Elizabeth Alexander on Why Feminists Make Better Businesspeople

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It will be remembered as an exciting time in American philanthropic history. The United States was faced with unprecedented crises including the pandemic and war in Europe. Many grant-giving institutions had to take a hard look at how they spent their time, energy, attention, and money. Andrew is a great example of such an organization. W. Mellon Foundation, a foundation that focuses on arts and humanities has had to rethink its priorities.

Elizabeth Alexander, who became the Foundation’s president in 2018, was at once an unlikely and perfect candidate to steer the $9 billion foundation through this era. Alexander grew up in a family that was first to be Black as Secretary for the Army. Her mother, an academic, also taught her politics and social issues. She’s also an academic, with stints at Smith and Columbia. For 15 years, she taught at Yale and was the head of the African American Studies Department for four.

On the other hand, she’s an artist. Her first collection of poetry was published. Venus HottentotWhen she was 28 years old, she published her first novel, which has been followed by five others. She’s been a finalist for a Pulitzer (twice, once for poetry and once for memoir) and she read at the 44th President’s first inauguration. In a new book she has combined all of her experiences and skills. Trayvon Generation, a series of essays and meditations on the role that arts and humanities have played in both creating a culture that for too many years tolerated and promulgated a systematic disregard for black and brown people, and can play in redressing what she calls “a fundamental, formative and constitutive problem” in America. Alexander spoke to TIME in New York City from her home office, where she discussed power, money, and art. She also shared how they bring them together in order for positive change.

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The following interview was edited for clarity.

You’ve been a professor, you’ve been a writer. You’ve been a poet. And now you’re essentially a CEO. Do we need more CEOs made up of poets?

Let me first name two other poetry leaders not listed in these spaces. Ed Hirsch, who’s the head of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and Kevin Young, who’s the director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. We are all there, stealthily. Poetry is a ruthless, efficient use of language. I believe that these principles sometimes can transfer. It is an interesting, surprising part of my life. But I think that I am well-prepared to handle it. Yale University had a complex department and I chaired it. This taught me how to use limited resources to create community and work within interdisciplinary environments.

More CEOs should be drawn from the African American Studies of Intersectionalities and Feminism. You can learn a lot from them and use these principles to manage your business. I am a more-than-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 poorly run situation, that’s how you start to think, ‘Oh well, when it’s when it’s my room to organize, here’s what I’m going do with the furniture. Here’s who I’m going invite to the party.’

I think the principle of recognizing talent and potential that’s not necessarily in the expected place is absolutely crucial for dynamic institutions. If you only look at people who have climbed the ladder one way, you’ll be missing out. I really hope that my doing this work well not only will be transformative to the organization and the people that it serves but also we’ll be inspiring to other organizations to think about what talent looks like and how you and how you nurture it and give it a chance.

Many leaders have difficulty finding people with exceptional talent, but not following the traditional path. Are you able to share a strategy?

It’s more a modality. A Black woman who is also a historian knows that historically, people of color and women of color were often overlooked. I’ve seen mediocre people who had a certain set of opportunities be given more opportunities. The great tragedy of racism, sexism, and classism both ignore talent and overelevate averageness which has more to do inherited chance.

How do you feel about MacKenzie Scott’s work? She is another female writer with a lot of money and who wants it to be used effectively and wisely.

One of the things I’ve been really interested in philanthropy is, you know, there are X number of foundations. When we put our money in the pot together and we’ve got double or triple the money, then we can have more impact. But the big money is the money that isn’t institutional. It’s the money that someone like MacKenzie Scott and other people have that is theirs and theirs alone. And that’s where you can really increase the impact. 30 percent of June 2021’s grantees came from Mellon Foundation grantees.

Our work isn’t just writing the checks. It’s also trying to be helpful to grantees in other ways. What she can do from her position that I think is really exciting is to be able to say, ‘Here’s the money, we’re done, you don’t have to engage or write reports, or do anything like, just go do the thing you do.’ That that’s a very important example and it exists in consort with what professional philanthropies are doing to be resourceful in other ways.

Are you missing teaching? Do you mourn at all the prices you’ve had to pay to do the work that you do?

My five-and-a-half year old Ford Foundation experience was a great one. However, my work made me miss the classroom very much. You know, even my body is still set to those annual rhythms—that back to school energy is a good thing to bring to an organization in September. So I was thinking: What is it that I like about teaching? Sharing knowledge and exchanging ideas is what I really love. It’s a joy to be with others who learn, bring in new colleagues, and think about the ways we can create that environment. How do we share the work we’re doing across the foundation? What does it mean to create a learning environment that is dynamic? The beauty of teaching in the classroom, is the ability to both make smart decisions and keep up complexity. I think that having very, very smart decision-making that can look kaleidoscopically in the way that you’re doing in a very concentrated fashion in the classroom, has a lot of benefit in the CEO space.

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

Perhaps the most important aspect of this era is to not only think of it as COVID-19 but also as the age of what others call “racial reckoning”. It was a great experience to serve as president with all my knowledge and training. The team had the ability to handle many of the difficult justice issues that others were trying to solve.

Did you ever find parts more challenging than others?

What’s challenging is multitasking on a whole other level, because you are talking to the people who work with you, and you are talking to the world of grantees and potential grantees and former grantees, you’re talking to a board of trustees, and you’re talking to other philanthropies. Talking about things that are happening in the world and to people in other sectors—we want people to be interested in our work. Multitasking involves how you manage to scale up and keep your eyes open to the things you are capable of learning and delegating. Multitasking has always been my forte. It’s just bigger now.

Is it possible for people to treat you differently if they find out that you are able to spend $9 billion?

It’s important that I first specify that it’s institutional money versus personal money; I have a team and there’s a different methodology to it. But I think I know what you’re asking. It’s important to be aware of what are the dynamics and imbalances that can come in relationships that have certain kinds of resources. The one entity seeking the grant must also give. So, how do you make that exchange egalitarian, healthy, not for the ego of the person who’s giving the grant? We need to think carefully about the information we should be asking people we grant grants to and how we can trust others to make it happen. It’s not appropriate to micromanage grantees. These are questions that come out of my experience.

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

You know, sure, but then that’s what I was saying before, to be an analyst of power and balances. Let’s just look at Ketanji Brown Jackson. I think that we should all be truly disgusted by the way in which she’s been disrespected, lied about, accused of things. It’s been absolutely unprecedented and it’s vile and that it comes from our Senate, our allegedly august body. Each Black woman that I know is watching [the hearings]Has been in great distress. SEven with all the trappings, sometimes you will still get treated inexcusably and disrespectfully. I don’t dwell on that. To me, it’s how can 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 as you would like to be treated, to be fair, to share your sandwich and also share the opportunities. So that’s what I focus on. It’s not about me. It’s about someone with a certain philosophy and sensibility and training and background bringing a different set of questions to what it means to do this work and lead this organization.

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