being public! I first came across SH, daughter of
one of the world's wealthiest oil magnates, when I saw her
smiling face splashed across the front page of the Lifestyle
section of the Boston Globe, along with a caption revealing
her net worth at around $400 million. This was back in 1997,
when she had just moved to Boston to take on her new role
at Harvard University. I thought at the time, "How in the
world does she find the courage to be so exposed? What drives
her to do that?"
I visited her offices last week, the answer was literally
all over the walls. Dozens of enormous color photographs
are framed there, all taken by SH during her trips around
the world. I wandered the corridors amazed, staring deep
into the eyes of a young girl from Africa, a mother and
child from Afghanistan, an old woman from India. SH has
the nerve to be public because the women of the world are
deep in her heart , and she is engaging everything in her
power to assist their lives-her time, her talents, her love,
and clearly, her privilege.
Some of our readers are afraid that if they're public about
their wealth, they'll be deluged with requests for money.
How would you address this concern?
In some ways, the answer to that is easy. You can create
a structure for your giving; even set up a foundation. Have
guidelines that are as narrow and clear as possible. By
focusing you can be effective, and you will know where to
send all the people who ask you for money.
other hand, a comment I've heard ascribed to Andrew Carnegie
has proved relevant to my own life. He advised a new philanthropist:
"You have now paid for your last lunch and received your
last honest compliment." How can people separate me from
my money? They cannot, and I have learned to accept that.
I have spent a lot of time with people in poverty. Interestingly,
that's not where I feel the awkwardness. Usually, they wouldn't
dream of asking me directly for money. We share about our
lives; we develop a closeness. The challenge comes with
relating to all the people who want my money for their projects.
a close neighbor sat me down in the hammock in her back
yard and said earnestly, "I just want you to know that I
never, ever think about your money." I smiled inside. She
obviously was thinking very much about my money! (Although
I understood and appreciate the sentiment she was trying
to communicate.) If you have a significant level of wealth,
asking someone not to notice your money is like asking someone
not to notice that you're black, or a woman, or six feet
So you're saying that our readers should relax about their
wealth being a part of themselves?
I'm saying honesty can be freeing. I once asked a man I
was dating, "Do you love me because of my money?" He paused
a long time and answered, "I could never separate your money
from you." Unexpectedly, his reply made me feel better,
not worse. Here was an intelligent, urbane man with a fascinating
career-and, to be honest, his work was part of what I loved
about him. We all bring different resources as part of who
we are, and money is sometimes one of those.
Yes, but money comes encrusted with such intensely positive
and negative associations in our culture. Unlike resources
such as beauty or intelligence, the possessor has to endlessly
decide how much to share and how much to keep.
Absolutely. Every day, people have expectations of me that
I either cannot or will not fulfill. The "cannots" are easy,
but the "will nots" gnaw at me. Every day I wrestle with
where to draw the line on the continuum between generosity
and creature comforts. Do I fly business class, or fly coach
and give the $2,000 difference to our foundation's work
with homeless women? These moral choices penetrate.
of mine says, "Oh, everyone has to deal with those difficult
choices." Yes, but the moral disdain towards wealthy people-disdain
combined with envy-greatly intensifies the moral dilemmas.
When social scientist Robert Coles wrote his famous book
Children of Crisis,
he added his last volume
on children who grew up in privilege almost as an afterthought.
I was in tears when I read it. Here was a highly regarded
social critic who actually understood my situation and wasn't
in awe and didn't castigate.
only way to find your footing is to have people with whom
you can talk, who have been there themselves. Decades ago,
my sister and I brought together for a weekend about six
women with wealth. Most of us had last names that were recognizable
on products. It was a real turning point for us all, to
finally have such a safe place to talk about the moral dilemmas
and personal costs. But don't expect to have a "solution"-no
matter how much you talk about it.
The most painful and secret fear of some of our wealthier
members is that being public could endanger their children.
How have you dealt with this?
About twenty years ago, there was a gruesome, highly publicized
story of a wealthy Italian industrialist whose grandson
was kidnapped. All the alarms and bodyguards in the world
didn't prevent it. I simply don't want to live in hiding,
under lock and key. I make sure that no specifics about
my children's activities or whereabouts are mentioned in
the press. We've never had threats, though my children have
certainly received plenty of taunts on the playground as
a result of publicity about my work. But I think they understand
why I'm public, and how many people benefit. I've told them,
"Kids are taunted for lots of reasons. It's not all bad
for you to get nasty comments; you'll have more empathy
for other kids who are the target of teasing or hate. You
have to be forgiving and remember that money is a subject
people just don't understand." As you can tell, I do a lot
of preaching with my kids. I'm not one of those "they'll
pick it up subtly" mothers.
makes our family's life very easy in most ways, yet difficult
in a few ways as well. Even children can understand this,
and I make sure mine do. That's just how it is.
by Anne Slepian
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