“A woman of valor,” how often I’ve heard that phrase spoken at funerals and memorial services. Normally I assume it’s just one of those canned phrases people throw out without a lot of thought when memorializing a person who has died. But today when I attended the funeral of Lilo Leeds those words rang true.
I had the good fortune to work for Lilo and her husband Gerry for fifteen years at CMP, the publishing company they co-founded on Long Island. Lilo believed fervently in hiring and promoting women. In fact she insisted on it. In the late 70’s when the sales staff at CMP was all women, she encouraged the publishers to hire women. But after little progress in that regard she told them they couldn’t hire any sales staff until they hired a woman. The first woman hired didn’t work out well and so the publishers went back to Lilo and asked about hiring men again. Lilo stuck to her guns and suggested they just do a better job on the next female hire. The next time a woman was hired she turned out to be a huge success and eventually the sales force became about 70% women. She also insisted that more women be hired in managerial roles and did all she could to encourage and support the women at the company.
I joined CMP in 1983 and in 1985 was named the editor of VARBusiness, a new magazine started as a supplement to Computer Systems News. Lilo asked me to start a woman’s group at the company to help encourage and support women in managerial roles. I moved on to several different roles at the company over the years and in the early ’90s when the health publication I headed up was sold I attended a meeting with her and other top management where a discussion took place about the looming layoffs. As the discussion turned to the people who were now out of a job, Lilo said, “There will be no layoffs. We will find jobs for these people.”
A meeting was set up with all the top editors in the company. All of these editors headed up technology publications and I was charged with talking about the talents of my staff who were mostly experts in healthcare. Every individual on my staff was interviewed and every last one of them received a job offer. I never forgot that. Lilo showed me that a business could be very successful and still have heart. In fact, it was Lilo who was the heart of CMP.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Lilo was committed to far more than women in business. She and her husband were firm believers in public education, equal rights and justice. They fought in the courts to allow girls to play Little League hardball and won; they established the first on-site daycare program on Long Island at CMP; they launched the Institute for Student Achievement with their son Greg that set up tutoring in high schools in underserved districts; and later the Alliance for Excellent Education was formed to push for national policy that would make such successful public high schools available to all students. And that’s only part of the legacy of Lilo and Gerry. Both fought throughout their lives for equity and justice. After they sold CMP in the late ’90’s they could have rested on their laurels, but they didn’t. Their gift to their family, friends and employees was the example they set. Their gift to the world was the many causes they supported generously with their time and finances.
I hope Lilo will forgive me for writing about her. She was a very private person and didn’t seek the limelight. She only sought results. Rest in peace Lilo Leeds. You’ve earned it.