrie was profiled in Forbes magazine in an article by Ashlea Ebeling. Berrie is a major donor to Israel and Jewish causes.