Lessons in Leadership: What’s It All About? –‘It’s About Creating Opportunity’

By Lenina Mortimer

Elizabeth Butson knows what really matters and it’s not money.

“It’s all about making a difference in the lives of others,” says the philanthropist.

BMCC scholarship benefactor Elizabeth Butson, center, at the Fiterman Art Center, with two students who have benefited from her scholarships, Gentiana Rina from Albania, at left, and Bibechanya Basnet from Nepal.

BMCC scholarship benefactor Elizabeth Butson, center, at the Fiterman Art Center, with two students who have benefited from her scholarships, Gentiana Rina from Albania, at left, and Bibechanya Basnet from Nepal.

Butson, a former Philip Morris International advertising executive, reporter for Time/Life magazine and local newspaper publisher, spent her early life making opportunities for herself. Now she creates them for others.

A longtime supporter of the Borough of Manhattan Community College, she has given the school thousands of dollars over the years, funding many scholarships for academically gifted students.  One was named in honor of her mother, Katy Halepli.

“We talk about inequality and ‘the haves and the have-nots,’ but that’s not what it’s all about,” says Butson, who is a BMCC Foundation board member. “It’s about creating opportunity and BMCC gives anyone who really wants an education that chance.”

It was nearly 15 years ago that Butson attended the college’s annual gala and became inspired by a student from the Caribbean who had struggled in life. “He was kicked out of his home and he lived in a crawl space in the roof of a building,” recalls Butson. “But look at what determination to succeed can do. He got a scholarship … and he was one of the top graduating students even though he didn’t have a place to live. I really wanted to be a part of that.”

Soon after, Butson — who, with her late husband, Tom Butson, owned two Lower Manhattan newspapers, Downtown Express and The Villager — was invited to join the BMCC board.

Born in Istanbul to parents of Greek heritage, Butson has a story that in some way mirrors those of many foreign-born BMCC students. She moved to the United States alone at 18 in search of educational opportunity. She received a scholarship from Boston University, studied political science and journalism, and supplemented her income by teaching Greek-American children in the Boston area.

“When I came here, I really had to make it on my own,” she says. “My parents  couldn’t help me because the Turkish government didn’t allow people to send money out of the country. I did all those things on my own — being able to do that energized me. It also energizes me when I see it in others.”

Since its inception in 2002, the $1,000 Katy Halepli Scholarship has been awarded to 12 graduating women seniors. The Elizabeth Butson Scholarship, which was established last year, has been awarded to eight students. They received $1,600 scholarships.

Gentiana Rina, a recipient of an Elizabeth Butson Scholarship, is juggling school with a job in retail.  The scholarship means she can afford to take some time off from work so she can study more.

Rina is 30 and a third-year engineering science major who arrived from Albania four years ago to further her education.  “When I came, I didn’t know anybody and I didn’t speak a word of English,” she says.  She was accepted into BMCC’s ESL program and now she has a 4.0 GPA. She plans to follow in her father’s footsteps to become an engineer.

“There are people driven to succeed and make it to the top,” says Butson. “Most people need for someone to open a door for them. For me, opening doors for myself and others has been a big part of my life.”

Last spring, Butson joined four scholarship recipients for lunch at BMCC’s Shirley Fiterman Art Center. She wanted to get to know them and hoped they would learn a bit about her. “Every time I see those kids graduate, I feel really terrific,” she says. “I wanted to meet them because I want to know where they are and what they are doing.”

Though Butson is celebrated for her philanthropic work, she is most proud of her professional accomplishments. “I was the first female V.P. at Philip Morris in a very male dominated world, in a very conservative business,” she says. “Now, the number of women in exec jobs has significantly increased I am glad that I opened doors for them.” Butson worked for Philip Morris International for 27 years where she was the first woman hired for a nonsecretarial position.

“Success in life is not all about making money,” she says. “It is about making new tracks, taking the road less traveled, sharing the knowledge you have gained with those who are getting started. Opening doors.”