Barbara Gross, a longtime resident of Portola Valley, has used her business ventures to support local nonprofits. While general manager of the Garden Court Hotel for 15 years, she hosted numerous charitable events at the Palo Alto venue. She has been an instrumental member of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, serving on the group's board of directors, government action council and downtown marketing committee. She helped form the Palo Alto Downtown Business and Professional Association and was among those who orchestrated the formation of a public-private partnership between the association and city to renovate Lytton Plaza. Organizations, including the Stanford Health Library, the Community Breast Health Project, Palo Alto Partners in Education, Palo Altans for Government Effectiveness (PAGE), East Palo Alto elementary schools and the Peninsula Stroke Association, have all benefited from Gross' leadership. Gross was honored in 2005 with the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce Athena Award for providing valuable service to the community.
The Almanac's sister publication, the Palo Alto Weekly, spoke to Gross about her charitable work and the impact it's had on her life and the community in which she lives. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity:
PAW: What brought you to Palo Alto?
Gross: Varian (Medical Systems) recruited my husband from his doctoral program for a three-month project. We leaped at this no-pressure opportunity in the early 1970s, knowing that we would return to our wonderful New York City E. 72nd Street apartment. ... However, lured by the lifestyle change, we said goodbye to our families and began a new life here. I can't think of a better place to live.
PAW:What's your proudest achievement?
Throughout my 15-year retail banking career, my office teams earned multiple corporate awards and recognition. The same holds true for my 15-year hospitality career. I'm most proud of the development of these teams. Caring for colleagues inspires loyalty. At the hotel, for example, we partnered with the Palo Alto Adult School to bring an ESL teacher to the hotel to teach our non-English speaking colleagues. Members of our housekeeping staff were able to learn at no cost, without traveling elsewhere, while still on the clock in a safe environment. This opened up their personal worlds as well as their professional opportunities.
PAW: What was most rewarding about your community work?
Gross: We would invite nonprofits to come into the hotel, and we underwrote some of these events 100%. My place of business became a meeting place, and mingling with community leaders provided personal insight and different marketing opportunities. There were also many personal relationships and city projects that came out of this. For example, helping to build the downtown parking garages was the result of hundreds of hours of work by teams of people. Creating a public-private partnership to rebuild Lytton Plaza illustrated what could be accomplished.
PAW: What advice do you have for others looking to volunteer?
Gross: Being "of service" is a basic tenet of society and must be fostered. It has been my family teaching since childhood. We are fortunate to have so many companies, businesses and individual donors supporting our schools, service organizations and local programs. Today, many people have a much more global perspective of community, and are accomplishing great things in so many ways. Additionally, we must not lose sight of the local impact one can have in shaping our children, community and local government.
PAW: How were you able to build community and market your business?
Gross: Hotels typically are on the top of all nonprofit organizations' list for donations. And, to their credit, most hotels give willingly. Our approach to donating expanded over time, from an overnight stay to supporting nonprofit meetings and events. The premise was based on the audience these organizations would bring to the hotel. ... We felt the hotel became an important gathering place and the beating heart of our work within the community.
Read more stories on this year's Lifetimes of Achievement honorees: