Former CEO of Alberto Culver, River Forest resident and current philanthropist Carol Lavin Bernick believes she’s had more tough things happen to her than most people.
“I’ve had missed pregnancies, stillborn pregnancies, my brother died of a drug overdose,” she said. “I had a crazy public divorce and I’m very private person. The love of my life died of brain cancer.
“In each of those situations, I’ve learned a whole bunch of stuff and just as much wonderful stuff has happened in my life.”
In an effort to share her personal stories in addition to professional wisdom she learned from her experience running Alberto Culver, a global consumer products manufacturer, Lavin Bernick has self-published “Gather As You Go,” a book she describes as a combination of short life lessons related to business, party planning, decorating and surviving divorce, death and more.
Published this year, “Gather As You Go” also features excerpts by Byron Trott, head of BDT Capital Partners merchant bank, who Warren Buffett has called the only banker he trusts; Sally Blount, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University who formerly served as the school’s dean; James Chandler, a neurosurgeon; and more.
Lavin Bernick will share these life lessons and talk about her work with her nonprofit, Enchanted Backpack, which provides school supplies to needy schools in the Chicagoland area, at 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 16 at Dominican University’s Performing Arts Center, 7900 W. Division St.
The talk, which is co-sponsored by the Oak Park River Forest Women Leaders in Philanthropy, is free but registration is required. Visit www.dom.edu or email Kate Dierkes at email@example.com to reserve a space. Attendees will receive a free copy of “Gather As You Go.”
“I’m reflective and I also believe in sharing your truths if you can, you can really connect with people,” Lavin Bernick said. “So I tell the whole story, and sometimes it makes me uncomfortable. I try to connect with the audience in a very personal way. Hopefully, it will go well.”
Growing up on the 1100 block of Ashland Avenue until she was 13 years old, Lavin Bernick said she watched her mother and father leave for work every morning, and return home every evening with enough time to connect with their children.
Lavin Bernick’s grandmother also worked, a rarity in those days. Despite sometimes feeling like she was the only girl without a stay-at-home mom, Lavin Bernick said she felt supported by the local schools, and still keeps in touch with friends she made in grammar school.
“I love River Forest. I think it’s down-to-earth, hardworking people,” Lavin Bernick said.
As she grew older, Lavin Bernick went on to work at Alberto Culver, which her father started in 1955. She spent more than 30 years in executive roles in the company, developing the Mrs. Dash spice mix and Static Guard, and growing the company to more than $3 million in sales.
One of her biggest challenges was convincing her father, who was then in his early-70s, that he needed to give up control, she said. The company worked with two outside directors, a business psychologist and family business expert for two years to change the management.
“My claim to fame is probably turning around the culture of the company. It is the best new change agent I created. I helped put us back on the map after a long time,” Lavin Bernick said.
Lavin Bernick later guided the company through an acquisition in 2011 by Unilever, which purchased the company for $3.7 billion in cash.
She now heads Polished Nickel Capital Management, which is a family investment company in charge of holding her family’s assets and managing the Lavin Family Foundation.
It was through the foundation that Lavin Bernick launched the nonprofit Enchanted Backpack, which has provided more than 50 schools with books, supplies, athletic equipment and more since its launch in 2016.
To qualify for supplies, more than half of the students in these schools must receive a free or reduced-price lunch. Enchanted Backpack has helped schools in Melrose Park, where Alberto Culver was once headquartered, as well as Maywood, the West Side of Chicago and more, Lavin Bernick said.
A portion of all book sales benefit Enchanted Backpack.
“It’s making such a huge impact. It’s humbling to see your philanthropy literally in action and this has been a very, very unique thing to do,” Lavin Bernick said. “It’s amazing with how bad, how ill-equipped, some of the schools are and the amazing jobs the principals and staff are doing to make their students’ lives better. It’s a privilege just to be able to help.”
In addition to her work with Enchanted Backpack, Lavin Bernick said she is working to create a “Gather” community where strangers can share their wisdom and truths in a safe space.
After she published the book, which she intended primarily for friends and family, she said people began writing her stories from their life, as well as sending donations to her nonprofit. She said she has since received more than $150,000 in donations, and is even thinking of publishing another book full of lessons readers have sent in.
“I think the magic of “Gather,” and why it’s resonating, is because it’s real,” Lavin Bernick said.