“I think one of the most important elements for all of us is balance”
Philanthropist Laura Lauder joins Michael Matias for CTech's 20-Minute Leaders to discuss social good, Judaism, and how to balance our lives
Click Here For More 20MinuteLeaders
Laura, you mentioned you participated in competitive sports. Talk to me a little bit about this passion of yours and how you got started.
I grew up in a small town in Ohio in the Midwest. My father was involved in international business and would always bring me back wonderful toys and cultural gifts from his travels. One of the things that he was also very passionate about was tennis. Growing up, I was always very enthusiastic about beating Dad in order to show him that he had a great kid to come home to whenever he came back from these travels, and as a result, I became a competitive tennis player. I'll never forget when I was 16 years old I challenged my dad to this big match, and the reward was going to be a new used car for me so that I could drive myself to tennis tournaments. That imbued in me a passion for being competitive, and years later I ended up playing in college. College tennis was a very different experience because I was so much focused on individual competitions, but now, playing as a team, there was this collaborative spirit. We were a team competing against other schools, and that made me a much better partner and teammate. So, sports have always provided a way for me not only to stay healthy and fit but also a way to collaborate with others in the competitive world.
What is it about this "cooper-tition" (cooperative competition) that you find useful in your journey today?
I previously had a career in tech as a salesperson for an IBM mainframe software company, but once I married, I realized that I had to step my game up in the philanthropy world. Gary, my husband, and I like to joke that now he, as a venture capitalist, likes to make money and I’m trying to give it away and I’m faster. So, what I try to do is use our philanthropy to fill gaps in areas where there’s no one else focused in this area. I’m trying to bridge where people are today with what a future could look like. It’s a highly competitive space because you have to collaborate with people on one end and then hand it off to people on another end. So, for example, our children went to a Jewish day school that had the most wonderful teachers, but these kinds of fantastic teachers weren't at all schools. So I thought to myself, “We've got to find a way to build a pipeline of Jewish teachers who are passionate about teaching, passionate about Tikkun Olam, and passionate about integrating Jewish values into the curriculum.” There was this big gap in the pipeline of Jewish day school teachers, so I created this program called DeLeT, which helps open the doors for careers in teaching. We have trained hundreds and hundreds of Jewish day school teachers, and we collaborate with schools so that we know what the criteria is for the best teachers. We had to make ourselves the best in terms of excellence and standards so that we could scale. The two most important words in philanthropy are leverage and scale; if you can lever other organizations to feed your pipeline, and you can scale it so that it has an impact, then you've really done something well.
Strategically thinking, how do I take something like DeLeT and scale it so that every one of those teachers can influence another teacher and dozens of students who will then grow up to be educators and mentors themselves?
Well, you've said DeLeT, but let me give you another example. In the United States, we have something called AmeriCorps. There are 600,000 applicants, but only 80,000 young people are eligible to do it because funding by the federal government is $25,000 per kid. So, a group of us at the Aspen Institute worked with four-star General Stanley McChrystal, who desperately wanted to create a national program with huge scale. The demand is there, so how can we scale it up? A group of us started a wonderful new program called the Service Year Alliance, and we’ve collaborated with all kinds of nonprofits across the country to try to enable every young person who wants to do a service year to do it. Just this week, we introduced legislation to the United States Senate, co-sponsored by eight Democrats and eight Republicans, called the Corps Act. We're hoping to include this in the Republicans' version of the Covid Relief Act, and that would enable 250,000 young people to do a year of national service. So, scale is absolutely critical, and at the end of the day, public-private partnerships are the best way to do that.
Laura, talk to me a little bit about your Jewish identity. Why are you so excited and passionate both about your own Jewish identity and also the Jewish identities of different groups across the globe?
In the United States, you have to choose to be Jewish because people can assimilate and not be involved. When you live and grow up in Israel, it's just part of life and part of your identity. To me, Judaism is this positive, joyful, value-based identity that I hope to teach to my children. Raising kids is a very difficult thing to do, but Judaism provides this wonderful framework of values that enables you to teach them by ancient texts and by the deeds, the mitzvot, that you do on a daily basis. It's the history, the tradition, the values, the culture, the land, and the language all put together.
Laura, how do you manage your time? How do you balance your time so that you can both provide impact to organizations that need your time while also allowing yourself to branch out and take risks?
First and foremost, I have to give a lot of credit to my sweet husband, Gary, who supports me in every way possible. I'm very fortunate to have a healthy family, both physically and emotionally, that are a great support system. The second thing I would say is that living a healthy lifestyle is extremely important. I’ve become a crazy biker, and I love biking with Israelis because they're very competitive. I would also say that managing your time and making sure you’re focusing on your priorities is critical. Connecting with people, hearing their ideas, and keeping a balance of life with exercise, friends, family, and passions is important.
Talk to me a little bit about your involvement with J-Ventures. Why that fund? What are you trying to do there?
I'm the chair of the community outreach element at J-Ventures, which is the philanthropic piece of the fund. The reason I’m involved with the fund is really to help integrate folks and give them opportunities to meet others. There are so many American Jews who don't know Israelis in an intimate way and dare I say some Israelis who don't value Judaism as much as American Jews do. We share this Zionism passion and this legacy of Judaism, and bringing these two communities together to share their common purpose and passion is a really worthwhile endeavor.
What are some core values that are foundational to who you are and that we should take with us as well?
I think one of the most important elements for all of us is balance. We have to have a life that is not so stressful that we are constantly battling our inner demons about what is the right thing to do. That to me is a key element of any successful person.
I would like to ask for three words that you would use to describe yourself.
Caring, energetic, and passionate.
Michael Matias, Forbes 30 Under 30, is the author of Age is Only an Int: Lessons I Learned as a Young Entrepreneur. He studies Artificial Intelligence at Stanford University, while working as a software engineer at Hippo Insurance and as a Senior Associate at J-Ventures. Matias previously served as an officer in the 8200 unit. 20MinuteLeaders is a tech entrepreneurship interview series featuring one-on-one interviews with fascinating founders, innovators and thought leaders sharing their journeys and experiences.
Contributing editors: Michael Matias, Amanda Katz