Shari Arison, a petite woman with a calm demeanor, has learned that to get the message out, it helps to simplify things. The billionaire businesswoman and philanthropist told FORBES during a recent visit to San Francisco that at one point her vision was to “secure the human existence.” But, she says, “It was hard to instill it all the way down.”
In other words, not everyone got what she meant. In 2009, she reworked her vision to “Doing Good.” Or more specifically, “think good, speak good, and do good.” That has proved easier to translate.
Her 2013 book, Activate Your Goodness: Transforming the World Through Doing Good, provides some context for the genesis of the “Doing Good” mantra. Despite her extensive wealth – as the daughter of Carnival Cruise Lines founder Ted Arison, she inherited what is now about $2.4 billion of that company’s stock and has built and invested in other businesses that put her net worth at a recent $4.7 billion – her life has had plenty of challenges. She was born in the U.S. but her mother, who was Romanian, hated America. Writes Arison, “as a child, it was very difficult to feel loved by her since I was an American.” (Today Shari Arison holds both Israeli and U.S. citizenship and lives in Tel Aviv, where her two grandchildren also live.)
While her parents worked, she was raised by the housekeeper, Marie. Arison was devastated when at age nine her family moved from New York to Miami – without Marie. Then her parents got divorced. Later in her life Arison, now 57, married and divorced three times, and had four children. She doesn’t delve much into the details of her struggles, either in person or in her book, but it’s clear from her writing that she was searching for a way to feel better about herself and others. In 2005 Ofer Glazer, her third ex-husband, was convicted in Israel of sexual harassing two women, including a nurse who was hired to take care of Arison.
What’s unexpected is the way Arison has taken the focus on doing good and thinking good and applied it to her businesses. She owns just under half of Tel Aviv-listed construction and infrastructure firm Shikun & Binui, and nearly 25% of Bank Hapoalim, a large Israeli bank; as well as a salt company and a water infrastructure company called Miya. Arison developed a “Doing Good” strategy for her businesses with 13 values, including some that aren’t regularly associated with commerce, including “being,” “vitality,” “fulfillment” and “inner peace.”
When I ask how those values can affect a company, she pulls a 4 inch by 4 inch card out of her purse, with a bar chart on it showing rising profits at construction company Shikun & Binui. Her point: embracing her values is good business. She’s now on a journey to implement these 13 values across the board in the companies she’s invested in, which together operate in 40 countries on 5 continents. One of the values is sustainability. Shikun & Binui now builds only sustainable buildings, which she defines as meeting LEED standards, using green materials, being energy efficient, reducing water use, employing solar.
Arison is not involved in running Carnival Cruise Lines, which has suffered some P.R. nightmares, including a fire on a ship last February that disabled power systems, left the ship stranded at sea for five days and resulted in raw sewage leaking from toilets (see Carnival’s Stalled Cruise?). Her billionaire brother Micky Arison was CEO of Carnival until June last year, when he stepped down after 34 years on the job (he remains the company’s chairman). Shari Arison doesn’t comment on the new CEO or the turmoil at the company.
In 2013 Arison endowed a professorship at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virgina: the Arison Group Endowed Professor of Doing Good Values. One class on offer there is a values-based leadership course. Arison tells me that three other universities are also doing research based on her Doing Good model: Harvard, Babson and Thunderbird. George Mason University awarded Arison an honorary degree in December for her contribution to promoting values in global business and philanthropy. A nice honor for a woman who dropped out of Miami Dade College.
Arison has been promoting her philosophy of good to the general public since 2007 with an annual Good Deeds Day that began in Israel and has spread globally to 50 countries and to the Arab settlements in Israel. In 2012 MTV partnered with Arison to showcase the Good Deeds and promote the idea. Her book is sprinkled with inspiring stories of people volunteering to take food to home bound seniors, repaint a run-down day care center and do dance performances at senior centers. “Even a smile is a good deed,” says Arison. The Good Deeds Day led to her to create a website and network called goodnet.org that she says has connected 6 million people from around the world. It’s a crisp, clean website with inspirational articles about things like apps for finding quiet spots in the city where you live.
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Her work has gotten her noticed. In July last year she was invited to join The B Team, a nonprofit initiative led by UK billionaire Sir Richard Branson and former Puma CEO Jochen Zeitz to "advance a Plan B that places values at the core of business." Other members include telecom-billionaire-turned-ethical-politics-advocate Mo Ibrahim, former Irish President Mary Robinson, Zimbabwean telecom entrepreneur Strive Masiyiwa, Brazilian cosmetics billionaire Guilherme Leal and media hotshot Arianna Huffington.
Arison is optimistic about the power of every positive action, but she knows that affecting change takes time, particularly inside businesses. "All of this is a process. It's taken years to find the right chairman and managers and find people who are good professionals but who also care and want to make a difference," Arison says of the companies she's involved in. At the end, though, she says, “The idea is to create a critical mass of goodness.”
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