Talking with entrepreneur with social values pitch

Name: Ruth Shapiro
Age: 54
City: Mill Valley
Occupation: Social entrepreneur


Ruth Shapiro

J.: You have a long background in business innovation and social entrepreneurship, having built a number of successful businesses with socially responsible missions. What were your professional goals when you were starting out?

Ruth Shapiro: My background originally was in international development, and that’s what I got my doctorate in. I ended up creating an organization called the Asia Business Council, which is a membership organization of CEOs of large Asian companies. [My family] moved from Marin to Hong Kong and lived there for a number of years before coming back to the Bay Area.

J.: The Asia Business Council was established to ensure continued economic development in the region. Do you see creating business as the best way to achieve that?

RS: Business is certainly a source of economic development. It’s a much more powerful driver of development than foreign aid is. I think that business can be very helpful, but you need enlightened leadership and some values within the corporation.

The purpose of business is to make money. But I think there are many win-win scenarios. Michael Porter, a Harvard business school professor, calls them shared value. Enlightened businesses can make money but also help their employees do well in the world, help the environment, produce products that are sustainable and products that are helpful to the world.

J.: What was it like to live in Hong Kong for four years?

RS: Hong Kong was really terrific for a number of reasons. The Jewish community there was very special. The Reform community was so welcoming, and their attitude was essentially “if you want to be here we want you.” It was a warm and welcoming environment with people from all over. There were Israelis and British and French and American Jews and a number of Chinese Jews who married a Jew from somewhere else. It helped make Hong Kong a special time and place for us.

J.: You received your undergraduate degree in Asian studies, master’s degrees from Harvard and George Washington and a Ph.D. from Stanford, all in international affairs. Did that lead you to your work with the Commonwealth Club, where you organize talks in Marin?

RS: When I first came out to the Bay Area, I needed a job. I was going to start my graduate work at Stanford but hadn’t yet and I got a job with Gloria Duffy, who is the president of the Commonwealth Club, and she’s been a friend and a mentor ever since.

When I was starting the Asia Business Council [in 1996], I was essentially doing it out of my house in San Francisco. My kids were little at the time and they would bang on the door when I was on the phone working and they’d say, “Mom, we know you’re in there!” Gloria was very kind to give me an office and allowed me to get out of the house and do my nonprofit.

I have a very close relationship with the Commonwealth Club. I’ve done a number of projects with them over the years, including being their social entrepreneur in residence. I put on a series of talks on social entrepreneurship and published “The Real Problem Solvers,” a collection of the 14 talks on the topic.

J.: What was your upbringing like?

RS: I grew up on Long Island in a Conservative synagogue. I was bat mitzvahed, and I guess I would say with a name like Ruth Shapiro I think of myself as a very Jewish person. (Laughs.) It’s more ethnically Jewish and stylistically Jewish rather than religiously Jewish. I think Jewish values are very important to me and my family.

I married a guy who was brought up Irish Catholic, but  he really embraces Judaism. One of the reasons he loves Judaism is because everything is a discussion or a debate rather than dictated from on high. I love that, too.

J.: Do you belong to a synagogue?

RS: Our kids went to high school in Palo Alto so we became members of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills years ago. Even though we moved back to Marin from the South Bay a year ago, we still go to Beth Am. Rabbi Janet Marder makes it worth the drive.

“Talking with …” ” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to [email protected]