When Gayle Rose first picked up a clarinet at age 7, little did she know it would lead her to become a virtuoso — in philanthropy.
She got to be quite good on the licorice stick, graduating with a degree in music from the University of Northern Iowa and playing professionally before and after she arrived in Memphis in 1979. She loved music specifically and the arts in general, which led to her being recruited by Sally Thomason, executive director of the Memphis Arts Council, to be second in charge at the nonprofit united fund for the arts (now ArtsMemphis).
Rose stayed about five years, a time of impressive growth for the agency. “It got me exposed to the role of arts in a city the size of Memphis,” she says. That included learning who the players were, how to deal with business and government, why people valued the arts, and how it all played a role in the community. “Since I was a musician myself, and I was playing on the side, it all made sense for me to be in arts administration,” she says.
Rose left in 1984 to get a masters degree in public administration at Harvard University. She also had met Mike Rose, the CEO and chairman of the former Holiday Corp., and they married in 1985. It was also a marriage into wealth, which put her firmly on the path to philanthropy. “When I came back to Memphis from Harvard, and Mike and I were newly married and navigating what my career was going to be with the demands of being the wife of an international CEO, we decided to formalize our philanthropy and create a foundation that I would run.”
She remains as Chairman of the Rose Family Foundations private charity. And she is founder and CEO of EVS Corporation, a tech firm. She was previously CEO for a firm associated with physician and self-help author Deepak Chopra and was managing director with the Memphis office of financial services group Heritage Capital Advisors LLC.
The beginning of her philanthropic career was marked, she admits, with some naïvete. “But then I did what I knew, which was really wanting to support education and the arts, and that’s where we focused,” she says. “And as I matured a little bit into that, I became very aware of some of the real issues in Memphis in general, the issues of poverty, the social issues that the city was having. I had no idea how to approach any of that. I served on the board of LeMoyne-Owen College for about 15 years, and that really helped ground me in some of the issues in our community in a way that helped me be acquainted with, and really interested in, what’s happening for about half of our population that is suffering.”
Rose has a philanthropist’s heart and mind. She is humble and ever willing to listen and learn. At the same time, she thinks with a macro vision and purposefulness, knowing after decades of involvement in many levels of Memphis life the art of the possible and how to achieve it.
She is, for example, a co-founder of the Women’s Foundation of Greater Memphis. Rose knew that most people who live in poverty are women and children, and she remembered a talk she’d heard by a faculty member at Harvard, economist and philospher Amartya Sen. “He said, ‘If you want to strengthen a community, you strengthen its women, and you empower them,’ and that’s a real development from an economist’s perspective. It’s a development strategy, not necessarily a feminist idea, but an economic policy.”
In helping form the Women’s Foundation, the realization was that organizations serving women were underfunded compared to groups that serve men and boys. “And that was a result of who controlled the checkbook for centuries,” she says. “Women really were coming into the workplace and the wealth transfer to women was occurring. But women were probably ill-equipped to think about and make decisions about philanthropy outside of maybe donating to their churches. We spent a great deal of time educating a very diverse group of women leaders in Memphis, to think about themselves as philanthropists controlling their own interests financially, and that you don’t have to have millions to be impactful.”
As Rose got increasingly involved in philanthropy, she looked deeply into what it meant and how effectively private philanthropy could really move the needle. “When it doesn’t over time, it’s caused me to step back and think and study and read and wonder why,” she says. “What is really impactful, and what isn’t?”
A couple of Rose’s most notable efforts have been in helping recruit the Grizzlies to come to Memphis and leading the effort to save the Memphis Symphony Orchestra.
She took on the task of getting the Grizzlies to come to town because she felt it would bring together the community. Rose is not an owner, although some people think she is. “I didn’t do it for ownership, I didn’t do it for pay,” she says. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, the leadership challenge, because it was so public and it was controversial, and we had to lead it through three different bodies of government to get the FedExForum built and amass the investment capital.”
It took, Rose says, a huge team, including Pitt and Barbara Hyde, Staley Cates, and FedEx. “But there had to be sort of a point and a face person that was interacting with all these bodies, and especially the media,” she says, “and that was the role I played. It was really a philanthropic effort for Memphis, and I still believe that it’s good for Memphis.”
Her labor for the MSO is “a call of my soul.” Rose was approached in 2011 when the symphony was in trouble. “It’s not just because it’s pretty concerts for pretty people,” she says, “but I believe that music is transformative in people’s lives. The Memphis Symphony is a leader in the country in coaching, teaching, and mentoring kids, and all our musicians are teaching, almost all in the community. It also intersects with my social justice passion that I think artists who play a role in transforming a community are undervalued.”
It’s been a long and hard journey. “But I think we’re just arriving at the place where my succession is starting to be discussed, and led by me.” She says it’s on the road to stability with the new leadership of music director Robert Moody and CEO Peter Abell. The move to be headquartered at the University of Memphis was something that cut costs and expanded resources at the same time. “It’s getting exciting programming, relevant programming, leadership that reflects our community, and being an invaluable piece of the fabric of our community,” Rose says.
If there’s one philanthropic effort that has consumed Rose, it is Team Max. In 2009, her middle son, Max, was killed in an automobile accident at age 19. She was shattered. But she began to develop an idea rooted not only in her own dedication to philanthropy but in Max’s activism. “My son was very interested in giving back and being engaged at what I call the street level. It’s comfortable here sitting in my beautiful office writing checks to organizations, but he wanted to be on the ground, touching and seeing and looking in the eyes of the children, and the people living in the disinvested neighborhoods. He did that by working at Streets Ministries, serving at Union Mission, teaching English as a second language at Hickory Hill to Hispanic children.”
What Rose realized was that Max’s friends loved him so much that they wanted to continue that. She was talking with one of his best friends and she understood that the young people had the impulse and desire, but couldn’t easily devote themselves to doing good. After all, they have school, jobs, and other activities. So how to make it work?
“Team Max was always going to be informal and loose, because kids like that,” she says. “It was going to require little other than showing up and serving.”
For Rose, it was a way to introduce young people to organizations doing ground-level work, such as the Memphis Food Bank. “Then there were other opportunities that didn’t require engagement with those organizations,” she says. “It’s just literally looking in a newspaper and seeing some need, whether we responded to the earthquake in Haiti, or tornadoes, or calls that the Union Mission might need socks and shaving kits.”
It is, she says, very much about teaching how easy it is. “You provide volunteer opportunities that say, ‘Come at 9 a.m., you’ll be done at 11 a.m., you can go on with your life.’ Maybe out of that pool, there’ll be somebody else whose lives were awakened by that incredible need out there.” There’s a busy day every December when Team Max holds its Soulfull Memphis Operation Christmas Basket. “We distribute 5,000 food baskets in one morning. We put them together in an operation that might look like a FedEx operation — it has a conveyor, all this food, and volunteers, almost like a factory. That line of people that are waiting to get that food basket, which has all the ingredients for a Christmas dinner, is about seven miles long. Seven miles of cars.”
As Rose acknowledges, the food basket giveaway doesn’t solve poverty or hunger. “But it’s a gesture of a community giving and receiving,” she says. “And I think it does more for the people that are serving than it does for the recipients, honestly.”
Team Max is important to Rose, but not, she says, a life mission. “I’m hoping I can get some of his friends to eventually take it on and I think they will,” she says. “Maybe it’ll be different, and that’s OK too. It’s not something I’m trying to control into being perpetuated.”
But Rose’s interest in combatting poverty will always remain. “I’ve done a lot of research, and I think that the dialog about poverty in our community has to get a little bit more sophisticated, a little more nuanced,” she says. “Some of the latest figures that I’ve seen is that about 60 percent to 65 percent of people living in poverty are disqualified from the work strategy, if you will. They’re the elderly, permanently disabled, and students. You have 15 percent of that population already fully employed, and about 8.5 percent are unemployed. When you see these big workforce programs and think that’s going to lift our community out of poverty, you’ve got to remember that will focus only on a very narrow part. We’ve got to address the 15 percent that are fully employed. And what do you do about those who will never benefit from those work strategies? That’s a different conversation, but it helps frame it in our community to know that we’ve got to think about policies that will help those living in poverty.”
“This is a big city with a skyline,” Rose says, “and I just fell in love with it. I choose to stay here, I’ve chosen to raise my kids here, with all of its warts, with all of its problems. I’d like to do what I can in my small way to impact the landscape here. That’s what drives me. And I’m so grateful that I’ve been given a voice and an opportunity to play a role in the community in which I live. That is what gets me up and to the office every day.”