President & Co-Chair, NoVo Foundation
Posted on: February 8, 2012 | Go to profile
Deeply affected by equal opportunity issues, Jennifer founded the NoVo Foundation with the mission to empower girls and women, investing hundreds of millions of dollars in significant scale projects. She has worked to transform social attitudes, relationships and institutions that perpetuate injustice, unlocking the potential of girls and women to be powerful agents of change, ending violence against women and girls, and advancing whole child education across U.S. school districts. With her husband and co-chair Peter Buffett, Jennifer received the Clinton Global Citizen Award and has supported Eve Ensler’s VDay movement and partnered with the Nike Foundation.
Q: Please share with us the story of how your professional journey began and has brought you to where you are today.
A: My philanthropic journey began at Christmas in 1999, when my in-laws Susan and Warren Buffett (I am married to Peter Buffett, their youngest son) entrusted each of their three children and spouses with $100,000 we could use to support charitable and nonprofit work of our choosing.
This opportunity got me out into my community very purposefully to learn and contribute! We were living in Milwaukee at the time, and I began learning the principles of philanthropy and how it was being done and how to do it well. There’s definitely a learning curve and an evolution you go through becoming an effective funder and philanthropist. I learned about social issues and systemic problems and how philanthropy can be deployed to address these—reframing, organizing, coalescing, and advancing solutions.
We supported an array of mostly social service nonprofits in the early days of doing this work. I worked to advance quality early childhood education, women’s reproductive health, opportunities for people with disabilities, environmental protection, arts, education, and more! In the course of all this, we learned how to be more strategic and realize greater impact. For examples, I helped launch the Wisconsin Infant Mental Health Alliance
I also worked on the other side of philanthropy raising money and securing partners and programming for a nonprofit theatrical production my husband created. The show, “Spirit – The Seventh Fire,” promoted the idea that we are all indigenous people and advocated for reconnection to community and environmental sustainability through personal every day choices. I think the best education a funder can have is to work for a nonprofit venture of some kind.
In 2006, after stewarding increased funds over the years and receiving a pledge of a billion dollars in assets from Warren Buffett to our philanthropy, we founded the NoVo Foundation (NoVo: create. change). Our vision is a lofty one! We aim to move the world away from systems of domination and exploitation, towards partnership and collaboration. Since NoVo’s founding, I have helped build a terrific organization and team in New York, as well as many partnerships and strategic alliances. With our capable partners, we are working to advance the empowerment of girls and women worldwide, to promote whole child education in U.S. schools, and to support the development of local living economies.
Q: Who is a leader that you have great respect for and why?
A: I have great respect for President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia because of her fierce dedication, resilience, and perseverance. She embodies her leadership. She could easily be retired, playing with her grandchildren. What she has done in a relatively short time in office— more than quadrupling Liberia’s budget and almost doubling the GDP—while providing the women in the markets with literacy skills, infrastructure (roofs to protect them from the rain in the markets), and childcare/schooling. I respect her “Iron Lady” toughness and her “Ma-Ellen” strength in trying to transform Liberia into a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic country. There are very real and very strong forces working against her efforts to rebuild after the total devastation wrought by 17 years of civil war. I have huge respect for who she is, what she represents, and what she is working tirelessly to make happen against great odds.
Q: It’s hard to focus on the “big picture” sometimes because we can get caught in the weeds of work and life. When does visioning come clearest or easiest for you? Or what inspires your vision?
A: Visioning becomes clearest to me when I can step back and tap into an image of a more peaceful, equitable, connected world. This happens when I am hiking in the Catskills near our farm upstate! And in the wee hours of the night, frankly, when it’s quietest … there needs to be stillness and space. The world is an abundant place and nature takes care of our every need. It’s already perfect. There’s so much destruction and greed, but we can really change things if we can connect and decide to share and to support one another, to stop drawing artificial lines of “us and them.” I really believe we have gotten so far away from our humanity and to our loving connection to our interconnectedness—with nature and with each other—but that the pendulum is swinging back. People are rediscovering, waking up. I get good clarity on that when I visit and see the successes and triumphs in the lives of the women and girls we are supporting. It’s very inspiring to see even one life changed—a girl who tells us that her life was in a bad way and now it’s happy and healthy and productive. Then she can go out and helps change others. How miraculous and inspiring that is … it’s so inspirational and unforgettable.
Q: What do you feel separates your brand from your competitors or organizations in your space?
A: We have a vision for the world that we have uniquely articulated and that people respond to. We talk about how we see the time we are living in, connected to history, and where we are headed and what it will take to get there. Our initiatives are all connected, working in various ways towards our vision. Empowering girls and women is a way to balance a culture that overvalues the masculine, that negates or diminishes nurturing, connectedness, and all of those kinds of things. We also work toward our larger vision by promoting social-and-emotional “whole child” learning and education, so that children can realize their full creative potentials and work together in an uncertain world. And we put a focus on local living economies that connect people to place and are based on relationships and trust. We also hear that we are very considerate funding partners and value taking the time to nurture and support organizations in meaningful ways that are often glossed over or not valued by other funders. I think all these things set us apart.
Q: What or who in your life gives you the strength to persevere?
A: My colleagues and staff at NoVo are incredibly inspiring to me and support me and our mission. The staff at NoVo tell me they feel their work is a calling, not a job. My husband is a loving supporter and champion. Plus, the power of girls and women—how much strength they have and how ahead of me they are at young ages—really fires my engines! We are doing this together.
Q: What are you most passionate about, and how do you incorporate it into your career or everyday life?
A: I am most passionate about human beings finding their hearts and rediscovering their full creative humanity again. I am passionate about protecting children’s innate creative, loving gifts from a society that seems to want to “educate” them out of that, to control or violate their natural exuberance and inventiveness. I am passionate about reconnecting to nature and reestablishing right-relationship to our earth as a way out of the crisis we are in! Mother nature is urging us to be in relationship with her, to remember our relationship, to dance with her again, rather than to live in a “power-over” way. What we need is a “power-with” relationship to earth and to other people. Some people call this the return of the divine feminine … I agree.
ON Giving Back
Q: Can you share with us an experience of giving that was extremely rewarding or transformational?
A: We are funding groups working to expose places where exploitation of girls is systemically supported. One of our partners, called “Apne Aap” (which means self-help in Hindi), works with girls in rural Bihar and Calcutta who had been trafficked into prostitution. I traveled there and met girls and women who were fighting to move their local economies, both in red light districts and villages, away from the selling of girls and women for sex. NGOs fighting HIV run programs in these places that distribute condoms, but none of them try to address the base cause of why all these condoms are needed—an environment in which women and girls are sold into sex slavery.
Apne Aap helps girls and women leave the brothels and fight to dismantle these places and expose the criminality and collusion. Seeing them in action changed me forever. I met a girl named Naina who had been force-addicted to drugs and sold since she was seven. She thought her pimp was her father; he had her completely and utterly under his control. But with help from Apne Aap, she was out of that environment, was going to school, and was articulate, self-determining, and creative. Seeing her resilience affected me profoundly. I understood then that change would be possible if the world could see girls like Naina simply as girls—strong, smart, resourceful girls in bad situations—and not as prostitutes and potential “carriers of HIV” to be targeted only for condom-intervention. I am proud of NoVo Foundation for its leadership in working to change situations like this, here in the U.S. and abroad.
Q: Oprah has that great section in her magazine “What I know for sure.” What do you know for sure?
A: We may not be able to change the world, but we can change how we experience the world and how we show up in relationship to it. I remind myself of this every day. We love to label things “good” or “bad,” and we automatically tell ourselves stories about “what is going on” in our relationships and daily life, and about how the world “is.” But this is all subjective. We can choose whether to believe those narratives or not; we can choose what we focus on, how we perceive things, our attitudes. If we all realized more of that freedom innate inside of us, I think we actually could change the world. Change yourself and how you perceive the world, and the world around you shifts.
Q: What are the top 3 things that you do to stay healthy?
A: I spend time just being at our farm in upstate New York and unplugging from man-made stimulation! I eat from that farm! Also, I move! I love to hike. And I am learning to move listening to my inner life-forces. I am becoming aware of these and allowing them to move inside me … they have their own rhythm. I used to think of exercise as forcing (which is why I believe people don’t exercise! We push ourselves enough!) Now I see exercising as opening up to the life forces within. A wise person told me once, we don’t get energy, we are energy! So I try moving with and in the flow of my unique energy pulsing through. It may sound like a strange concept, but I think it’s what yoga and dance are truly all about.
Q: What place in the world has the most sentimental value to you and why?
A: The woods and lakes of Northern Wisconsin. My first memories are of the natural sensations there. The spirit of these woods and lakes is palpable. I would say the southern rim of the Grand Canyon is also sentimental to me. My husband proposed to me there under a meteor shower and star-filled sky on a warm night, and it was utter magic.
Q: Who are your favorite designers?
A: Victoria Beckham (dresses!), Donna Karan (her sense of a woman’s body and the flow of fabric and textural pieces), Robert Rodriguez, Rick Owens to name a few.
Q: Which book(s) has had the most significant impact on your life and why?
A: I love books, this is hard to limit! Okay, here are a few: Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It’s a book that gives a completely different sense of how we could imagine organizing society around motherhood and continuously improving the conditions to nurture children and create greater and greater human beings. Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions by Gloria Steinem. Anything written by Eve Ensler. The Great Turning by David Korten, The User Illusion by Tor Norretranders, Beyond Greed and Scarcity by Bernard Lieataer. These are all books I’ve read in my recent work-life that explore the nature of our present reality and talk about how we can change systems. We’re in such a time of great change and transition, needing to see and build a different future (and women are going to play a huge role and already are!). These books have been helpful and inspirational to me.
Q: If you were to write a book, what would it be about?
A: I am working on one about the return of the feminine. It will discuss historically how a value on the feminine was lost and how it continued to be diminished and degraded. And I’ll talk about how we have the opportunity now to reclaim it. The book will be a mixture of myth, history, archetypical analysis, story, and solutions.
Q: What are the beauty items you could not live without?
A: An eyelash curler, good mascara, and eyebrow tweezers. Plus, good natural oils for my skin, quality oils like organic argan oil. I’d be good with just these!