Wexner, Leslie H.

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WEXNER, LESLIE H. (1937– ), U.S. entrepreneur, civic leader, and philanthropist. Born in Dayton, Ohio, Wexner moved to Columbus, Ohio, when he was a teenager. After graduating from Ohio State University, he worked briefly in his father's clothing shop. In 1963 his own merchandising career began when he borrowed $5000 from an aunt and opened the first "The Limited" store in Columbus, Ohio. "The Limited" (now "Limited Brands") has grown to encompass thousands of stores throughout the United States, but Wexner's corporate headquarters and home remain in Columbus. In recent assessments by Forbes magazine, his wealth has been estimated at $2.6 billion.

The Wexner Foundation and the Wexner Heritage Foundation (now part of The Wexner Foundation) were established by Wexner in 1984. The Wexner Heritage program was designed to provide young American Jewish lay leaders with a two-year intensive Jewish learning program, thus deepening their understanding of Jewish history, values, and texts and enriching their leadership skills. By the end of 2005, approximately 1,500 North American Jewish leaders from 31 cities had participated in the program.

In 1988 The Wexner Foundation introduced a Fellowship Program for outstanding rabbinical students and graduate students in Jewish education and Jewish communal service programs. The same year the foundation established a grants program for academic institutions of all types to build and improve training programs for Jewish community professionals. Eventually, the Fellowship Program was expanded to include top candidates for academic Jewish studies and the cantorate. By the end of 2005, approximately 300 outstanding Jewish professional leaders from a wide array of religious affiliations and professional groupings had participated in the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program.

Additionally, in 1988, the Wexner Israel Fellowship Program was created. Annually, up to 10 outstanding mid-career Israeli public officials are selected to study for a master's degree in the mid-career program of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. The goal of the fellowship is to provide Israel's next generation of public leaders with advanced leadership and public management training. As of the end of 2005, 163 Israeli public officials had participated in the Israel Fellowship, including leaders who had gone on to become director generals of government ministries, generals and commanders in the Israeli military, and top advisors to prime ministers.

The Wexner Foundation appeared early on the scene of Jewish private philanthropy and in many ways pioneered a new field that has grown to include dozens of private foundations that devote themselves on a national and international scale to the needs of the Jewish people. The Wexner Foundation has never wavered from its focus upon Jewish leadership, and its professionalism, standards of program excellence, and strong relationships with Jewish communities and organizations have created a model of practice for Jewish private philanthropy that has passed the test of time.

Wexner's leadership among major Jewish philanthropists was evidenced by his role in helping to convene and ultimately lead a group of some two dozen philanthropic peers in an effort that was known technically as the "Study Group" but more widely as the "Mega Group." This group of elite Jewish philanthropists was formed in 1991 and developed as an effort to conduct a high-minded philanthropic discussion about the pressing issues of the Jewish people. The group motivated a number of individual and collaborative philanthropic initiatives that, arguably, would not have otherwise occurred, including the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, Birthright Israel, the upgrading of national Hillel, and more. Wexner co-chaired the group with Charles Bronfman during the final years of its existence. While the group no longer exists in its original form, successor groups have surfaced and many of the original members continue to work closely with each other as a result of the associations they developed within the Study Group.

Leslie Wexner's wife, Abigail Wexner, an accomplished attorney, has emerged as a major civic and philanthropic leader in her own right, and has also worked closely with The Wexner Foundation in shaping its programs and future. Mrs. Wexner has served as Chair of The Columbus Foundation and as Chairman of the Board of Children's Hospital, Columbus. She is nationally recognized as a leader who has spearheaded cutting edge programs and services addressing domestic violence in central Ohio and beyond.

Leslie Wexner's philanthropy revolves around a belief in the centrality of leadership and its potential to shape the future. This passion for developing leaders is at the heart of the programs of the Foundation, but extends far beyond them as well.

In business, his storied rise as the son of working class immigrants who became the innovator of specialty retailing in America is near legendary. Wexner began his company in 1963 with one store in Columbus, Ohio. "The Limited" had sales of $473 on the first day of business and first year sales of $160,000. Today, as Chairman, President and ceo of Limited Brands, he leads a company that operates more than 3700 stores, including Victoria's Secret, Express, The Limited, Henri Bendel, Bath and Body Works, and The White Barn Candle Company. Sales for Limited Brands exceeded $9.4 billion in 2004.

In civic life, Wexner's leadership was the force behind the development of the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, behind the creation of the Wexner Institute for Pediatric Research at Children's Hospital, and that elevated Columbus' United Way to successes never before imagined. By example, he has sought to "give back" to the community in many ways. He is also a founding member of the Ohio State University Foundation, Chairman of the Columbus Partnership, and Chairman Emeritus of the Ohio State University Board of Trustees.

Wexner serves as Visiting Instructor of Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, where he also sits as a member of the Visiting Committee. His annual lectures on leadership at Harvard are attended by a wide cross-section of students, faculty, and community leaders. The Wexners also spearheaded the development of the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School. Directed by David Gergen, the Center has already become one of North America's most prestigious academic initiatives for the study, teaching, and development of public leadership.

In Jewish life, his leadership activities have been widely acknowledged, including honorary degrees from Yeshiva University, Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and Brandeis University. In Central Ohio, Wexner's leadership of the Columbus Jewish Federation and his role in developing Wexner Heritage Village (a campus of services and residences for the elderly), the Wexner Jewish Student Center at Ohio State University, and other model programs underscore a personal philosophy that integrity in philanthropy must begin at home, in one's own community, and expand outward from that basis.

In the final analysis, Wexner's impact upon the Jewish people will be his investment in Jewish leaders – in Israel and in North America. Wexner's leadership programs take seriously the responsibility and capacity of leaders to shape a new future for the Jewish people. His programs are pluralistic and embrace the wide sweep of diversity within Jewish life, while building community and commonality from that diversity. Many imagine that there will be Wexner Israel Fellows who will become prime ministers of the State of Israel, Wexner Graduate Fellows who transform Jewish professional leadership into a new force for change in the coming century, and Wexner Heritage alumni who will rethink and rebuild their Jewish communities into more relevant, responsive and dynamic organizational forms. Meanwhile, Wexner and his wife continue to exercise their own leadership, in business, politics, and civic and Jewish life – forever learning and teaching the meaning and promise of mobilizing others around the enduring values and challenges of human life.

[Larry Moses (2nd ed.)]