Ann Lurie, president, Ann & Robert H. Lurie Foundation and Lurie Investments Inc.
Philanthropist gives away more than $331 million with hands-on approach
Ann Lurie, the widow of entrepreneur Robert "Bob" Lurie, has given away more than $331 million to cancer research, children's health, food banks, animal shelters and more. (June 13, 2012)
When her staff didn't clean the trailer to her standards, she spent three hours cleaning it.
"I wanted them to understand that I was not going to ask them to do something that I wouldn't do," she said.
Yet Lurie also is the unabashed enforcer. Every morning she makes rounds, asks questions and aims to boost the standards of a medical system with standards that fall about 40 years behind the U.S.
Being there to provide hands-on labor and guidance has been critical.
"I could continue to send money, but the project wouldn't be there," she said. "You can't just pour money on a problem and hope that it's going to get fixed."
Lurie also knows how to take input, said Adele Simmons, vice chairwoman of Chicago Metropolis 2020 and former president of the MacArthur Foundation.
"Her whole style is to make it clear that she's there to listen and to learn, and she cares about what the people in the village think and feel," she said. "This really makes her a model for people interested in figuring out how to work in developing countries in an effective way."
Ironically, Lurie's biggest challenge there is money. She's seeking donors and partnerships so the clinic, which has a budget of $8 million this year, can be self-sustaining.
There are those who tell her that her plans in Africa are too ambitious and she should lower her expectations. She recalled a pre-eminent person in philanthropy who said she should "go home and turn your Cadillac into a Chevy, and come back to see me."
The notion makes Lurie bristle.
"We've been catering to the status quo in Africa for a very, very, very long time," she said.
Lurie is less involved in the investment arm that fuels her philanthropy, although she "has the final say on every deal we do and veto power," said Slezak, who leads the firm that manages and invests the family's wealth.
Lurie's investment strategy converges two interests: her late husband's roots in engineering and her passion for health care.
Profit isn't a primary driver. Lurie's pouring of more than $200 million into mostly early-stage biomedical and technology companies is "a little bit altruistic," because sometimes, Slezak said, they do deals others shy from.
It has been risky, and new science can be fickle, Slezak said. There have been some wins -- in 2009, they sold Ithaca, N.Y.-based sensor-maker Kionix Inc. to a Japanese chip-making firm. There also have been losses. Northbrook-based diagnostic test-maker Nanosphere Inc., in which Lurie Investments is a major shareholder, reported losses last year of $35.4 million.
"There have been speed bumps," Slezak said, but enough success to keep them on the same path.
Ann and Bob's children, ages 5 to 15 when he died, are all adults. When Ann is not in Kenya, she splits her time between her Gold Coast mansion and her Craftsman-style home in Montecito, Calif., where her two grandchildren live three miles away.
Lurie doesn't expect her children to follow in her philanthropic footsteps. They have individual foundations and pursue their own charitable interests.