Since signing the Giving Pledge in 2019, Francine LeFrak has had one clear philanthropic goal; giving women the tools they need to transform their lives with dignity.
To bring this goal to life, LeFrak has invested in countless organizations that champion gender equity by way of the Francine A. LeFrak Foundation. In October 2020, the creation of the Francine A. LeFrak Foundation Center for Well-Being, her most recent endeavor, was announced. The center is built on the top pillars of wellness: mental health, physical wellness, and financial fluency; the last having been born as a result of what LeFrak believes to be core to women’s wellbeing and thriving in today’s world: women having deep confidence in their financial skillset. “For so many women, we were told growing up that ‘you don’t need to know’ when it came to money and investing. We also heard ‘you aren’t good at math and science, but that’s okay’ our entire lives. We were never encouraged to be comfortable with finance. On so many levels, women need to feel confident and comfortable with managing money. I see financial fluency and wellness going hand in hand.”
Opening the Center for Well-Being at Barnard College was one step in the right direction for LeFrak and her team at the Francine A. LeFrak Foundation. While the mission was designed around the key pillars of wellness, the emphasis on financial fluency, not necessarily literacy, is what distinguishes the center’s goals from traditional definitions of well-being. As LeFrak shares, “Real wellness without financial peace of mind is not possible. You need to know how to handle your finances. It can be a point of hope, instead of stress, for women. I was so excited when I met with Barnard’s President, Sian Leah Beilock, about this idea and she said ‘yes, we want this unique approach to well-being!’ At that moment I knew, there was no way I could do this unless Barnard made the financial piece front and center. I wanted to see them really take the lead on it. Because, truly, it is the top taboo that women deal with as they try to live, lead, and be well. I know from my own experience that linking those three things is key; mental, physical, and financial wellness.”
LeFrak’s passion comes from a place of personal struggles as a woman who learned at an early age that she would not be welcomed into her family business. Left alone to navigate it on her own, she was given few tools to understand how to handle the responsibilities that were bestowed upon her. Thrown into the deep end, LeFrak had to learn how to swim quickly. This experience was a pivotal moment in her life.
“Historically, women have not had significant wealth - and now we do - so how do we feel about it? We can’t be ashamed and shut off simply resorting to power-holding. It’s okay to want to be successful beyond just the gender pay gap or in addition to it. What truly needs to change is our mindset and the understanding of what financial fluency for women means.”
Today, LeFrak believes strongly that women should support other women and their causes. While women control 60% of philanthropic dollars, only 1.6% of those dollars is directed towards women’s issues. LeFrak wants to be a role model to other women and other philanthropists and to inspire change with these statistics. Further, LeFrak also points out that women’s colleges have nowhere near the endowment men’s institutions have. “When you walk through a college campus, how many women’s names are on buildings vs men’s?” LeFrak believes that this isn’t because women have less money to give, but because women defer to their partners' philanthropic priorities. This is a trend that must stop. “I feel so strongly about paving the way and ringing the bell to show other women that this is where their hearts need to be. It is the best.”
In addition to joining the recent Women Moving Millions Campaign: Give Bold, Get Equal and being a Giving Pledge signer, LeFrak's philanthropic efforts are extensive, spanning from helping survivors of the Rwandan genocide become financially independent to helping incarcerated women in Jersey City reenter the workforce. As a leader and former Chair of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Women’s Leadership Board, it has become her life’s mission to help women gain financial independence through all of her philanthropic endeavors. LeFrak’s philanthropy stands out because of her unique approach to providing a hand up instead of a hand out.
“Many women don’t have financial confidence because they were never given the tools and necessary skills. And when women are financially illiterate, they are less equipped to leave unhappy, abusive marriages or any other toxic situations in their personal or professional lives. Add to that, the stress caused by financial fears. One study found that 65% of women feel financial matters cause them the most stress. There is little denying the fact that stress can cause anxiety, physical pain, and much more. To fight back, we must empower women with the financial knowledge to thrive.”
The Francine A. LeFrak Center is expected to be operating fully by September 2023. This center, with its 360-degree perspective of personal well-being, has never been more necessary than in this time of heightened angst and anxiety for many. For LeFrak, it is a significant moment for the entire country.
"I am delighted to be on the forefront of this innovative and more complete definition of wellness, especially as women recover from the impact of the pandemic. This Center will be a point of hope for women. With the Francine A. LeFrak Center on its campus, I believe that Barnard is destined to be a leader in holistic wellness and a model for other institutions to follow."