Philanthropic Evolution: A Hotel Mogul Talks Generational Giving

starwood hotels founder Barry Sternlicht supports a range of causes. Roman Tiraspolsky/shutterstock

starwood hotels founder Barry Sternlicht supports a range of causes. Roman Tiraspolsky/shutterstock

The founder of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Barry S. Sternlicht, 58, is at the helm of Starwood Capital Group, a private alternative investment firm formed in 1991 focused on global real estate, hotel management, oil and gas, and energy infrastructure. Sternlicht grew up in New York and graduated from Brown University and Harvard Business School. He worked as a trader on Wall Street for a time before moving into real estate.

Sternlicht started thinking about philanthropy early while growing Starwood, which bought hotels like Westin and turned them into Starwood-branded hotels. “I built a company with a good soul. We were like the U.N.—we had one of everything… and so we had to create a strong Starwood culture. I did that around philanthropy, encouraging charitable work in the communities we served.”

In the early 2000s, he also launched Sternlicht Family Foundation with his former wife Mimi, a marketing and advertising professional and fellow Brown alum. These days, Sternlicht continues to give through that vehicle, now called the Barry S. Sternlicht Foundation, which gave away around $5.2 million in a recent year. The family also has several other vehicles through which they give and in a conversation with Sternlicht, he told me that his children, now adults, also influence giving.

A Family Effort

“We have several key areas and a series of foundations that we set up,” Sternlicht said. One of these areas is health and medical research, particularly centered on diabetes. His younger son, William, was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes when he was three. Sternlicht has chaired some half-dozen walks and annual dinners, and he supported diabetes research initially through the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. He also gave a $1 million gift to Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) to establish the Sternlicht Director’s Fund for Graduate Students in Diabetes Research. Through the years, he’s given in excess of $2 million to HSCI. And he’s supported individual researchers and recently gave a grant to Columbia University to support the division of pediatric endocrinology at an affiliated hospital.

“We’ve gotten more direct in the things that we thought would have the best chances of a cure,” Sternlicht says, revealing how many donors drilling into diseases often become more targeted in their giving as they gain experience and knowledge.

More broadly, with his diabetes giving, Sternlicht is following a familiar trajectory for biomedical givers: he came to an area for personal reasons, started to engage in some charitable activities, and then became more intent on identifying and backing cutting-edge research.

Sternlicht is also keen on education reform, supporting organizations like Teach for America (including its Connecticut arm), Educators for Excellence, and a range of charters. The family are also strong backers of Brown University, and serve as title donors for a new wellness center in progress. “It’s a 360 building to help kids under stress in a college environment,” Sternlicht explains. His daughter, Adrienne, is a recent Brown alumna.

(I recently profiled Clifford Chiu, a private equity winner who has made addressing campus mental challenges a centerpiece of his giving.)

A third major focus for Sternlicht is the environment; the family supports NRDC, Environmental Defense Fund, and Rainforest Alliance, among others. Sternlicht’s 1 Hotels launched as the first luxury, eco-friendly global hotel brand, and brought in NRDC to serve as an environmental advisor. “We’re in the second or third year of a fellowship program for 20 young people in search of solutions for different environmental issues. It’s been fun,” Sternlicht says.

Finally, like so many New York City philanthropists, Sternlicht supports the Robin Hood Foundation. He once chaired the board and continues to serve on it.

The Next Generation

While Sternlicht and his former wife drive philanthropy, the family’s three children, now in their 20s, are also a growing force. Indeed, older son James serves on the board of grantee Oceanic Global, a “nonprofit that taps into universal passions of art, music and emerging tech to educate individuals on issues impacting our oceans and provide them with solutions for driving positive change.”

Sternlicht spoke about the evolution of the family’s philanthropy and said that he’s keen on his children getting involved right now. “Now that my three kids are in their 20s, we’ve allowed them to pick charities and donate money from the foundation every year. We’re going to be sitting together now and figuring out where we can make significant impact. I think this is the common evolution of philanthropy and families like ours, which is first-generation wealth… It’s now more about trying to pick a few things we’re going to do and scale.”

Daughter Adrienne is a professional show jumper who’s been riding horses since she was a kid. She also has an interest in criminal justice reform and is keen on backing charities working in this realm. James is focused on environmental conservation, including eliminating single-use plastics. And Stanford grad William is keen on fighting poverty in the Bay Area. He also volunteers for JDRF International.

Sternlicht mentions grantmaking that touches the Jewish community, as well, including supporting Birthright Israel and the Anti-Defamation League. When I asked Sternlicht what first inspired him to start giving back, he spoke about the example of his parents, particularly his Polish father, who survived the Holocaust. “My father cared enough to give back, and it’s a good deed in the religion to give back. Sometimes, you think your success is because you give back. It makes you a better person, I think,” Sternlicht says.

In a recent fiscal year, the Barry S. Sternlicht Foundation directed some $12 million to a new vehicle called the Barry and Mimi Sternlicht Foundation. A third vehicle, the M K Reichert Sternlicht Foundation, solely bears Mimi’s name, and early grantmaking has touched causes including women and girls in Kenya and historic preservation.

“I do think we’re getting better at it [philanthropy] and that we can do a lot more, and so we’ll be adding to our foundation. It will be the beneficiary of most of my wealth at present,” Sternlicht told me, which spells good news for grantseekers. What’s more, Sternlicht said that while he often finds out about organizations from established networks, he is open to contact.

Understanding the particular interests and passions of Sternlicht’s children seems especially important in this case. “I don’t have as much time as I would like for this right now. Hopefully, one of my kids will go into professionally managing the foundation,” Sternlicht added.

Ultimately, this is a story of family philanthropy that is just beginning.