Why Feminists Make Better Businessmen

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Elizabeth Alexander

Elizabeth Alexander, poet and president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Credit – Djeneba Aduayom

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The early 2020s will go down as an interesting period in American philanthropic history. As the United States was forced to respond to an unprecedented series of crises, including a pandemic, war in Europe, and an intensified national struggle to right historic wrongs and inequalities, many grant-making institutions took a long and hard look. carefully where they put their energies, their attention and their funds. For an organization like Andrew. W. Mellon Foundation, which focuses on the arts and humanities, this meant a complete overhaul of its focus.

Elizabeth Alexander, who became the Foundation’s president in 2018, was both an unlikely and perfect candidate to lead the $9 billion foundation through this era. Her father was the first black secretary in the military and her mother an academic, so she grew up steeped in politics and social change. She is also an academic, with stints at Smith and Columbia. She taught at Yale for 15 years and headed the African American Studies department for four years.

On the other hand, she is an artist. She publishes her first book of poetry, The Hottentot Venus, when she was just 28, and has written five more since. She was a Pulitzer shortlist (twice, once for poetry and once for memoir) and she read at the first inauguration of the 44th president. She gathered all her skills and experiences in a new book, The Trayvon Generation, a series of essays and meditations on the role the arts and humanities have both played in creating a culture that for too many years has tolerated and promulgated a systematic disregard for black and the Browns, and can play to redress what she calls “a fundamental, formative and constitutive problem” in America. Alexander sat down with TIME from her home office in New York to discuss power, money and art, and how she brings them together for change.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You have been a teacher, you have been a writer. You were a poet. And now you’re basically a CEO. Should more poets be CEOs?

First, I would just like to name two other chief poets who are not in poetry spaces. Ed Hirsch, who is the head of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and Kevin Young, who is the director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Stealthily, we are everywhere. Poets are certainly ruthlessly efficient with language and I think sometimes those principles can be transferred. I consider this a very interesting and surprising chapter in my life, but I feel like everything I’ve done so far has prepared me to do this. I was head of a very complex department at Yale University and I always understood how to work with limited resources, how to bring the community together, how to work in interdisciplinary spaces.

I think more CEOs need to come out of African American studies spaces on intersectionality and feminism. There are many lessons and principles that are very helpful in managing things. I am a middle aged professional. I’ve had a lot of experience in a lot of things in a lot of places, including very poorly run places. I think if you can analyze a mishandled situation, that’s how you start to think, ‘Well, when it’s when it’s my room to organize, here’s what I’m going to do with the furniture. Here’s who I’m going to invite to the party.

I think that the principle of recognizing talents and potentials that are not necessarily in the expected place is absolutely crucial for dynamic institutions. If you only look at people who have moved up the ladder in one direction, you will miss it. I really hope that my doing this job well will not only transform the organization and the people it serves, but also that we will inspire other organizations to think about what talent looks like and how you feed it and give it a chance.

I think a lot of leaders struggle to find these very talented people who don’t follow the traditional path. Do you have a method?

It’s more of a modality. One of the things I understand as a black woman is that historically women and people of color have often been overlooked. I’ve seen mediocre people who had a number of opportunities being offered more opportunities. One of the great tragedies of racism, sexism and classism is that they both neglect talent and also raise the average which has more to do with inherited opportunity.

What do you think of the work of MacKenzie Scott, another female writer who has a lot of money to spend and wants to use it effectively and wisely?

One of the things that really interests me about philanthropy is that there are X number of foundations. When we put our money in the pot together and have double or triple the money, then we can have more impact. But the big money is the money that is not institutional. It is the money that someone like MacKenzie Scott and others have that is theirs and theirs alone. And this is where you can really increase the impact. I believe 30% of its June 2021 beneficiaries were Mellon Foundation beneficiaries first.

Our job is not just to write cheques. It also tries to be helpful to beneficiaries in other ways. What she can do from her position that I find really exciting is to be able to say, “Here’s the money, we’re done, you don’t have to commit or write reports, or to do something like, just go do the thing you’re doing.’ This is a very important example and it exists alongside what professional philanthropists are doing to be resourceful in other ways.

Do you miss teaching? Do you mourn all the prices you had to pay to do the work you do?

When I started five and a half years ago at the Ford Foundation, straight from the classroom, I was elated by my new job, but I missed the classroom in very tangible ways. You know, even my body is still tuned to those yearly rhythms – that back-to-school energy is a great thing to bring to an organization in September. But I thought: What did I like about teaching? Well, I like to share knowledge in exchange. I like being with people who are learning, bringing in younger colleagues and thinking about how we have that atmosphere. How do we share the work we do through the foundation? How do we truly embody what it means to be a vibrant learning space? One of the useful things that comes from teaching in the classroom is that making effective decisions can co-exist with mastering complexity. I think having very, very smart decision-making that can kaleidoscopically resemble the way you do it in a very focused way in the classroom has a lot of benefits in the CEO space.

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Were there things you learned and challenges you didn’t anticipate during the pandemic?

Perhaps for me the most important thing is not just to think of this as the era of COVID-19, but as the era of what some call racial reckoning. I think being president of this organization with my background and experience has been very helpful. We were prepared to deal with many justice issues that some other places were facing for the first time.

Were there any parts that you found more difficult?

What’s hard is multitasking on a whole new level, because you’re talking to the people who work with you, and you’re talking to the world of grantees, potential grantees and past grantees, you’re talking to a board of directors , and you’re talking to other philanthropies. Talking about what is happening in the world and to people in other sectors, we want people to be interested in our work. Multitasking is about how you scale and how you stay humble about what to learn and what to delegate. I’ve always been built as a multitasker. It’s just bigger now.

Do people treat you differently now that they know you have about $9 billion to spend?

It is important that I first clarify that this is institutional money versus personal money; I have a team and there is a different methodology. But I think I know what you’re asking. It is important to be aware of the dynamics and imbalances that can arise in relationships that have certain types of resources. One entity seeks, another entity must give. So, how to make this exchange egalitarian, healthy, not for the ego of the person who gives the scholarship? How do we think about what we need to know about the people we are giving grants to and also what we need to trust people? It is not appropriate to micromanage beneficiaries. Those kinds of questions are ones that I think come from my long experience of saying, how do we analyze the potential power dynamics here, and how can we be down-to-earth human beings in all of our practices?

But I also wonder if you find that the world looks at you personally differently, when you are someone who could give something someone wants, or you have “institutional” power?

You know, of course, but that’s what I said before, to be an analyst of power and balances. Let’s just look at Ketanji Brown Jackson. I think we should all be really disgusted by the way she was looked down upon, lied to, accused of certain things. It is absolutely unprecedented and it is despicable and it comes from our Senate, our so-called august body. Every black woman I know is watching [the hearings] was in a state of great distress. SSometimes, despite all the outward signs, you can still be treated unfairly and with disrespect. I don’t dwell on that. For me, it’s how do I do what my grandmother always told me to do, which is to look people in the eye, to treat people with respect, to treat people like we would like to be treated, to be fair, to share his sandwich and also to share the opportunities. So that’s what I’m focusing on. It’s not about me. It’s about someone with a certain philosophy, sensibility, training and background bringing a different set of questions about what it means to do this job and lead this organization.

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