At The Breast Cancer Research Foundation’s Hot Pink Luncheon and Symposium in Palm Beach this past February, Leonard Lauder, one of America’s best-known business figures, stepped to the podium and said modestly, “I introduce myself these days as Mr. Evelyn Lauder.” He paused for the bittersweet applause, before adding, “because I am absolutely dedicated to my dear wife Evelyn’s dream of curing and preventing breast cancer.

Three months earlier, in November 2011, Evelyn Lauder died at home in New York City of nongenetic ovarian cancer. A woman of many accomplishments, Evelyn held the position of senior corporate vice president at Estée Lauder and oversaw fragrance development worldwide. She famously founded The Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) almost two decades ago after a bout with breast cancer (which was successfully treated)—and adopted the pink ribbon in 1992 to raise awareness during the month of October. Lauder loved to connect with people from all walks of life, from Manhattan to Las Vegas. During her posthumous tribute in New York City’s Lincoln Center this past January, attended by a crowd of more than 2,000, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, “She didn’t just give a speech or write a check; she created a movement, The Breast Cancer Research Foundation, which has raised more than $350 million for research and given us an iconic symbol, the pink ribbon.”

Leonard Lauder, still active as chairman emeritus of The Estée Lauder Companies, is a dedicated philanthropist—his NYC commitments include the Whitney Museum of American Art, Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, Council on Foreign Relations, Aspen Institute, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, to which The Leonard & Evelyn Lauder Foundation gave $50 million to help build the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center.

The team at BCRF greeted the news of Lauder’s involvement with considerable relief, if not outright joy. Myra Biblowit, president of BCRF, explains, “To have Leonard say, ‘I’m going to step in because I want this organization to continue to flourish and not miss a beat’—that has been an invaluable reassurance about the future of an organization that has lost its founder.”

And who better than Leonard Lauder to grow BCRF? One of America’s most successful CEOs, Lauder took his family’s cosmetic firm to its current status as a multibilliondollar global behemoth. (It had nearly $9 billion in net sales in the last fiscal year.) In addition to Lauder’s business prowess, there’s also his much-vaunted talent for relationship building. “Leonard brings to the table his extraordinary insights about people,” says Dr. Larry Norton, scientific director of BCRF’s scientific advisory board and deputy physician-in-chief for breast cancer programs at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. “He understands what makes them tick. That translates into the magic of BCRF. It’s not about science; it’s about people doing science. If you support their enthusiasm and creativity, the projects will come.”

Already Lauder has expanded the BCRF board, bringing in such names as Tory Burch and Ed Brennan, the chairman of DFS Group. To broaden its scope, he’s also defined a dual agenda for BCRF: “To embrace the new reality of cancer research and expand the fundraising footprint.”

The new reality of cancer research is how scientists are coming to see cancer as a genetic disease rather than a disease of the breast, colon, lung, or other organ. “Genetic aberrations are in a sense the hub of the wheel,” Biblowit says. “Ultimately, solutions will have application to all of the spokes.” This interconnectedness is what ensures BCRF’s relevance even in a time when many types of breast cancer are curable or manageable.

Biblowit says that what stands between disease and a cure today “is not technology or talent, but money. The intellectual capital is in place; the missing link is the financial resources.” Dr. Norton offers some sobering facts: 23 percent of American deaths this year will be from cancer, yet studies indicate that the US spends six times more on soft drinks than on all cancer research combined. “If we didn’t have philanthropy, we’d be [at a tremendous loss],” Dr. Norton says, “because in order to qualify for federal grants, you need to demonstrate preliminary results, and in order to do the work to get those results, you need philanthropy.” Eleven years ago, BCRF awarded $8.5 million to support 50 researchers around the US; this year the group raised $53 million and is funding more than 190 researchers in 13 countries, according to Biblowit.

No matter how ambitious the goals for BCRF, Lauder, at 79, seems primed to meet them. His schedule hasn’t slowed down much from when he was running the Lauder companies as CEO: “I get up at 6:30 am every day, exercise, then sit down to a business breakfast by 7:30 or get to my office by 8,” he says. His workdays are a tightly choreographed sequence of meetings, phone calls, power lunches, and more meetings. He travels regularly—recent destinations include Aspen (for philanthropy), Prague (a business and “roots” trip), and Vienna (where Evelyn was born). This month, he’ll be in Boston for the opening of his antique postcard exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts. “I’m not bored,” he says. Asked how it feels, this busy life in Evelyn’s absence, he answers, “Lonesome. I’m in the midst of reshaping my own life. It’s not easy after 52 years. When we were married, I was 26. We formed our own life. Now I have to form a new life.” Perhaps immersing himself in Evelyn’s work helps him as much as it helps the foundation.

At the Hot Pink Luncheon & Symposium, Leonard told the audience: “Each one of you has the seed of greatness within you. Your vote counts; your contribution counts.” Then, he elegantly demonstrated the art of putting one’s money where one’s mouth is. During his closing remarks, he announced, “Today we have raised $495,000. We are $5,000 short. I’ll put the $5,000 in to get to half a million if someone will match me. Come to see me after the—there!” He pointed across the room. “Okay, $500,000. Thank you.”

As for Evelyn Lauder’s hope that a cure for breast cancer will be found within our lifetime, no one knows the future, of course. But to reach that milestone, the money’s on Leonard Lauder and BCRF to get it done.

Like what you're reading? Get it delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up now for our newsletters >>