An encounter with… Lili-Anna Pereša
A note to our Readers
This interview first appeared in 2014. At the time, Lili-Anna Pereša was the CEO of United Way Centraide. Recently, she’s been appointed head of the McConnell Foundation where she will pursue her career, her mission, her life’s work. We’re reposting the interview because it says so much about the exceptional career of a woman who just happens to love reading.
I wanted to meet with Centraide’s CEO, Lili-Anna Pereša, because I’ve been obsessing, of late, over the word “generosity.” To the point where I thought of putting this somewhat old-fashioned term on the program of the 2014 Blue Metropolis Festival — maybe give it new life within the “Ideas and Society” series. To flesh out the series, I decided to meet with the people who practice generosity in Quebec: the major philanthropists; the kindness and selflessness experts; the volunteers battling for sundry causes, touching, heart-wrenching or lost; those who write in street newspapers; those who sell daffodils in spring.
The word “generosity” no longer exists in our urban and corporate vocabulary. Having been brought up by nuns, I’ve always had a soft spot for this noble virtue, the noblest of all in my view. But after years of passing the hat for the organizations I was running, I got used to the concept of “patronage.” I even thought it had a romantic, delightfully old-world ring to it. So, let’s update our vocabulary. Generosity, today, works through a more structured concept: philanthropy. It’s a true social art form, and more than ever, belongs in the portfolio of any self-respecting business executive. The people who defend the culture of giving deserve our full attention and greatest respect.
An amazing career
Centraide’s CEO has had an amazing career — I’m tempted to say an exhausting one. By the time I had jotted all the facts down, our time together was practically over. Lili-Anna Pereša’s career-track is multi-faceted, but it has a unifying theme that boils down to one simple mission: TO ACCOMPANY. Trained in electrical engineering, the blonde woman with the sky-blue eyes exudes strength and pragmatism. Very engineerish. And quite cerebral, I suspect, even if her career points to a woman of heart and conviction. To get a better understanding of this woman, and the passionate reader she is, here’s a quick overview of her resumé.
After a comfortable but predictable job at Bell Canada, she took on rapid-fire mandates and missions, sometimes in militarized zones, where she worked to ease human suffering. After being a teacher in Malawi, a specialist volunteer for OXFAM in Burkina Faso, the head of Amnesty International in France, CARE’s field manager in Croatia (she speaks Croatian fluently), Lili-Anna Pereša returned to Canada to head the YWCA, Les Petits Frères des Pauvres, Unicef Quebec, ONE DROP and, finally, Centraide of Greater Montreal. Keep in mind that Lili-Anna Pereša is all of 48, and you get a sense of how much is yet to come!
She talks about herself sparingly. It’s clear the engineer is in charge: calm, deliberate, self-contained, but possessing great strength. The word that comes to mind while meeting with Lili-Anna Pereša is DETERMINED. I don’t think much gets in her way.
Poverty isn’t sexy…
We broach the subject of generosity and I love the first words out of her mouth: “Poverty isn’t sexy!” I’m starting to feel a little naïve. Running Centraide may not be all that easy. I would have thought the opposite, that fighting poverty would be the starting point of any philanthropic endeavour, the top priority for any government and for society as a whole. When poverty takes hold, it generates illness (physical and mental), stunts learning, stigmatizes the individual and prohibits development; it saps a society’s ability to do research, wrecks social cohesion and engenders violence… If I were the Minister of Charity, combating poverty would be Job One.
Lili-Anna Pereša feels you have to change public perceptions first, even before considering how governments can reduce poverty. Without a change in public perceptions, nothing changes. Fighting poverty is everybody’s business, and everyone has the power to do something.
From childhood, Lili-Anna Pereša was aware of social inequalities, either here or in Croatia, her father’s native country. She first went there when she was 11. What she saw stayed with her: no running water or telephones in Croatia at the time. It became a catalyst for the work she was to do.
You know the rest: our fledgling engineer rolled up her sleeves and made it her business to promote social justice by combating poverty and exclusion.
Centraide’s mission statement is well-known, but worth repeating: «Show Your Local Love.» Every year, Centraide holds a major fundraising campaign to support 370 organizations that serve 500,000 vulnerable people.
To learn more: http://www.centraide-mtl.org
The CEO as bookworm
When she’s not busy saving the world, Lili-Anna Pereša loves to immerse herself in a sea of books. She’s a great fan of literature. She belongs to a book club and takes her reading assignments seriously. I asked her to list the books that have changed her life, or at least, have made a lasting impression. Her picks:
Émile Zola, Germinal and all of Zola’s novels
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
Dominique Fortier, Du bon usage des étoiles
Daniel Pennac, La fée carabine