A Place of Their Own: A New Women’s Rights Hub in NYC—And the Vast Fortune Behind It

Women's groups in New York City have fantasized off and on for decades about having a physical place where they could work and collaborate together. Now, thanks to the very deep-pocketed NoVo Foundation, they're finally going to get such a place. 

NoVo is a leading funder of work to empower women and girls both nationally and globally. But it's based in New York City, with close ties to local women's groups. NoVo also is rolling in cash these daysor, more accurately, Berkshire Hathaway stock, which has been coming to the foundation in big chunks from Warren Buffett, the father of the foundation's co-president Peter Buffett. That stock has soared in value in recent years. And while we don't know NoVo's exact assets, this is a foundation that will ultimately absorb billions of dollars as Buffett disposes of his wealth. 

Which explains why it has the resources to take on the big fantasy project of creating a "Women's Building" in New York City. NoVo will restore and redevelop the former Bayview Correctional Facility in West Chelsea into what foundation co-president Jennifer Buffett called "a physical home for the women’s rights movement." It will be a place, said Buffett, "where organizations advocating for the rights of girls and women can pool resources, share ideas, and strengthen connections with one another." To make it happen, NoVo is collaborating with the Goren Group, a socially focused, woman-owned and operated real estate development and investment company.

This building transition is as symbolic as it is significant. Bayview used to be a medium-security women’s prison that was notorious for sexual abuses suffered there by its inmates at the hands of male guards. Now, it will be a hub for empowering exactly the kind of vulnerable, marginalized women who were once locked away within its walls.

Organizations engaged in women's work in New York City currently deal with some of the highest real estate costs in the nation, and are scattered around the city in office space that is often cramped and can feel isolating. "We hear time and time again from women’s organizations that they are struggling to keep the lights on, to connect with peer organizations, and to maintain their services for communities," said Pamela Shifman, executive director of NoVo Foundation. "A building with shared resources will go a long way toward enabling these organizations to work together to make change in New York City and beyond." Not surprisingly, lots of women’s groups and activists, including Gloria Steinem, are throwing their support behind this new building. It's really a dream come true. 

The initial base rent cost for the building is $3.5 million per year, and the foundation has entered into a long-term lease to secure the deal. But the real expense of this project will come from the ambitious build-out required to turn a prison into offices and meeting spaces. NoVo hasn't said what the final tab of this project will be, but it seems it could easily be in the tens of millions of dollars, given the size of the building (100,000 square feet), the extent of renovations required, and the added factor of doing this work in an ecologically and sustainable way in a city where construction costs are already stratospheric.

Did Pam Shifman know that she'd end up in the merciless Gotham real estate world when she took the job at NoVo? Probably not. Then again, anyone who spends their days thinking about, say, the plight of women in Congo can likely hack the hell of a New York construction project. 

It's hard to think of many foundations that could have swung this financially. But, as we said, NoVo has been dealing with a huge infusion of resources that won't abate anytime soon. While many people think that Warren Buffett pledged all his shares of Berkshire Hathaway stock to the Gates Foundation, he actually pledged 85 percent. The rest is going to the four foundations controlled by his three children, Susie, Howard, and Peter. Meanwhile, the value of those shares has more than doubled in the past decade, pushing Buffett's net worth to around $65 billion. 

All of which is to say that NoVo's big spending is not going to subside any time soon. This is an ambitious funder with some serious resources.