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Adrienne Arsht: “Set ground rules if you have guests who you know will disagree”

Leading means going where no one has gone before and having patience to wait for others to follow. As a leader, never to give up your beliefs and work to convince others to stand with you. Lead by example. Whatever you ask of others, you should be willing to do as well. As part of my […]

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Leading means going where no one has gone before and having patience to wait for others to follow. As a leader, never to give up your beliefs and work to convince others to stand with you. Lead by example. Whatever you ask of others, you should be willing to do as well.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adrienne Arsht.

Adrienne Arsht is a business leader and impact philanthropist known for supporting the performing arts, resilience, and improving equity in the three cities she calls home: Washington D.C., Miami and New York. Adrienne is credited for saving the Performing Arts Center in Miami — now renamed the Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts Center — which spurred Downtown Miami’s renaissance. Major gifts include funding the Adrienne Arsht Stage at Lincoln Center in New York, founding the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Center for Latin America and The Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center in Washington D.C., and most recently, earmarking a major gift to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to fully fund paid internships.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series Adrienne. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

After graduating Villanova Law School, I started my career with Trans World Airlines (TWA) in 1969 working in its legal department as inhouse counsel. TWA was one of the few companies hiring female executives at the time, and I was drawn to the global aspect the company offered, affording me the opportunity to travel the world. In 1979, I moved to Washington, D.C. and started my own title company after recognizing the need for such a business. After that experience, I moved to Miami in 1996 and entered the world of banking. From 1996 to 2007, I served as Chair of the Board for TotalBank before selling the company to Banco Popular Español.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or one of the organizations you are working with currently?

I recently made a gift to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to support and ensure that all the Metropolitan Museum’s internship positions would be fully paid. The Spring 2021 welcomed the first intern class, and the Met received a record number of applications — a 200 percent increase over the previous year. This boost was incredible gratifying to me, and this first cohort reflects a wide and diverse range of backgrounds and fields of study. Through paid internships, young adults can experience and explore industries and career paths that previously may have been unattainable, enabling greater inclusivity for all.

The City University of New York’s Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez and I co-authored an op-ed on the importance of paying internships and how this practice can bridge inequities, especially in the arts. I met with the first intern class via Zoom and the most interesting stories are really theirs as their careers are on strong foundation for a successful future.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us the lesson you learned?

When I was leading TotalBank, like many companies we adopted “casual Fridays.” Although many of the men would apologize at lunch functions for their casual attire, most employees enjoyed it, especially after we allowed dark jeans with a blazer or jacket, now the standard dress code for all of Miami.

At our annual formal holiday party, many of the employees told me how happy they were to be dressed up and it was welcome change from the new casual Friday policy. After seeing how wonderful everyone looked and how happy they seemed, I thought it would be a fun idea to switch “casual Friday” to “formal Friday” and have the staff wear their formal black-tie attire to the bank. This could also be a great way to show off our beautiful staff to our customers. Needless to say, when I floated the idea, it hit like a lead balloon, and the pushback was enormous. I hadn’t fully thought through that many of our employees had to drop off or pick up children at school before and after work or take public transportation, walk or ride a bike to work while wearing a tux or ballgown. That would be a tad more complicated than arriving by car for the once-a-year evening holiday formal. The feedback was eye-opening. It made me realize how important it is to bring in those who will be impacted early into the discussion. It is important to listen to others and to encourage ideas from the bottom up.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

I have always had an interest in resiliency and what makes people resilient. In 2019, I matched the 30 million dollars gift from the Rockefeller Foundation to the Atlantic Council, which ultimately created the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center. The center’s goal is to reach one billion people by 2030 with creative and innovative solutions to address climate change, migration, and security challenges. Through the center’s partnerships, communities around the world are becoming more resilient at the social and economic level. Individuals and institutions are learning to better understand and prepare for these issues that affect all geographies. The center’s global reach is working towards a more resilient and prosperous world.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

80 years ago, my father Samuel Arsht was studying at Penn Law School when he was invited to join the Law Review, which is an extremely prestigious position, however unpaid. Law Review opens the door to the most prestigious law firms for law students upon graduation. As a son of immigrants, he grew up with very modest means and worked his way through college and during law school he taught Hebrew school in his hometown in Delaware by hitchhiking from Philadelphia to save on bus fare. Sadly, he couldn’t afford to accept the Law Review opportunity as he had to continue to work to pay for his tuition. My dad was my inspiration for funding the internship program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in hopes of reaching that college student who previously could not afford an unpaid internship and can now participate in a program designed to not only educate but to enhance the career opportunities through networking and yielding long lasting business relationships.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the matter among their board, employees, and patrons?

Keeping on the topic on how to best address inequality in the arts and culture workforce, some politicians think a quick fix is to mandate quotas for minorities on the boards of city funded arts institutions, threatening financial cuts if not achieved. This is a complex problem that will not be fixed overnight. Instead, we should start making the arts — and all businesses — more accessible by paying internships. Sadly, most college students can’t afford to work for free, even it means missing that first rung of the “career ladder.”

Paying interns, while it may seem like a small step, will allow the next generation to be introduced to career paths previously unattainable. Since announcing the Met interns will be fully funded, their applications shot up from 300 to 1,000 for the first cohort. Offering paid internships will not only level the playing field but will introduce a new pool of diverse applicants who will become interns, eventually employees, patrons, and future board members. Governments should lead by committing to pay their own interns and summer student workers. Government can also incentivize companies to create paid internships programs as a wise investment for the future.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leading means going where no one has gone before and having patience to wait for others to follow. As a leader, never to give up your beliefs and work to convince others to stand with you. Lead by example. Whatever you ask of others, you should be willing to do as well.

Authority Magazine: What are your “5 Things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example.

1) At TotalBank, I learned that just because someone writes a solicitation letter, although you must respond, it doesn’t mean you have to accept. If they want you, they will call. Learning this helped save a lot of time and guilt.

2) “No” is a complete sentence.

3) When attending a business dinner or luncheon, try to find out in advance who will be seated at your table and take the time to learn something about them. It will be a great ice breaker.

4) Set ground rules if you have guests who you know will disagree. You want to promote lively discussions between your guests, not heated conversations.

5) When I entertain at home, after greeting my guests, I ask them to choose from a collection of figural napkin rings. Once seated for dinner, we go around the table and they explain their choice. It is amazing some of the things you will learn. My choice usually reflects a topic of conversation that I would like our guests to engage in. One of my favorites is a Jack and Jill on a seesaw as a reminder of balance and tolerance.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

The importance of tolerance. Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. My New Year’s Resolution is to always be more patient and tolerant. (And to lose 5 pounds…it keeps me from eating that extra dessert I don’t really need!)

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The famous quote credited to Edmund Burke from 1770: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” My mother shared this quote with me, and I think it defines my parents. It gives me the backbone to do something and speak up when I perceive wrong. I am fortunate to have been born into a high-rent district, and I need to pay a great deal for the life I have, and I can do that by giving and caring for others.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.

Oprah Winfrey. She has gone through so many different situations and experiences and did not stumble. She is also renowned for her close friendships. I would love to hear her thoughts on migrants, refugees, minimum wage or even paying interns. I also love her promotion of books and literacy. At the Atlantic Council, I have taken a page from her book and created the Adrienne Arsht Center for Resilience Bookshelf highlighting thought-provoking books on resilience.

If I could choose a person who has passed, Catherine the Great would be my choice. She was a unique woman who lived outside the traditional norms of her gender. She led and directed the military and was bold about expanding the Russian empire under her leadership.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

By Adrienne Arsht Instagram: @AdrienneArsht and Adrienne Arsht Twitter: @AdrienneArsht.

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