Leonard Lauder Thinks Pink to Support Breast Cancer Research

by janet carlson | October 5, 2012 | Home Page

At The Breast Cancer Research Foundation’s Hot Pink Luncheon and Symposium in Palm Beach this past February, Leonard A. Lauder, one of America’s best-known business figures, stepped to the podium and said modestly, “I introduce myself these days as Mr. Evelyn Lauder.” He paused for the bittersweet applause, before adding, “because I am absolutely dedicated to my dear wife Evelyn’s dream of curing and preventing breast cancer.”

Three months earlier, in November 2011, Evelyn H. Lauder died at home in New York City, of nongenetic ovarian cancer. A woman of many accomplishments, Evelyn, who held the position of senior corporate vice president at Estée Lauder, overseeing fragrance development worldwide, founded The Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) almost two decades ago after a bout with breast cancer (which was successfully treated). Through her philanthropic work, she connected with women from all walks of life, from Manhattan to the Midwest to Miami. During the Lincoln Center tribute for her, attended by a packed crowd of more than 2,000, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, “She didn’t just give a speech or write a check—she created a movement, The Breast Cancer Research Foundation, which has raised more than $350 million for research and given us an iconic symbol, the pink ribbon.”

Leonard Lauder, still active as chairman emeritus of The Estée Lauder Companies, as well as being a dedicated philanthropist—his commitments include the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, the Council on Foreign Relations, The Aspen Institute, and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (to which The Leonard & Evelyn Lauder Foundation gave $50 million to help build the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center)—decided to take up the cause, “because I felt it had to be done. I was present at the creation.” Dr. Larry Norton, scientific director of the BCRF Scientific Advisory Board and deputy physician-in-chief for Breast Cancer Programs at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, with whom the Lauders have collaborated closely, recalls those early days: “We were at their apartment in New York, sitting around the kitchen table, and that was the start of BCRF. Leonard was right there. Evelyn took the lead—but he was the rock she stood on.”

Even for an accomplished CEO like Lauder, Evelyn’s achievements with BCRF would be a tough act to follow. But Lauder relishes the challenge. While the style of their persuasive skills might have differed, Lauder says, “She was seductive in her way; I’m seductive in my way. [But] we were two peas in a pod.”

The team at BCRF greeted the news of Lauder’s involvement with considerable relief, if not outright joy. Myra J. Biblowit, president of BCRF, explains, “To have Leonard say, ‘I’m going to step in because I want this organization to continue to flourish and not miss a beat,’ that has been invaluable reassurance about the future of an organization that has lost its founder.”

And who better than Leonard Lauder to grow BCRF? One of America’s most successful CEOs, Lauder took his family’s cosmetics firm to its current status as a multibillion-dollar global behemoth. (It had nearly $9 billion in net sales in the last fiscal year.) In addition to Lauder’s business prowess, there’s his much-vaunted talent for relationship building. “Leonard brings to the table his extraordinary insights about people,” says Dr. Norton. “He understands what makes them tick. That translates into the magic of BCRF. It’s not about science; it’s about people doing science. If you support their enthusiasm and creativity, the projects will come.”

Already Lauder has continued to expand the BCRF board, bringing in such names as Tory Burch and Ed Brennan, the chairman of DFS Group, while empowering each board member with more responsibility. He’s also defined a dual agenda for BCRF, that is, to expand its scope “to embrace the new reality of cancer research and expand the fundraising footprint.”

The “new reality” of cancer research is how scientists are coming to see cancer as a genetic disease rather than a disease of the breast, colon, lung, or other organ. “Genetic aberrations are in a sense the hub of the wheel,” says BCRF’s Biblowit. “Ultimately, solutions will have application to all of the spokes.” This inter-connectedness is what ensures BCRF’s relevance even in a time when many types of breast cancer are curable or manageable. That Evelyn died of nongenetic ovarian cancer is relevant, too. Lauder offers this hint about the future: “Our main focus will be women’s cancers.”

Biblowit says what stands between disease and a cure today “is not technology or talent, but money. The intellectual capital is in place; the missing link is the financial resources.” Dr. Norton offers some sobering facts—23 percent of American deaths this year will be from cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet studies indicate that the US spends six times more on soft drinks than on all cancer research combined. “If we didn’t have philanthropy, we’d be dead in the water,” he says. “In order to apply for federal grants, you need to demonstrate preliminary results, and in order to do the work to get those results, you need philanthropy.” Eleven years ago, BCRF awarded $8.5 million to support 50 researchers around the US; this year, the group raised $53 million and is funding more than 190 researchers in 13 countries, according to Biblowit.

No matter how ambitious the goals for BCRF, Lauder, at 79, seems primed to meet them. His schedule hasn’t varied much from when he was running The Estée Lauder Companies as CEO. “I get up at 6:30 every day, exercise, then sit down to a business breakfast by 7:30 or get to my office by 8,” he says. His workdays are a tightly choreographed sequence of meetings, phone calls, power lunches, and more meetings until 6 or 7 pm. He travels regularly. Recent trips were to Aspen in July for philanthropy and a business and “roots” trip to Prague and Vienna (where Evelyn was born); this month, he’ll be in Boston for the opening of his antique postcard exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts. “I’m not bored,” he says. Asked how it feels, this busy life in Evelyn’s absence, he answers, “Lonesome. I’m in the midst of reshaping my own life. It’s not easy after 52 years. When we were married, I was 26. We formed our own life. Now I have to form a new life.” Perhaps immersing himself in Evelyn’s work helps him as much as it helps the foundation.

At the Hot Pink Luncheon and Symposium in February, Lauder told the audience, “Each one of you has the seed of greatness within you. Your vote counts; your contribution counts.” Then, he elegantly demonstrated the art of putting one’s money where one’s mouth is. During his closing remarks, he announced, “Today, we have raised $495,000. We are $5,000 short. I’ll put the $5,000 in to get to half a million if someone will match me. Come to see me after the—There!” He pointed across the room. “Okay, $500,000. Thank you.”

As for Evelyn Lauder’s hope that a cure for breast cancer will be found within our lifetime, no one knows the future, of course. But to reach that milestone, the money’s on Leonard Lauder and BCRF to get it done.

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The BCRF Symposium and Awards Luncheon takes place at The Waldorf-Astoria in New York on October 30.

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photography by matt power (leonard lauder portrait); julie skarratt (evelyn lauder, luncheon); ILIR BAJRAKTARI/PatrickMcMullan.com (norton); lucien capehart (lauder family)

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