When Robert Gallucci arrived in Chicago to take the reins at the MacArthur Foundation in mid-2009, he found himself besieged by new "friends."
"They had great ideas on how the foundation could spend its money," he said.
Georgetown University dean met with senior staff and acknowledged: "I'm having trouble sorting out these (requests). Some ideas seem so worthy. How do you decide to do this and not that?"
Clarity came in the form of incisive remarks by Julia Stasch, vice president of U.S. programs for the international foundation, which is based in Chicago and is the city's largest.
"She said, fundamentally, 'We don't do soup kitchens.' And that stuck with me," Gallucci said. "It was not clear what she meant at first. You can't miss with a soup kitchen."
But her bedrock message, he said, was that the foundation, with its considerable brain power, should strive for institutional or systemic changes that can help multitudes of people over the long haul.
The moment was quintessential Julia Stasch. A behind-the-scenes visionary and politically savvy strategist, she has an ability to distill complex research and cut to the chase that has served her well as she endeavors to help change the face of business, civic and everyday life in Chicago and the nation.
A rebellious child of the '60s who took 10 years to complete her first college degree, Stasch played a critical role in opening up high-profile construction projects to minority- and women-owned contractors while in the private sector.
Later, at City Hall, she was a key figure in launching the replacement of Chicago's notoriously derelict high-rise public housing projects with mixed-income developments.
Now in the philanthropic world, she is focused on redesigning faltering public education systems for the digital age; examining the U.S. criminal justice system, which imprisons people at a higher rate than any other developed nation; and brainstorming about how Chicago's stalled economy can regain momentum.
"In metro areas around the country, there are a few people who connect the dots between civic, philanthropic, business, government, labor and environmental organizations -- all these constituencies that make up the leadership class," said Bruce Katz, director of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. "Julia is clearly one of those people in Chicago."
How she arrived at that pivotal position, and how she continues to use it to help set the civic agenda, is a remarkable story with multiple lessons. It is a testament to making the most of small windows of opportunity, to being willing to leap at new pathways and to taking risks to produce lasting change, even when it provokes the powers-that-be.
Jumping at a chance opening
After dropping out of Antioch College in Ohio, working as a Vista volunteer on an Indian reservation and experiencing the counter-culture life in San Francisco, Stasch, who grew up in Hinsdale, migrated back to Chicago in the early 1970s. She was working as a secretary in a medical office when she encountered a patient named Richard Stein, who eventually became one of the city's most prominent real estate developers.
"I thought he was the most arrogant man," Stasch recalls. "He would come in -- I guess this is the worst thing a medical secretary can say -- he would come in without an appointment."
Stasch, known as Julie to her friends, laughs at the memory, spinning the tale from her gracious corner office in the historic Marquette Building on South Dearborn Street.
The thread picks up a couple of years later, in 1977, when she had graduated from Loyola University with a degree in American history and was teaching high school on the South Side. She bumped into Stein on the street. He had just fired his secretary and offered her the job, for $18,000, a considerable sum at the time and substantially more than she was earning as a teacher.
"I have a history of jumping at things that let me change my life on a dime," said Stasch, 65.
She started as a secretary with Stein & Co. when the firm had four employees, but she would exit about 20 years later as president and chief operating officer of a company with a payroll of 220. The firm ultimately was sold to Mesirow Financial, where Stein is senior managing director.
Julia Stasch, vice president, U.S. programs, MacArthur Foundation