The Simons Foundation: How Did We Get Here?

The president of the Simons Foundation describes the growth of the organization and the evolution of its culture.

Walking into the 160 building each morning just before 9 a.m., I’m greeted by cheerful hellos as we join the line waiting for the elevator. As we all crowd into the elevator, lots of friendly, lively conversations continue as we head up to our respective floors. The same scenario takes place as we head down the elevator at lunchtime to cross the street and head up another elevator to the dining hall, which is all abustle. With some 400 employees at the foundation now, the buildings hum with discussions and activities focused on some of the most challenging questions of our times, as well as some lighthearted banter on many not-so-serious issues. It’s a fun group of people here at the foundation; they are a serious and committed group too. Most important, there is a sense of camaraderie, a strong commitment to our mission and an interest in collaboration across our own organization as well as with others.

How did this culture come to be? The answer is that it has evolved as we’ve evolved, thanks to the terrific people working here. Our culture has developed as we’ve grown in size and adapted to new programs and new spaces, but the common theme running throughout has been to focus on excellence, recruit terrific people, be innovative, facilitate new approaches and ideas, and have a good time working together.

Although the Simons Foundation began in 1994, it did not acquire its first office until 2001, at 26 East 19th Street — a space big enough for three desks and a table. Our modest modern office was productive and fun — we worked hard and laughed a lot over lunches together. First Stacey Greenebaum and then Maria Adler were hired, and soon after, Elizabeth Mrozinska. Who knew that the seeds were being planted for our communications, finance and facilities teams?!

In 2005 we were excited that Gerry Fischbach was soon coming to the foundation and expanding the foundation’s program staff. We moved three blocks, to an office at 101 Fifth Avenue — big enough to hold 15-plus. When Gerry came, being the visionary leader, he changed the paradigm of our funding. The foundation transformed from being reactive to being proactive; outstanding people were hired; workshops and roundtables were organized; and the atmosphere was always inspiring and collaborative, with a flat hierarchy. Gerry was a mentor and a role model to all; he was always accessible, and he loved to teach. There was an energy and an optimism to the work as Gerry brought on Marta Benedetti, Marion Greenup, John Spiro, Apoorva Mandavilli and Alan Packer to the new SFARI team. Chris Fleisch, Patty Weisenfeld and Meghan Fazzi also joined us in that second office, and they represented the beginnings of IT, Special Initiatives and MPS, respectively. Fortunately, they are all still at the foundation today.
One day in late 2007, a branding specialist came to our office to advise us on our upcoming annual report. One of his first questions to us was: “What are your values?” After we paused for too long, he gave us a jump-start by saying, “Looking around this office, I can see your values. Transparency, being modern and creative … ” And the conversation picked up speed as everyone chimed in.

He was right about the office design — I like a ‘light’ feeling, so our offices have lots of natural light, with glass walls, low dividing panels between workstations and, always, a light-hued wood. There’s lots of sunlight throughout because of the transparency. Glass offices with a big central open space have their pluses, because you can easily pop by when you see someone’s in. We’ve learned, though it wasn’t easy for some, not to yell across the floor, so work is a quiet, thoughtful time. The design is modern with a little whimsy, and the art is meant to make you think, just as science always makes you think more deeply. Hopefully, our investment in some of the young artists will help propel their careers forward just as our support of young scientists does.

Staff meetings were introduced back then, though we didn’t actually call them that. The simple motivation for having group meetings was to make sure we knew what everyone was doing. An underlying motivation was to have everyone’s work noted and appreciated. Recognizing that communication was important, both formal and informal, we continued our tradition of laughter- filled lunches, and we gradually introduced holiday parties and teas. Jim saw to it that the foundation had a weekend getaway once a year — and that remains a much-anticipated tradition.

SFARI’s development under Gerry’s leadership was inspiring, so our aspirations grew. Maybe we could find an outstanding leader to direct an effort to support mathematics? Maybe David Eisenbud would take on this role? Of course, we would need an even bigger office, since we were already 22 and outgrowing our space. We could move up the street to 160 Fifth Avenue, where we could double our staff to 45 and grow to 90 over the next three years.

That’s what happened in 2010, a watershed year for the foundation and its grant-making programs. Jennifer Tjernagel, Annaliese Gaeta, Lydia Jung, Jessica Wright, Marian Carlson, Monika Lenard, Liz Roy, Pat Flood, Kate Augenblick, Lawrence Bianco and Deb Olchick all came that year, and are still at the foundation. They participated in a strategic planning meeting where values and culture were a primary topic for discussion. It was great that everyone could find the words to describe who we are and what we want to be as a foundation. Jim and I weren’t there for the discussion, but we were very pleased with its conclusions, which very much reflected the environment we hoped to foster (except for the work-life balance, perhaps — just kidding!).

This is why we can say that our values and our culture have evolved thanks to the people working here. Everyone is participating in and building the foundation, its culture and its values. Our employee handbook lists them, our HR team nurtures them, and we are always open to questioning and amending them.
Our most recent growth spurt came in 2013 when Leslie Greengard came to head the Simons Center for Data Analysis. Leslie and his early team transformed the foundation, much as Gerry’s group had previously reignited grant-making. The excitement and dynamism of research were palpable and stimulating. The foundation was no longer simply an office but a center of research. Given the excitement of our research environment, it was clear, once again, that we should grow and do more. So in 2016 the Flatiron Institute officially came into being. With a plan to triple in size from our staff of 150, we leased the building across the street at 162 Fifth Avenue and set about designing it.

Talking through plans for the new building involved many leaders and managers across the foundation — and the process became a new forum for discussing who we were and how we would work together. Central to this question was the dining hall: one or two? There was an emphatic “We are one foundation, so we should all come together.”

We do come together. Aside from seeing one another in the dining hall and in the elevators, we hold staff meetings once a month from September through June. Our staff meetings are preceded by a lunch where staff members each receive a seating assignment to give them the opportunity to meet others from across all areas of the foundation. It’s interesting that RSVP’s to our staff lunches increased once we started seating people. Seems to be a great way to get everyone to mingle! After lunch we go into our auditoriums to hear the scientific directors present on advancements in their fields; our news centers discuss their publications; our outreach program highlights its grant-making efforts; and our administrative teams present on, well, emerging administrative matters. In September I welcome everyone back to a busy fall, and in December, Jim will talk about the future. When I welcome everyone back, I like to thank them for helping us build the foundation. It is all of us together who are creating this organization, and each and every person is important.

The foundation has been in high growth mode for the past three years, so much so that about once a month Jim and I attend an orientation meeting to welcome new staff members. It is always a pleasure to meet and greet our new employees. They come to the foundation from a diversity of backgrounds and bring such a rich set of technical skills, expertise and experiences to the foundation. It is wonderful to be around committed, hardworking, interesting and nice people like them every day. Jim and I encourage them to get to know the others at the foundation, because it is a great group of committed, collaborative and friendly people, all trying to make the world a little bit better every day.

And that explains why it’s so nice to walk into the building each day to join the line waiting for the elevator!

Image of Marilyn SimonsMarilyn H. Simons has been the president of the Simons Foundation since its inception in 1994.

This article is part of the “Behind the Scenes” section of the foundation’s 25th anniversary book.