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Jennifer Buffett goes global to aid women

In high school in Milwaukee, Jennifer Heil wanted to be a musician. She played classical piano and violin. Next she discovered theater, and after that, journalism.

After college, en route to Los Angeles, she stopped in a restaurant in San Francisco and met a New Age pianist named Peter Buffett.

"We hit it off, had a conversation. He had ended a marriage, wanted to do something different. I was moving to L.A., not looking to get into a relationship."

She laughs.

"We met June 1, 1991, and got married June 1, 1996."

It was the start of a big adventure.

Peter Buffett was not just a pianist. He is the youngest child of Warren Buffett, the brilliant investor whose financial empire, Berkshire Hathaway, includes The Buffalo News.

Shortly after the couple married, Warren Buffett gave them $100,000 and told them to use it for charity. They used the gift as seed money to start the NoVo Foundation. In 2006, Warren Buffett announced he was giving the foundation $1 billion in Berkshire Hathaway stock.

What to do with the money? He left that up to them.

Jennifer Buffett ultimately made the decision -- to focus on women and girls.

Women in developing countries, data suggested, tend to use money more responsibly. As she wrote in a blog post: "If we invested in girls and women specifically -- to help them acquire marketable skills and education, maintain their health and delay marriage -- their children would reap the benefits."

Her mission has taken her to the middle of the Kalahari desert and to Rwanda, where she met with genocide experts. She is concerned with women oppressed by the Taliban and child brides in Ethiopia.

But on the phone, she comes off as unpretentious -- lighthearted, almost.

"I never thought I'd go to France, much less Sierra Leone," she jokes.

Her path brings her to Buffalo this week. At 6 p.m. Wednesday at Kleinhans Music Hall, she will be discussing her charity work as the keynote speaker for the Western New York Women's Fund's annual "What She's Made Of" celebration.

Her experience is unique, acknowledges Monique Watts, director of development for the Western New York Women's Fund. But it can also be illuminating.

"Sometimes when you think globally, it seems too large of a nut to crack," Watts says. "But she definitely explains and shows how every action that affects women and girls can have a huge impact."

Points for normalcy

Jennifer Buffett grew up in a family in which boys were treated differently from girls. Her father funded her brothers' tuition, but not hers. She put herself through college at Cardinal Stritch University by working for a small company that published city guides.

"In Boston, we wrote about piano bars and nightclubs," she recalls. "You had to write on the spot. I just got really good at facts, then at creative thinking."

Her background fit in well with the down-to-earth Buffetts.

The Buffett children have recalled in interviews that growing up, they were only dimly aware of what their father did for a living, let alone how much money he had. The family members have joked about their political differences: Howard is a Republican, while Peter and their sister, Susie, are liberal Democrats.

Mention to Jennifer Buffett how nice her husband seems, and she says, with a laugh, "Yeah, but why wouldn't you want to be?"

"People say, we're so normal. You get points for normal." She laughs again.

A passage to India

Some of her life is normal.

She and Peter lived for years in Milwaukee before moving to Manhattan, where they live now. Recently, they bought a farm in upstate New York.

She keeps up her piano chops. "I love the rigor of it," she says. "I've studied since I was 4. Peter doesn't read a lick of music."

But at the center of their lives is the NoVo Foundation. (The name comes from the Latin word for "to create.")

To allow Peter time for his music business, Jennifer acts as the fund's main administrator. Though they partner with other charities, including the Nike Foundation and the Rockefeller Family Foundation, she is very hands-on.

"You've got to go and see how this works to have confidence that your money might be doing some good," she says.

The most endearing thing about Jennifer could be her willingness to go that extra mile -- literally.

Asked about her travels, she responds: "I did eight countries in Africa this year."

Once, in India, she made her way to Calcutta to visit Sonagachi, the world's largest red-light district.

"I couldn't believe how people have been bought and sold," she says. "We saw girls and women very traumatized, being shoved back in buildings. Somebody came down the street and just started screaming, trying to beat one of the people we were with."

It was in India, though, that Jennifer chalked up a tangible victory.

"We connected with Indian nonprofits who were working with women and girls who had gotten out of that life, who were advocating on behalf of other girls and women to stop trafficking. People tell you prostitution is the world's oldest profession," she scoffs. "It's the world's oldest oppression."

Asked whether she is ever afraid, she stops and thinks.

"You're scared, because you don't know how you're going to react emotionally, how physically uncomfortable you're going to get," she says. "But you get over it. I don't add stress with my own added fear and uncomfortableness or belief that the world has to be what I've known."

What can the average Buffalonian take away from her talk? Sermons don't come easily to Jennifer Buffett, but pinned to the wall, she suggests that it comes down to making the most of whatever we are given.

"Philanthropy has nothing to do with money. The root of the word is love of human beings," she says. "It's really important, to give of our lives. Money doesn't fall far from our values, nor should it. I think the average person needs to value their life experience, what turns them on, what contribution they can make.

"We're all philanthropists. We're here for a short period of time. What can we give?"


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