The Remarkable Woman Behind the Marquee Name
By Jana Soeldner Danger
Miami fans of Broadway, opera and all things “live theater” know her name well. Adrienne Arsht, the $30 million namesake on Miami’s renowned performing arts center, she is widely known as a champion of the arts. A major donation from her helped transform the Lincoln Center’s facilities and public spaces, and another to the Kennedy Center established a musical theater fund that also carries her name. But how many of you know the face behind the name – the remarkable woman who is an American pioneer and role model for all women
nationwide? South Florida Opulence thought you might like to meet the real Adrienne Arsht; she graciously agreed to an exclusive interview.
Her Multitiered Career
Adrienne’s interest in the arts has been lifelong. “The arts are a universal language that endures,” she said. “They define a culture. They’re a reason to wake up in the morning.”Yet she is much more than a patron of the arts and a philanthropist. She is a pioneer who made educational and professional choices that forged pathways and helped shape the way women live and work today. Among other things, Adrienne has been a lawyer, the owner of a title company, and a bank chairman, beginning her career in an era when most women stayed at home caring for husbands and children.
During high school, she decided to accelerate her education by skipping her senior year, and entered Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts without a high school diploma. After graduation, her next goal was a law degree. “I always knew I wanted to go to law school. But not necessarily to practice law. I felt that to be taken seriously, to have a place at the table, I needed to have a law degree.”
She caught a bus to take the law school admissions test. When she arrived, she discovered she was the only woman sitting for it, and that the men around her had been studying diligently for months.She, however, had not. “I had no idea what the test was going to be,” she recalled. She passed nonetheless, and was one of a handful of women in her class at Villanova Law School, where male students refused to include them in their study groups. “But eventually, some of them did let me in.”
Woman of Influence: Her Mother
It is not surprising that Adrienne set her sights on a law degree. She had, after all, a most unusual role model. Her mother, a lawyer in an era when the profession was virtually unheard of for women, was the fifth woman admitted to the Delaware bar and the first ever female judge to take the bench in that state., and Adrienne was the eleventh woman 25 years later.
After practicing law for a few years, Adrienne went to work for Trans World Airlines, where she was the first woman in the company’s property, cargo and government relations departments. “At that time, the only areas they allowed women to work in were as stewardesses and the law department,” she said. “I’d always been interested in global travel, and the matters I handled in the legal department were of a global nature.”
She moved to Washington, D.C. after meeting her husband and started a title company. Then in 1996, she came to Miami to run a “very small” community bank owned by her family, and once again found herself in a field dominated entirely by men. Yet, over the next decade, she grew the bank from four locations to 14, with more than $1.4 billion in assets.
Her mother and her father, also a lawyer, were strong forces in shaping Adrienne’s values. She endowed an ethics and leadership center named for her mother at Goucher College, her mother’s alma mater, and made a large commitment to ethics programs at the University of Miami, in part because ethics were fundamental to the way her parents thought and acted. “The first question they would ask about something is, ‘Is it ethical? If not, don’t go down that path.’”
She realizes, however, that ethics can be complex and multisided, and many questions, such as medical issues, require careful, critical thought. “The answers are not always easy.”
Her mother carried a small copy of the U.S. Constitution with her, and today, Adrienne also carries one, which she sometimes gives away. “My evening bag always needs to be able to hold both my phone and my Constitution,” she said.
When something doesn’t work out, she isn’t afraid to start over and try again. “My grandmother taught me to sew on a treadle machine,” she remembered. “She always said you can’t be a good sewer if you’re not also a good ripper. If there’s a better way to do something, rip it out and do it right. Don’t let anything sloppy slip by.” Her grandmother had another saying she tries to live by: A galloping horse won’t notice. In other words, don’t worry about small imperfections in yourself, because most people are busy with their own concerns, and inconsequential flaws just don’t matter.
Not Without Challenges
Adrienne’s life has not been without difficulties. Her family was not wealthy while she was growing up, and they lived in a conservative community where Jewish families like hers were not allowed to buy property in some of the better neighborhoods. Her father was excluded from a prestigious law club because of his heritage. A brilliant sister, apprehended in Russia by the KGB during the Cold War while working as a translator and accused of being a spy, never recovered from the experience and later took her own life.
But Adrienne does realize how lucky she is. And while she looks forward to the future, she doesn’t plan extensively for it. Her personal stationery carries a picture of a bird jumping off a cliff with the caption, “Jump, and develop your wings on the way down.” Taking life as it comes, however, doesn’t mean making those jumps thoughtlessly. “You need to prepare for jumping. And whatever you’re doing, do the best you can. I was always taught that my purpose in life is to leave the world a better place.”
Editor’s Note: South Florida Opulence salutes Ms. Arsht for her exemplary career, noble character and courage to make a positive difference.