More Than Money
Issue #28

Who Knows You're Rich?

Table of Contents

“When Being Private is Not an Option”

Talk about 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?"

When 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.

MTM: 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?

SH: 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.

On the 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.

Once 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 tall.

MTM: So you're saying that our readers should relax about their wealth being a part of themselves?

SH: 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.

MTM: 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.

SH: 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.

A friend 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 series, 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.

The 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.

MTM: 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?

SH: 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.

Money 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.

-Interviewed by Anne Slepian


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