By Todd Cohen
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Valeria Lee knows both sides of the golden leaf.
Tobacco fed her childhood memories, paid for college and built the wealth she has helped give away as a foundation officer.
But tobacco also bore the wrath of her great aunt, who believed it was a sin to smoke or chew – even though the family grew tobacco.
“I share an appreciation for the role it has played in my economic life,” Lee says. “I also am mindful of the evidence of the harm that’s been done.”
On Nov. 1, Lee’s tobacco journey will take a new turn when she starts work as president of the Golden Leaf Foundation, created by the state to cushion and move beyond the blow of tobacco’s decline.
Over the next 25 years, the foundation will receive $2.3 billion from the tobacco industry as a result of its $206 billion settlement with 46 states, making it one of North Carolina’s biggest philanthropies.
The new foundation is “really about bringing new opportunities and responding to the needs that exist in those communities where tobacco was king,” says Lee, who will be the first black woman to head a major North Carolina foundation outside a corporation.
Lee knows about tobacco communities. Tobacco was the main cash crop on her family farm in Halifax County in Northeastern North Carolina, where she worked summers as a child, chopping tobacco and working as a handler helping her mother bundle leaf in preparation for curing.
One of her fondest memories is staying up all night with her father in a shed as he stoked fires to cure the leaf.
Tobacco paid for Lee’s college education and that of her three sisters. Lee was 16 years old when arrived at N.C. Central University in Durham – where she smoked cigarettes briefly — and went on as an adult to earn master’s degrees in education from N.C. State University in Raleigh, and in radio, television and film management from Ohio University.
After founding and managing WVSP, a public radio station in Warrenton not far from her hometown, Lee for the past 15 years has traveled throughout North Carolina, helping to distribute grants for the $500 million-asset Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem, a family philanthropy rooted in the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco fortune.
Now, Lee faces the challenge of figuring out how to help tobacco communities wean themselves from the economy of tobacco.
Creating a staff and grants program will be immediate challenges when Lee becomes the foundation’s president on Nov.1.
The Research Triangle Institute in Research Triangle Park is managing the first round of grants for the foundation, which already has received $93 million through the tobacco settlement.
The funds have been invested with Wachovia, Bank of America, Centura, BB&T and First Citizens, with operating accounts set up at Centura in Rocky Mount and Wachovia and Millennia Community Bank in Greenville.
Applications for the first round of grants are due Oct. 15, and the foundation expects to hand out $5 million at the end of the year.
Lee says the foundation will begin with a staff of about five people and probably will be located in the Triangle area.
Initially, she says, the foundation will focus on communities most affected by tobacco.
In addition to making grants, she says, the foundation will analyze proposals to get a better sense of community needs. A key role that Lee wants the foundation to play early on is to help people and groups in tobacco communities look for ways to work together.
“Philanthropy is a lot more than the grants that are made,” she says. “Philanthropy is certainly about understanding what people’s needs are and then looking for the best ways to respond to those needs.”
One of the foundation’s toughest jobs will be keeping its radar sharp, says Tom Lambeth, who will retire at the end of the year as executive director of the Reynolds Foundation.
“Maybe the single greatest challenge to the Golden Leaf Foundation is to be relevant 10 years from now and 20 years from now and 50 years from now,” he says.
Staying relevant, he says, means “not being caught by surprise by any big change occurring in the state.”
Plugging into the state and keeping abreast of emerging issues and needs have been hallmarks of the Reynolds Foundation, where Lee has been senior program officer.
Another big challenge, Lambeth says, will be balancing tobacco-related needs with those of the rest of the state.
“I think people need to be reminded that the settlement was with every citizen of the state, not with any one part of the state,” he says.
Lee, he says, is well suited for the job.
“She will help her board and her colleagues on the staff create a foundation that will mirror the values of North Carolina, that will capture the opportunities to make it a stronger state, that will be sensitive to the peculiarities of the geography and race and history of North Carolina.”
The Golden Leaf board was looking for a president with foundation experience, rural know-how and the skills to work closely the 15-member board – appointed by Gov. Jim Hunt, House Speaker Jim Black and Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight — and Lee fit the bill, says board member Billy Ray Hall.
“You want to be out there in the field, weighing and measuring good ideas and working with the board to choose the best ones to finance,” says Hall, president of the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center. “That was the crux, trying to find that combination of talents in one person, and she’s it.”
Lee was one of three finalists for the job. Former state Transportation Secretary Norris Tolson also was a finalist, while Commerce Secretary Rick Carlisle withdrew his name before reaching the final round of interviews.
Hall adds that Lee – who is vice chair of the Rural Center – is dedicated “to doing a good job seven days a week, all across North Carolina. She carries it with her every day, everywhere she goes.”
Lee — who recently has been reading about organizational leadership, Biblical female leaders and futurist theory — said she wants others to have the same opportunities she enjoyed.
“I just can’t discount the importance of tobacco in my own personal life,” she says. “And I want those opportunities for education and advancement available for others, and to have those opportunities from something that does not do harm to individuals.”