FEATURE — Spring 2005
   

 

Financial Career Adds Up to PBS

Alumna Barbara Levy Landes wields a "can-do" attitude, bringing inspiration and positivity to her role as CFO of PBS, as a volunteer for Girls Inc. and WomenMatter, and as a mother of two young women.

by Kristin Tennant

Connected. Passionate. Courageous. Inspired. These four words are used on the PBS.org homepage to describe the media enterprise's programming, but they are equally fitting descriptors for Barbara Levy Landes, A.B. '71, the organization's CFO.

"Courageous" in particular best characterizes Landes in the years following her graduation from Washington University with a political science degree. She built her career on a series of pioneering steps, beginning with her status as one of the youngest and few female MBA students at the Wharton School of Business. A decade later she became the youngest female finance VP at NBC, and shortly thereafter combined motherhood with her career with the birth of her twin daughters. In these and countless other ways, Landes has boldly cut a path for other women to follow.

Landes says what fuels that type of courage and inspiration—especially for young women—is the power of education combined with an unwavering belief in oneself. For her, these gifts stem largely from her education at Washington University and her major adviser, John Sprague, who was then chair of the political science department.

"He was a wonderful adviser," Landes says. "He encouraged me by recognizing that I had brains and could do anything I wanted to do. He instilled in me a 'you-can-do-it' confidence that kept me going in business school."

As the youngest female finance VP at NBC in the early '80s, Barbara Landes also became the mother of twins. Successfully combining motherhood and career, Landes now works hard to give other girls opportunities to succeed in life and business. Her daughters also have high aspirations; in fall 2005, Beth (left) plans to apply for law school and Elissa for medical school.

This love of learning and level of encouragement Landes reaped from her contact with Sprague are things she spends much of her time sharing with others today. These common themes tie together what might seem unrelated at a glance, from her financial work at PBS to her volunteer activities to her role as a mother of two young women. It is fitting, for instance, that a woman whose own daughters grew up on Sesame Street helps keep the educational, self-esteem-building program and others like it on the air today. It is also fitting that Landes gives of her time serving on the board of directors for Girls Inc., where she is also treasurer and chair of the Financial Oversight Committee. The not-for-profit organization helps girls develop skills and self-esteem, exposes them to career options, and offers college scholarships. Most of the girls who benefit are from low-income families, many of them headed by single mothers struggling to provide for their children. Through her participation, Landes helps achieve the organization's mission and tagline: "Inspiring all girls to be strong, smart, and bold." This, of course, is something Landes has been able to do for her own twin daughters—with the enthusiastic support and involvement of her husband, Mark—and it drives her involvement in Girls Inc.

"I have two girls—and I want to help give other girls opportunities to succeed in life and business," Landes says. "I was also very fortunate in my own career path. I was a pioneer early in my career because I had the skills and encouragement I needed."

Landes launched her career at CBS before further developing her extensive experience in broadcast media at NBC Radio and NBC Corporate, and then WWOR-TV, a broadcast "superstation." Along the way, Landes has worked in a variety of areas for private and public companies, including an international consulting firm, an information technology company, and, more recently, for America Online's AOL for Broadband unit. She says she's thrilled to be back in broadcasting with her early 2003 PBS appointment.

"I feel that everything I've done before has prepared me for what I'm doing here at PBS," Landes says. "So many of my professional and personal experiences have really come together in this position. PBS was also an appealing career move because it's such a wonderful organization, with such impressive leadership."

As the primary financial executive of PBS, which had FY04 revenues of $517 million, Landes is responsible for fostering the fiscal health of the organization through such roles as strategic planning and developing strategic alliances and partnerships. Her recent activities have included establishing a PBS Foundation, overseeing a business venture with Comcast Cable to launch a children's cable channel and video-on-demand service, and negotiating a major real estate lease for the 2006 scheduled move of PBS' corporate offices in the Washington, D.C., area. The move will allow the organization to benefit from a custom-renovated and -designed space, at about the same long-term cost as staying in their current space. Landes says this kind of variety in her work at PBS both leverages her skills and provides new learning opportunities—a combination that continues to motivate her.

"We engage in a number of diverse and divergent business activities," she says. "Yes, we distribute programming by satellite to 349 public television stations, but we also manufacture and distribute videos, are involved in e-commerce, and maintain the third largest dot-org in the world. The variety of what we do involves me in many ways."

There are many similarities between running for-profits and not-for-profits—as Landes points out, a large organization embodies many intricacies, regardless of its tax status. But leading the financial arm of a not-for-profit does offer unique challenges. Most obviously, PBS serves a different type of customer than NBC or CBS—the American public, and many are "members" of their local public television stations. On a financial level, PBS' mission and status binds it to different "rules" regarding business activities and revenue options.

But even with less than 20 percent of PBS' income being funded through federal sources including grants, Landes says PBS has financial stability, thanks to a diverse funding stream. Most of the funding comes from private sources, most significantly the dues paid by member stations and the sale of mission-related and educational products. The new ventures that Landes is involved with, such as the partnership with Comcast and the formation of a PBS Foundation, further diversify and stabilize the organization's financial base.

"I feel that everything I've done before has prepared me for what I'm doing here at PBS," Landes says. "So many of my professional and personal experiences have really come together in this position. ..."

Considering her many responsibilities at PBS, it is remarkable that Landes can still devote time to inspiring and empowering others. In addition to her involvement in Girls Inc., Landes is on the National Advisory Board for WomenMatter, a nonpartisan organization empowering women to unite and get involved in the political process, and she serves on the board of a local hospital foundation and on the Audit and Compliance Committee of the parent hospital system. As a longtime Washington University Eliot Society member, Landes also does fundraising for the Society, soliciting renewals and new members in the Washington, D.C., area. These many activities, although varied, all connect back to the common themes Landes embodies: one who's connected to people, passionate about education, courageous in her life endeavors, and an inspiration to so many.

Kristin Tennant is a free-lance writer based in Urbana, Illinois.