An Interview with Lyda Hill, Founder of Lyda Hill Philanthropies, conducted by Susan Danish, AJLI’s CEO/Executive Director.

It’s not often that one meets a person who is focused on creating a better world every single day… and truly has the power to do so. That’s why it was such an honor to talk with Lyda Hill last month. Over a Mediterranean-inspired lunch, we talked about how she thinks about philanthropy, and how being a Junior League Member has influenced her.

“I owe the Junior League my life.”

That’s how Lyda summed things up. She grew up in a prominent Dallas family.  As a young adult, Lyda found herself asking, “How do I be Lyda?” “Who am I?”  She found the answers through her Junior League work. The League opened her eyes to the city and gave her opportunities to use her natural gift for mathematics and find new talents. Ultimately “…being President of the Junior League of Dallas.  That was me.”

But that’s not why she owes the Junior League her life.  Knowledge she gained from a Junior League training on breast cancer and detection led her to discover a lump. Today, Lyda is, and has been for over 40 years, a breast cancer survivor.

At the age of 25, she founded her own travel agency business, Hill World Travel, the largest travel agency in Dallas and one of the largest in the United States when she sold it in 1982. It was because of her travel agency’s success that she was able to invest her own “first $1 Million.”

Through the years, she has made a meaningful difference to the Junior League of Dallas (JLD) in many ways. She strongly advocated for the League to build its own headquarters, for example. She helped raise funds to buy the property, which included creating an endowment to maintain the building, and worked tirelessly to find the location, get city council approval and bring people together to make it happen.    Over the years, she has served as a trustee of the fund, frequently as its chairman.

JLD is celebrating its centennial in 2021-2022.  In October of 2018, they announced the formation of its Centennial Endowment Foundation. Lyda generously donated $5 million dollars with a challenge grant of an additional $5 million dollars to jump-start the Endowment, which will ultimately fund the operations of the Junior League of Dallas, ensuring a financially stable future.

“Science is the answer.”

Lyda Hill wants to make a difference in her lifetime.  To do so, she has focused on two areas – science and nature. Lyda values that she does not report to any board of directors or foundation so she can move quickly, making major investment decisions “in ten minutes.” Girls and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) is a priority. Early on, Lyda shared, she had not been much of a scholar in school, and more of a “tomboy” and a rebel. But math was a strong suit for her and hence her commitment to STEM.

Along with The Pew Charitable Trusts, she’s funded work to encourage the development of new antibiotics and to get antibiotics out of our food system. She shared that, “seventy percent of antibiotics are used on animals.” She established the Lyda Hill Department of Bioinformatics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center with a $25 Million investment.  Bioinformatics, hardly a household word, is a discipline that provides tools to manage and analyze extremely large datasets. Finding the patterns in these datasets is essential to biomedical discovery and developing new therapies.

Lyda had been in Los Angeles the day before our lunch to share the stage with Academy Award winning actress, Geena Davis, to talk about If/Then, an initiative of Lyda Hill Philanthropies, that reflects her commitment to furthering women already in the field and inspiring the next generation of women in STEM. These three examples barely scratch the surface of what Lyda Hill gives to and what’s on her mind…important issues ranging from breast cancer research to marine preserves.

“Philanthropists learn from each other”

The Giving Pledge is “a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to giving back.” It grew out of conversations that Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet had with others. Lyda Hill is one of the 204 individuals or families from 23 counties who have signed the Pledge. Each of these billionaires must pledge at least half of their wealth to address the world’s most pressing problems. (She reminded me that Melinda Gates is also from Dallas).  Before the Giving Pledge, Lyda’s will already directed all funds to charity.  But she plans to give it while alive.  This group of philanthropists learns from each other.

Another collaborative philanthropic effort Lyda is committed to is The Audacious Project, which funds well-crafted plans by social entrepreneurs. Founded in 2018, housed at TED and supported by the Bridgestone Group, it fits right into Lyda’s work to fund early stage ideas. One example she shared is a new five-year project of The Nature Conservancy designed to both protect marine life and reduce debt in coastal communities and island nations.

“Anybody can be a philanthropist”

Lyda encourages everyone to be a philanthropist. To her a philanthropist is, “someone who gives their time or their money.” Lyda believes that women have a different view when investing, and we need both men and women to “figure out what works best.”  She encourages people to think about what they are doing, and what their intent is… to find out what they can do…to find their “slot.” She promises powerful moments, moments, “that take your breath away.”

“Giving is the most fun you can have; seeing the difference I can make is the most fun possible.” 

There is so much more than could be written and shared about Lyda Hill, AJLI’s 2015 Mary Harriman Award winner for lifetime achievement. She seems almost super human, yet she is a woman with a warm smile, a passion that’s contagious and a penchant for adventure (think backcountry skiing.)

To say that Lyda Hill is inspiring is an understatement. To spend time with someone who truly is using her financial resources to make this planet a better place, is more than humbling. To have this little glimpse into her life was a gift of immeasurable value. She is a woman who is constantly asked for meetings. Then why did she meet with me? Because it was for The Junior League.

I hope on this National Philanthropy Day, or the next, each of us in our own way can say what Lyda Hill has said, “I have seen the difference I can make.”

To read more about this exceptional woman and her impact, visit Lyda Hill Philanthropies.