PlumpJack’s Hilary Newsom is a Philanthropic Force

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Hilary Newsom
Hilary Newsom

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the PlumpJack Group

In certain Bay Area circles, Hilary Newsom’s name is instantly recognizable. Politicos know Newsom because she is the sister of ex-San Francisco mayor and current California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom. Restaurant and wine industry veterans know her as president of the PlumpJack Group, a hospitality and lifestyle brand that operates two resorts, three wineries, three restaurants, four bars, and two spirits shops. But Newsom hopes her philanthropic work will be her legacy. “The reality is that if I had all the time in the world, I’d love to devote it to philanthropy,” Newsom told Haute Living on a cool Tuesday afternoon at her office above the Matrix, a PlumpJack bar in San Francisco’s Marina district. “Frankly that’s where I see myself in my golden years—dedicating my life to our group’s new PlumpJack Foundation, and that’s really what I’m trying to set up…something that has a lasting effect, that can make a difference in the communities and can have an impact on my family.”

Her desire to give back has grown tremendously over the past few years. “Our thoughtful approach will ultimately pay off and give us a great opportunity to plan and strategize how we can make this a successful foundation, be really clear about our vision and values and about embracing how we can support the community,” she says, choosing her words carefully. The point of this approach is to make sure the foundation has a meaningful and permanent impact on the lives of individuals. “I’m trying to serve people, foster hope, and inspire change in people. I’m going to support cancer prevention education and the struggle against the cycle of poverty in youth. Those are my primary focus. The sooner we can engage people in conversations about better health, better choices, and being aware of your body, the better,” Newsom says, her blue eyes shining.

A fifth-generation San Franciscan, Newsom was born Christmas Eve 1968 to Tessa Thomas and William Alfred Newsom III. While her parents weren’t incredibly wealthy, they were well connected and they were somewhat public figures. Her father was a judge and worked as a tax attorney for the Getty family. He was childhood friends with Jerry Brown, and his sister was married to Ron Pelosi, Nancy Pelosi’s brother-in-law. “My father started a lot of nonprofits,” Newsom explains. “He’s [also] been on the board of multiple nonprofits, and his primary focus has been the environmental movement.”

“I’m very emotionally attached to Squaw Valley. I’m devoted to that location. Squaw has just stolen my heart,” Newsom says of the Tahoe destination.
“I’m very emotionally attached to Squaw Valley. I’m devoted to that location. Squaw has just stolen my heart,” Newsom says of the Tahoe destination.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the PlumpJack Group

Her dad’s commitment to giving back sparks one of her earliest childhood memories. “My first memory is falling asleep on a banquette at a fundraising event that my father was hosting for an environmental group,” she says, laughing. “Gavin and I joke that we’ve fallen asleep on the best banquettes of the best restaurants in San Francisco….If they were committed to a cause, then we were part of it.” In 1971, her parents divorced, and when Newsom was nine, her mother moved the family of three to Marin. The two Newsom children were mainly raised by their mother, who worked around the clock, sometimes maintaining three jobs at once to provide for her kids. Despite working constantly, Mrs. Newsom found time to give back. “My mother also worked for the Debolt family over in the East Bay; she was their development director for a period of time, working to aid adoption of special kids. I was a little older then, so I would go with her,” Newsom says. “I had a more complete understanding of what the nonprofit world meant, and [I was] helping set up events and break down events and just generally participated. So philanthropy has never, ever not been woven into our lives in a very legitimate and genuine way.”

Newsom attended Georgetown University and worked in fashion merchandising at A|X Armani Exchange in New York. In 1996, she joined her brother as director of marketing for PlumpJack, then only four years old. She worked at her brother’s company for 13 years before she was appointed to her current role as president. While many women in leadership positions have had to deal with gender inequality and prejudice, Newsom has not seen her gender as a roadblock to advancement. “I was never raised to believe there was any difference between my capabilities and Gavin’s, and I had Gavin as the founder of PlumpJack, who understood the value of intelligence in everybody around him, but in particular the women that he strategically hired to help run his company,” Newsom says. “I was one of those people. It was clear to me that if he, as the founder and the visionary for this brand, believed in me, then I should believe in myself. I was in an unusual circumstance where I had the right people around me in order to believe in myself. By the time I became president of PlumpJack, I definitely felt confident that I had earned that opportunity through hard work and commitment and loyalty and a lot of learning….”

Although she oversees 14 brands and 500 employees, Newsom still considers PlumpJack a family business. Jeremy Scherer, her copresident and partner, is her cousin, and her father remains a limited partner in some aspects of the business. But the loyalty that she has developed, and inspired, over the years leads her to believe PlumpJack is all about family. “We have a lot of loyalty here. I have employees who have worked here for 21 or 22 years. I’ve worked here for 20,” Newsom says. “There are people that I adore and consider family that work as part of the PlumpJack team, and that’s where I think it’s beyond just, Oh yes, I work with my cousin, I work with my dad. There are actually a lot of family members who work here, a lot of cousins and sisters and brothers, because one person becomes successful in the company and refers it to a member of their family. It’s an extension of the family for sure. It’s a much bigger company now than it was, so it’s important for me not to lose that. Family members support each other through good and bad, and I think that that’s one of the things that’s made us successful.”

Newsom smiles with her in-laws, Robert and Barbara Callan, and her husband, Geoff Callan.
Newsom smiles with her in-laws, Robert and Barbara Callan, and her husband, Geoff Callan.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the PlumpJack Group

One unfortunate family event was most influential in shaping who Newsom is today: her mother’s battle with and ultimate death from breast cancer. In 1998, Newsom met Geoff Callan, the man who would become her husband and the father of her two daughters. Three weeks later, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I remember thinking I can’t believe this is happening: Ugh, I don’t want to burden a new relationship with this kind of news. But a friend, Mike Farrah, told me to talk to Geoff. ‘Trust me on this,’ he said.” It turns out that Callan’s mother—who is still alive today—was a breast cancer survivor who was 13 years into remission at the time. “Geoff told me, ‘I always wanted to celebrate my mom and do a golf event.’ I said, ‘I’ve never golfed. I don’t have any intention of golfing because it requires patience that I don’t have, but I can throw an event. Maybe we could collaborate.’ ” In 2000, the couple hosted the first annual PlumpJack/LINK Golf Classic.

The golf tournament and live auction dinner takes place every year on the first Monday in May, and it has become an important event for Newsom and her family. Callan proposed in front of 235 people at that original event, an affair that her mom also attended. “He proposed in front of everybody, and I wouldn’t have expected a public engagement, but it was so poignant because it set the tone for how our relationship was going to be and how it’s been for the last 19 years. It set the stage for this person that I fell in love with and is now my family and the father of my kids, so it’s very, very personal.” Since its inception, Newsom’s golf tournament has raised $4 million to support the Cancer Prevention Institute of California.

As her mother lay dying in 2002, Newsom says she made her a promise that she would continue giving back. “The promise that I made to my mom—never to be forgotten” is what has driven Newsom on this philanthropic journey. First, she joined the board of the Africa Foundation, taking “a seat that I held after my dad had resigned from it, really doing a lot of exceptional work, primarily in South Africa, building schools and hospitals and working with Conservation Corporation Africa. I loved sitting on that board. I was able to visit parts of the world that I would never have imagined and see the work that the organization was doing.” In 2003, when she gave birth to her older daughter, Talitha, she decided to join something closer to home and became a board member at the Holy Family Day Home. “Once I had children, I wanted to really put my energies toward something that…they could touch and see more readily,” she says. Today, Newsom encourages her daughters, now 11 and 13, to make their own mark, so they sell flowers from their garden, organize a clothing drive at school, and have set up an old-fashioned lemonade stand. “It isn’t necessarily how much we’re contributing financially to the organization; it’s about energy and heart. That’s what I care about right now with these kids.” She’s become an advocate for breast cancer awareness and is an active member of the Breast Cancer Emergency Fund, an organization that supports people who don’t have health insurance.

Newsom's favorite dish at the Balboa Cafe? The Wednesday night special: chicken paillard.
Newsom’s favorite dish at the Balboa Cafe? The Wednesday night special: chicken paillard.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the PlumpJack Group

While charity work and the new PlumpJack Foundation are front of mind for her, Newsom is constantly hunting for new business opportunities to grow her hospitality group. In the past year and a half, she has spearheaded the opening of a new hotel in Carmel (The Hideaway), two craft cocktail bars in San Francisco (Forgery and Wildhawk), and Verso, a night club adjacent to Forgery. Next up? Remodeling PlumpJack’s Squaw Valley properties, building a company that’s financially driven over the long term, and devoting more than 25 percent of her time to bettering the lives of those around her. “When my mom passed away, I took her $800 wig and donated it to somebody who would never have dreamed of [owning] a real wig that could give that person self-confidence and change the perspective of her children because…they’re no longer seeing a woman who looks sick. They’re seeing a woman who looks whole,” she says with heartfelt compassion. Her eyes brim with tears: “That person-to-person [impact] is very personal and very real to me because I want to see people’s lives, one at a time, get better. If we all had that mentality, we could touch and support and change a lot of people’s lives.”

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