Berry millionaire Sheila Driscoll uses her wealth 'to improve the world'
As co-founder of The Billionaire Foundation, Ms Driscoll adopts the principles of her family business to advise the ultra rich on creating a charitable legacy
Anyone who has eaten strawberries, raspberries or blueberries will most likely recognise the name Driscoll’s. Now the global leader in the fresh berry market, its origins date to 1904, when the California-based business was founded by Irish immigrant Richard Driscoll.
His great granddaughter, Sheila Driscoll, has taken a very different path, leading her into a world of philanthropy and film. But the legacy of her family’s business and her great grandfather’s guiding principles have left their mark on her.
“With each generation the wisdom of my great grandfather was passed down with very simple adages, very simple tenets of business,” says Ms Driscoll, 63. “The most prominent tenet of business for my great grandfather was ‘we rise by lifting others’.”
That principle has led Ms Driscoll — who says she cannot disclose her wealth for security reasons, though describes herself as a “woman of substantial means” — to co-found The Billionaire Foundation. The organisation conducts research and helps billionaire families connect to share resources, reduce redundancy and increase the impact of charitable donations.
As the foundation's managing director, Ms Driscoll advises billionaires to use the “three Ts” — time, talent and treasure — a phrase that describes different forms of philanthropy. Time could come in the form of volunteering, talent is using one’s expertise to benefit a cause, and treasure often refers to financial contributions.
Many of the billionaires started out very humbly and the first half of their lives poured everything into it … they worked and they slaved and they built their products, their software, their companies. But then, more often than not, they come to a point where that’s no longer enough. It’s ‘now what’s next?’
Ms Driscoll was in Dubai last week to speak at the Global Family Office Investment Summit — an invite-only gathering of more than 400 elite family offices, royal families, business owners, private investment companies and industry professionals representing over $3 trillion (Dh11tn) in investor wealth — hosted by Anthony Ritossa, of olive oil family business fame.
In the film field, Ms Driscoll is a producer with a focus on the creation and financing of women-led content. She was part of the executive production team of 2017’s Wonder Woman — a movie that made nearly $900 million. In February she helped create Sisters First, an entertainment production and asset management company that invests in projects that amplify female voices, capitalising it with $100m and enlisting the support of celebrity women mentors.
“It’s for women, by women and also using the adage that Jack Lemmon told Kevin Spacey: ‘when you get to the top, send the elevator back down.’ That’s what these women are doing for the next generation,” Ms Driscoll says.
She was also recently chosen to be on the international board of the Nobel Sustainability Trust, created by the Nobel family, which gives an annual sustainability award in Copenhagen to individuals who have shown inventive and effective development within the field of alternative, renewable and sustainable energy.
Ms Driscoll’s diverse interests have a common thread, however, driven by a desire to “improve the world”. That philosophy of “doing without looking to see what you can get back” started with her upbringing.
“My mother would always remind us — because we’re all full-blooded Irish — that we came from the land of scholars and saints,” says Ms Driscoll. “Education was first and foremost, and philanthropy was a very big part of our family.”
For example, as a graduate student at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, Ms Driscoll studied Spanish and became a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar to Argentina. While there, she did postgraduate studies in the field of deaf education and upon returning put together a bilingual programme for the hearing-impaired.
Throughout the years, Ms Driscoll has worked with various non-profit groups with causes that range from special needs to missing and abducted children.
She says that her family business taught her that community comes first. She tells the story of how Driscoll’s hired Japanese Americans that had been put in internment camps during World War II. Her father had been at Pearl Harbor, the US naval base in Hawaii that was attacked by the Japanese in 1941. Yet her grandfather insisted that Driscoll’s welcome Japanese American internees, who were released in 1945 after the end of the war, after they had lost their homes and jobs.
Ms Driscoll started The Billionaire Foundation in 2013 with Richard Wilson, chief executive of the Family Office Club and Billionaire Family Office. The organisation’s goal is to connect the space of billionaire family foundations to each other and highlight the most well-run foundations. The research and operating expenses are covered by the Wilson Holding Company.
“Many of the billionaires started out very humbly and the first half of their lives poured everything into it … they worked and they slaved and they built their products, their software, their companies. But then, more often than not, they come to a point where that’s no longer enough. It’s ‘now what’s next?’” says Ms Driscoll. “There isn’t a plane, boat, train, restaurant, location, piece of clothing, jewellery they couldn’t purchase, didn’t have. And it’s coming to that void in themselves.”
The individuals or families may then decide to create a charitable foundation to fill that void, but Ms Driscoll says there are often redundancies in the types of foundations that are formed and collaboration helps create more efficiencies.
“Quite possibly you could share infrastructure, working space, strategic plans, succession plans. And then, rather than reinventing the wheel, you’re now partnering with people who have been there, done that and have workable models,” she says.
The next element Ms Driscoll deals with is to inspire those individuals and families to look forward and create a legacy.
“They’ve had the validation from the outside, so now the validation has to come from the inside,” she says. “They’re at a point of what I call ‘moving from success to significance.’”
Ms Driscoll helps them find their path by asking them what their passion and purpose are, but finds that they may not necessarily be able to define those elements.
“So an additional step that I add is ‘what is your curiosity?’ They all know what they’re curious about, so that’s their point of departure,” she says.
In the UAE, she says that some of the charitable causes that have been discussed include people of determination, and sustainability and impact investment. In the area of food security and sustainability, Ms Driscoll says she met with one of the wealthiest families in Dubai to explore investing in a $50m harvesting robotics technology fund.
Ms Driscoll says that about half her work for The Billionaire Foundation is in the US, while the other half is global. After leaving Dubai, she travelled to Mexico to work with the former Mexican president’s wife on philanthropic projects for children.
“At the end of the day, it’s sharing your network and making sure that the work is done and that the right people join to do the right work,” says Ms Driscoll.
Ms Driscoll also serves as a mentor to young women and entrepreneurs. One of these is Dubai-based Radha Bhandari, who used to work on Wall Street and recently started her own asset management company. Ms Bhandari reached out to Ms Driscoll on LinkedIn for advice and was shocked to get a response.
While in Dubai, Ms Driscoll gave a talk along with a panel of women entrepreneurs on ‘how to be a game-changer,’ organised by Ms Bhandari.
“I would describe her as one who wants to share her knowledge, who wants to share her treasure, and who wants to see an impact in this world,” says Ms Bhandari.
With the Sisters First production company, Ms Driscoll has taken her own advice to find her passion, purpose and curiosity. The investment fund includes a philanthropic arm that supports people of determination in the film and television industry through training, mentoring and scholarships.
“One of my great grandfather’s tenets was, if you embark on a project, be sure to put all of your passion, all of your love in it, but be sure it lasts for 100 years,” she says. “I have now created my own 100-year legacy.”
Updated: March 14, 2019 09:34 AM