Susan Koret was born in Seoul, South Korea, and immigrated to the United States, where she met and married Joseph Koret, founder of the women’s sportswear company Koret of California. He used the wealth he created in business to establish San Francisco’s Koret Foundation, where Mrs. Koret has served as chair since Joseph’s death in 1982. During those years the organization has invested more than $500 million in the Bay Area, its anchor institutions, the Jewish community, and special initiatives in Israel. Mrs. Koret spoke with Philanthropy from her home in California.
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PHILANTHROPY: What motivated the philanthropy of Joseph Koret?
KORET: Joe was a very generous man, and he was always helping those around him. He never forgot where he came from. He was born in Russia and was only one year old when his family arrived in New York without money—it was a tough life. He came to San Francisco at age 17 with little in his pockets. He worked hard to build a successful company here.
PHILANTHROPY: How did that upbringing influence his charitable giving?
So his vision included a strong focus on giving people the opportunity to educate themselves as a critical step to building a successful life.
KORET: Because he was poor he understood hardship. There’s no question it affected his approach to charitable giving. He believed that you needed to give people the tools to help themselves. He wanted to help people become independent. So his vision included a strong focus on giving people the opportunity to educate themselves as a critical step to building a successful life.
PHILANTHROPY: What about your upbringing? You were born in Korea. Do you think that influenced your own decision-making as a philanthropist in the United States?
KORET: Yes, of course. Because of our similar backgrounds, Joe and I shared many of the same values: getting a good education, helping children, and helping the elderly. These things were very important in my culture while I was growing up.
PHILANTHROPY: How deeply involved are you in the Koret Foundation’s programs?
KORET: Very involved. I’ve been chairman of the board for 30 years. One area of special interest has been the development of a School of Veterinary Medicine at Hebrew University, and working to support an exchange relationship between Hebrew University and the University of California Davis Veterinary School.
PHILANTHROPY: Can you tell me more about that relationship?
KORET: Many years ago, I heard from people at UC Davis that when veterinary students and faculty came from Israel for exchange studies, they would only stay a few days. I didn’t think this was enough time to learn the skills they needed to take back to their country. I proposed to our board that we initiate a program allowing them to stay longer, and we decided to fund that idea generously. Now when students and faculty come from the Hebrew University to UC Davis, they have the opportunity to stay for up to a full year. The strength of the relationship between the two organizations has been a successful outcome of our grant-making process. I’m really proud of what we have accomplished to move animal science forward in both countries. Now Hebrew University is developing plans for a veterinary teaching hospital, about which I’m very excited.
PHILANTHROPY: Israel is very important to you and to the Koret Foundation. What is your perspective as a convert to Judaism on the Koret Foundation’s work in Israel and among Jewish communities?
KORET: Our work in Israel and within the Jewish community is vital. Hebrew University was very close to Joe’s heart. He was so proud to be involved with it.
One of the biggest challenges facing the Jewish people today is getting the younger generation to value their Jewish identity.
One of the biggest challenges facing the Jewish people today is getting the younger generation to value their Jewish identity. As a convert, I think I have a special perspective on how important it is to maintain bonds of culture and history. I hope younger people listen to their elders and then carry on important traditions preserved in thousands of years of Jewish heritage and identity.
PHILANTHROPY: What would you say has been the Koret Foundation’s biggest philanthropic success?
KORET: Joe wanted the Koret Foundation to improve the quality of life in the Bay Area. The vast majority of our funds are allocated to ongoing projects in the region that strengthen the community. In San Francisco we support cultural and educational institutions that play an important role in the local economy and quality of life. Koret recently funded a kitchen in the new building of St. Anthony’s, a food program Koret has supported for more than 30 years, along with other groups such as Meals on Wheels and the San Francisco Food Bank. We have also had a long and successful relationship with the University of San Francisco. My husband began our work with USF, where we’ve funded the Koret Law School and the Koret Recreation Center, serving thousands of people everyday, both students and the community at large. In June of 2013, our most recent work with USF will be announced—the funding of a new state-of-the-art science and innovation center. The building will transform that way science education happens on campus, and should help USF attract talented students from around the world who want to work in science and technology jobs in our region.
But I truly believe that our biggest philanthropic success is our involvement with the Hebrew University. Joe was a supporter of the university from the very beginning, and I have been able to carry out his vision by continuing this long-lasting relationship. The impact of the university will continue long after we are gone.