Jill and Niraj Shah
An Edited Transcript of a Conversation with Jill and Niraj Shah,
Donors to the Boston Foundation’s Civic Leadership Fund,
for the 2017 Boston Foundation Annual Report:
The Problem Solvers
How a Group of Unusually Creative Philanthropists
Are Helping to Solve Some of Boston’s Big Problems
TBF: You are both entrepreneurs in business, having launched Jill’s List and Wayfair. Does your entrepreneurial approach influence your philanthropy through the Shah Family Foundation as well? [Note: Jill’s List, founded by Jill Shah, is a leading online platform for integrative health-care practitioners, which was sold to MINDBODY in 2013; Wayfair, founded by Niraj Shah, is the internet retail powerhouse.]
JS: When we think about making grants, we think about what the long-term opportunity is for a particular organization—whether or not it addresses a need that is not being addressed by organizations that are already functioning in the space. Or does it do something better? Or is it a breakthrough that could somehow be exponentially powerful?
TBF: So that’s how you think as an entrepreneur when you’re assessing whether to start a new business. What is the need and how can it best be met?
JS: Yes, exactly. I think we look to leaders of organizations who take that point of view; who are somewhat risk takers and really looking at efficiently solving problems or being a piece of the solution.
TBF: Tell me about the Hub and Spoke project that your foundation supported.
[NOTE: The Hub and Spoke Project is Boston Public Schools program aimed at bringing locally prepared, healthy and delicious meals to schools in East Boston that do not have full-service kitchens. Food is prepared at the “Hub,” which is East Boston High School and served there and at three additional “Spoke” schools.]
NS: It’s a totally entrepreneurial approach!
JS: The end of the school year, last year, saw the kitchens put in place and they served out of them for three days. So those kitchens are now up and running, and the program was re-launched in September of this school year—and now is working at full capacity. They are serving fresh food in East Boston five days a week—well-cooked food using recipes developed with Ken Oringer and others. [NOTE: Ken Oringer is a well-known and creative Boston area chef.] But most importantly, the food is nutritious and appealing. It also reduces waste along with reducing demand within the budget restraints of the USDA subsidy. As we dig into it, there are opportunities for efficiencies in the current model.
TBF: What are the areas the two of you are drawn to when it comes to your philanthropy?
JS: Where the Foundation is focused—and where we have the most interest—is on solutions that sit at the intersection of health care, education and community. I think those are pillars of every community that support a substantial portion of the constituents. And so we look for solutions that are in that sweet spot. The focus on the food program targeted at the Boston Public Schools we just spoke about crosses over all three of those focus areas.
The other thing we try to do is support solutions that are replicable, so that if we take an approach in the Boston Public Schools, for instance, we try to do something that could be replicated—at least in other urban school districts. “Could it be replicated in other cities?” is another question we ask before making grants.
NS: Jill drives the family foundation’s efforts, but those are the areas we’re both really passionate about: public education, health care—ideally projects that are getting to the core of the problem versus just treating the symptom.
TBF: For many decades, the Boston Foundation had been focusing on funding access to health care. Then we published a report that was titled “The Boston Paradox: Lots of Health Care. Not Enough Health” in 2007. It showed that, even here, in the medical mecca of the world, people are still experiencing high rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc. And so, following that report, we have placed our strategic focus on health and wellness.
JS: That’s how you solve the problem in our opinion as well! We’re much more interested in integrative approaches to care and patient engagement and the ability of patients to have ownership of their own care model. Underlying the work that we’re doing in the Boston Public Schools, we hope that the ultimate solution is a trickle-down effect that, in perpetuity, lends to part of the solution that reverses those epidemics.
TBF: Another connection with the Boston Foundation is that Wayfair was also there at the beginning with early support for Hack.Diversity. What appeals to you about that model? [NOTE: Hack.Diversity is a program initiative of New England Venture Capital Association focused on bridging the gap between jobs going unfilled and Boston talent going undeveloped—with an emphasis on young people of color and women.]
NS: At Wayfair, when we think about the kinds of folks we want to bring into the company, we’re looking for incredibly talented people. Hack.Diversity is helping young people who are talented and can be successful, but may not have access to a path that would get them a job at a company like Wayfair. We’re always looking for talented workers at Wayfair.
There are a number of different things we do to attract more women in the field of engineering. Software engineering is an example of a role that is just very scarce in the world: The number of software engineering jobs in the country dwarfs the number of people who are graduating each year with those skills.
It’s a very well-paying job; it’s a career that is going to continue to expand for decades. So anyone who ends up in that field is going to do well. They’re going to be able to buy a home. They’re going to be able to support a family. So Hack.Diversity is a very thoughtful program that is not just trying to encourage folks into that field, but really helps them be successful. They train the participants in how to handle interviews, for instance. The participants in that program have never had that experience.
TBF: Let’s talk about your support of the Civic Leadership Fund at the Boston Foundation. You have been to a number of forums at the Foundation. What motivated you to make such a generous gift to the Civic Leadership Fund, which supports our reports, forums and other civic leadership work?
JS: The Boston Foundation is an important organization to support. It’s at the epicenter of philanthropy in Boston. So, when we started spending significant time philanthropically, we thought it was important to support the work done by the Boston Foundation.
Also, the Boston Foundation is an excellent convener. To be a part of that community is a real opportunity to access information and people and data that otherwise is much harder to find. I’ve been going to forums for a while and you have some terrific speakers. I’ll definitely keep coming!