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A philosophy for philanthropy

For Minnesotan Blythe Brenden, philanthropy and engagement take center stage

People behind the science

Date: March 26, 2017
Weizmann Magazine Vol. 11

Often, Thanksgiving dinner wasn’t just a family feast in Blythe Brenden’s family. “We kind of had to earn it,” recalls the Minneapolis native of the traditional November meal around her grandparents’ table.

Her grandfather, Ted Mann, often required his four grandchildren to come prepared to discuss the charitable organizations where they were investing their time or money.

“I lived and breathed philanthropy from a young age, and my grandfather was the source of that. He believed in giving back and being connected to the community, and he transmitted that to all of us,” says Ms. Brenden, who today runs the Blythe Brenden-Mann Foundation, bearing her grandfather’s name, in homage to him. “When you get a table filled with that many generations talking about philanthropy, it gets very interesting. We all had different interests and passions, and we tried to convince each other why our choices were good choices. And those choices evolved from year to year. I told my friends about these dinners, and many of them wanted to join. But I said, ‘Are you sure? You’ll have to come armed with ideas and have to defend them.’”

Through her foundation, she has given generously to the Weizmann Institute of Science—to personalized medicine, a new scientist’s lab, science education, and women in science. And she has taken a major leadership role, both as a member of the International Board and as a member of the Executive Committee and Board of Directors of the American Committee. She was inducted into the President’s Circle in 2016 at the Global Gathering in London. And she is working hard to nurture a community of supporters in the Twin Cities, a new growth area. Most of all, she invests of herself. For the American Committee, she shuns conference calls and prefers a quick jaunt to New York for Board meetings, and meeting other donors.

“I’ll take a plane over a phone any day,” she says. “I want to connect with people and potential donors face-to-face, and I feel so strongly about the Weizmann mission that I will fly anywhere to engage wherever I’m needed.”

Meanwhile, every description of her foundation work—whether it is related to the Weizmann Institute or to other causes she supports—always winds its way back to a statement of gratitude toward her grandfather. Every gift, she says, is given with him in mind. “The reason that I get to do what I do every day—run the foundation—is because of him,” says Ms. Brenden, in an interview in her home in Minneapolis.

A promise kept, and more

Ted Mann was born in North Dakota and moved to Minneapolis/St. Paul, where he started a theater chain with his brother Marvin. It included some of the Twin Cities’ most venerated sites, including the Orpheum and Pantages theaters in the Hennepin Theatre District. In 1970, Ted sold his theaters and moved to Hollywood; later, in a second marriage, he wedded a Hollywood actress. He produced several movies and purchased the National General Theater chain, and thereby temporarily acquired the landmark Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard (renaming it the Mann Theater), which attracts millions of tourists every year who come to view the handprints, embedded in the concrete sidewalk, of famous movie stars.

Blythe and her brother Johnny lost their father at a young age, and Mr. Mann wanted to ensure they had a father figure in their lives. So he frequently traveled to Minneapolis at key moments— piano recitals, class plays, graduations. “He would come, watch, clap, give me a hug and a kiss, and turn around and fly home in the same day,” recalls Ms. Brenden.

Blythe moved to southern California to attend Pepperdine University, in part to be close to her grandfather. She later moved back to Minnesota, but settled again in California when his health began to suffer; she lived near him in California for a total of 15 years. When she was younger and flew to LA, Mr. Mann made his granddaughter work one week, selling popcorn and soda in his theaters, before taking a vacation.

“His work ethic was unique, and he made sure I absorbed it too. And his integrity was paramount. When he sold his business, he got a better offer— twice as much—a few days later, but he didn’t take it because, even though he didn’t have anything in writing, he had shaken hands on it,” she says. “So people trusted him, and people loved to get his advice… I spent as much time as I could with him. Whether I was there or in Minnesota, I talked to him almost every day. I don’t know many people who have had that kind of relationship with a grandparent.”

In establishing the original family foundation, the Ted Mann Foundation, before his death at age 84 in 2001, Mr. Mann stipulated that a percentage of the funds be allocated to Jewish causes; that was his only restriction. (He was Jewish, but Ms. Brenden’s side of the family was not.) The foundation evolved through several iterations as it was handed down through two generations, and in 2010 Ms. Brenden began to oversee the new Blythe Brenden-Mann Foundation on a full-time basis.

One of the first items on her agenda was to find a Jewish cause, or one related to Israel.

“I started to do my homework,” she recalls. She had lunch with a friend who supported the Weizmann Institute, and who introduced her to a director from the American Committee. At the end of the second meeting, she said, “‘Sign me up.’ I was attracted to Weizmann’s global reach, the impact of the science, the diversity of the science, eventually the scientists themselves—whom I started to meet—and the way the best and brightest are changing the world in ways that I can’t even imagine. And I didn’t just want to write checks. I wanted to be authentically engaged; to participate. Weizmann lets me do all that. Every time I turn around, there is something happening— an opportunity for involvement that I hadn’t expected. And it’s fantastic.”

Given the generous size of her gifts to the Weizmann Institute, Ms. Brenden has well exceeded her grandfather’s percentage stipulation for giving to a Jewish or Israeli cause. “And it will stay that way. I am a ‘lifer’ with Weizmann,” she says.

Perfect fits

Her first gift to the Institute was for the establishment of the Blythe Brenden-Mann Genomic Sequencing Laboratory in the Nancy and Stephen Grand Israel National Center for Personalized Medicine. She says the lab “fit perfectly” with her interest in integrative medicine, a holistic approach that she has championed through other organizations. The lab is developing new genomic techniques to understand tumor cell behavior, and is serving as an educational center to provide students the opportunity for hands-on experience with genomic sequencing.

She also funded the start-up package of Dr. Rina Rosenzweig of the Department of Structural Biology, who is investigating the mechanisms of neurodegenerative diseases associated with the mis-folding of proteins and toxic protein aggregation (see below).

In deciding to support Dr. Rosenzweig, Ms. Brenden flew to Toronto to meet her at the end of the scientist’s postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto, where she was a Revson Fellow of the Institute’s Israel National Postdoctoral Program for Advancing Women in Science. “I was especially attracted to Weizmann’s approach to hiring new scientists: to hire the best, give them the money they need to pursue their research, and put faith in them, without binding them with restrictions,” says Ms. Brenden. “Rina is a young rising rock star, brilliant, has no ego, and is passionate about what she does. The impact that her research is going to have on different diseases is something I hope to live to witness. I love the idea that I’m involved in her career ‘at the ground floor,’ and I feel it is my obligation to help advance the careers of women scientists. I look forward to watching her career develop.”

Last year, Ms. Brenden provided funding for the Science Mobile operated by the Davidson Institute of Science Education, a van equipped with science education aids that reaches students in underprivileged areas. Her gift will support new vans which will reach the most at-risk populations, including Bedouin communities and the geographically remote areas.

“It matters to me that it’s going out to reach kids who would otherwise never have had the opportunity for high-quality education," says Brenden. "In the same way that I support children in the arts, I support the Science Mobile so that we make sure that those minds are ours in the future. How do we know that a child doesn’t have an interest in something, unless he or she is exposed to it? I hope it becomes a model worldwide for other countries, even the U.S., where educators could take a page out of the Weizmann playbook and say, ‘That works. I want that.’”

Her gift to the Science Mobile program fulfills her commitment to the Women Moving Millions project, a group of women philanthropists who are engaged in their communities and have committed at least $1 million to causes that benefit women and girls. “Women and children are central in my giving, because they have different challenges than men and I want to see them succeed, so that one day they can be role models for other girls.”

One of her favorite milestones in her relationship with the Weizmann Institute was the 2012 “Women to Women” Mission of the American Committee to Israel, which, she says, afforded her opportunities “to have access to things that are just not in the tour books.” The group met with scientists over lunch, visited labs, and toured the country. “I saw the Weizmann approach, which was, ‘If you want to talk to a scientist you can. If you want to talk to a student, you can. There is no ‘no.’"

She is highly involved in the American Committee's Women for Science (W4S) initiative, spearheaded by ACWIS National Chair Ellen Merlo. W4S engages women philanthropists in supporting Weizmann Institute science, including the advancement of women scientists through initiatives like the Israel National Postdoctoral Program for Advancing Women in Science, which supports female scientists during their postdoc fellowships abroad.

Ms. Brenden is especially keen on helping women scientists bridge the mid-career stage. Most funding programs tailored to the unique needs of women scientists target only the earliest stages of career development—i.e., graduate scholarships and postdoctoral fellowship programs. Mid-career funding provides such scientists with a significant boost to take risks and follow innovative paths for the sake of high-impact science. Recognizing that enabling such women scientists to focus on long-term goals could accelerate research breakthroughs in the future, Ms. Brenden has established the Weizmann Women’s Innovation Impact Fund, which will provide highly selective grants for meeting the technological needs of the Institute’s most outstanding mid-career women scientists. The fund will award one competitive grant each year for eight years.

Her time is primarily spent on her foundation work. But she dotes on her two dogs, Lulu and Violet, loves to travel, and is a self-described food and wine connoisseur who likes to spend time in Napa Valley. “If I had it my way, I’d be on a plane and doing my philanthropy work every day. And I’m lucky that I actually do get my way.”


Evolving interests

Over the years, Blythe Brenden’s philanthropy evolved from “giving small amounts to many organizations to giving larger amounts to fewer, favorite organizations,” she says. “And my interests will continue to evolve—though with Weizmann, I’m here for the long haul.”

She gives generously to medicine and health, the arts, and various local community programs. One of the causes closest to her heart is the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts, a theater in downtown Minneapolis that her grandfather once owned. She co-chaired a capital campaign for its refurbishment; it is the largest theater in history to be moved in its entirety—a full city block—to ensure its historical preservation.

For her upcoming 50th birthday party in September, she will ask invited guests to give to one of two causes—the Weizmann Institute and Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital—in lieu of gifts.

Advancing the research of Dr. Rina Rosenzweig

In neurodegenerative diseases, one of the hallmark biomarkers of dysfunction is the mis-folding of proteins in the brain, and the aggregation of toxic, malfunctioning proteins. Understanding the molecular mechanism involved in combating protein aggregation in vivo—in the body as it is occurring—is the essence of Dr. Rina Rosenzweig’s research in the Department of Structural Biology. Elucidating what is actually happening when the function and structure of proteins go awry is essential in the quest to prevent, slow down, or ultimately reverse the progression of neurodegenerative diseases.

To this end, Dr. Rosenzweig, who joined the Weizmann Institute in 2016, is using nuclear magnetic resonance to see proteins at the highest possible resolution.

In her postdoctoral work, she revealed the inner workings of the so-called chaperone system of proteins. Chaperone proteins are involved in the cellular quality control systems that try to correct protein folding errors and undo the formation of damaging protein plaques, such as the amyloid beta plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

“The first time I met Blythe, I was amazed by how passionate and engaged she was in everything she did, from her philanthropy to her many, many interests,” says Dr. Rosenzweig. “I feel so lucky to have Blythe’s support in starting my lab, and hope to make her proud by bringing her tireless and everenthusiastic approach to my own career.”

Blythe Brenden

Blythe Brenden

Blythe Brenden and Prof. Daniel Zajfman at the dedication of the Blythe Brenden-Mann Foundation Genomic Sequencing Laboratory

Blythe Brenden and Prof. Daniel Zajfman at the dedication of the Blythe Brenden-Mann Foundation Genomic Sequencing Laboratory