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Cleveland Foundation selects barrier-breaking Lillian Kuri as its next CEO

Lillian Kuri will be the Cleveland Foundation's 10th CEO when she move into the position this summer.
The Cleveland Foundation
Lillian Kuri will be the Cleveland Foundation's 10th CEO when she moves into the position this summer.

The Cleveland Foundation has selected Lillian Kuri to serve as its next president and CEO. She’ll become the first woman in the foundation’s 109-year history to hold the position on a non-interim basis when she starts in the role this summer.

“I have a love for this city,” Kuri said. “There is nowhere else where I’d rather be in the world. To have the opportunity to be in this seat and to serve this community is just a true honor and a privilege and I’m ready to work really hard for this region.”

Kuri joined the foundation in 2005, most recently working as executive vice president and chief operating officer. Kuri takes over for Ronn Richard, who is retiring this summer after 20 years in the role.

“I’m really honored to have the opportunity to serve in this next moment for the foundation. It’s a really big moment for us and for Cleveland,” Kuri said. “We are poised as a region for tremendous growth and change.”

Barbara Haas Rawson served as the Cleveland Foundation’s interim CEO in the early 1970s. Kuri — who was also the first woman to serve as chair of the Cleveland Planning Commission — said she is proud to break barriers as the first woman in this role on a permanent basis. She also touted the historic nature of having two women, she and Constance Hill-Johnson, the foundation’s board chairperson, leading the foundation.

“I think it’s really about a different perspective that we’ll bring that to the table in terms of how we might think about the culture of the organization and how we’ll bring that to the table for impact in the community,” Kuri said.

In a statement from the foundation, Hill-Johnson said Kuri’s proven track record makes her a good fit for CEO.

“She knows the city like the back of her hand and has an amazing ability to foster and build relationships,” Hill-Johnson said.

A Cleveland native and daughter of Lebanese immigrants, Kuri will also be the second racial minority CEO in the foundation’s history.

“The way that I was raised and how I value my culture and my family and bring that to the work that I do, it is very important,” Kuri said. “Having a lens by which we’re always looking through that prioritizes racial equity and understand, who we’re doing the work for and serving is a top priority for me.”

Cleveland has seen a recent “changing of the guard” in leadership roles in government and prominent institutions, and Kuri is now a part of that.

“We have a lot of leaders who are in positions now who know each other very well and worked together over the years and really like each other and are excited to collaborate together,” Kuri said.

Cleveland elected Mayor Justin Bibb in 2021, when Frank Jackson chose not to run again after four terms in office. Bibb took office in January of 2022.

Cuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne took office at the start of 2023 after Armond Budish served two terms. There have been changes in recent years in the top leadership at other Cleveland philanthropic organizations, including the George Gund Foundation and the United Way of Greater Cleveland. And University Hospitals, the MetroHealth System and the Cleveland Clinic have also gotten new leaders in the past five years.

“To get real alignment and momentum towards long term change, that’ll come from this kind of relationship-driven and trust-based work that will happen with this next generation of leadership,” Kuri said.

Kuri said the Cleveland Foundation's move from Downtown Cleveland to a new building in the city’s MidTown area aligns with the organization’s goals of being more transparent, visible and welcoming.

The purpose of being in the new location calls back to what she experienced as a child and the work her parents did, Kuri said. Her parents were the first members of a large extended family from Lebanon to move to the United States. She said her home served as a hub to help family from around the world access education or get settled in the country.

“Some of the thoughts about what it means to create community out of our house and how we grew up came from my parents coming here and then helping family all over the world,” Kuri said. “The idea of being more open and welcoming and finding a way to create community in our building that everybody feels a part of actually directly comes from how I was raised.”

Before working for the foundation, Kuri was the executive director of Cleveland Public Art. She said prioritizing art is a personal core value that mirrors a core value of the foundation.

“We know that no city is really successful without the cultural assets and leveraging them and making sure that artists play an integral role in the revitalization and transformation of our city,” Kuri said.

The last day for Richard is July 31. He said he couldn’t imagine a better person than Kuri for the job.

“Lillian has been a trusted advisor to me,” Richard said. “I have seen firsthand that she has what it takes — and more — to successfully lead the foundation into a new era.”

Gabriel Kramer is a reporter/producer and the host of “NewsDepth,” Ideastream Public Media's news show for kids.