Making her mark on her city
Strength, resilience, passion, commitment.
Yvonne Shaheen loves a good underdog.
Sharing her story while seated high atop Indianapolis in one of its most exclusive clubs, she gazes over a city she has both conquered and helped to lead. She’s dressed for the boardroom but with the added flair of a pink jacket. She is both intimidating and inviting. Bitingly honest, she commands respect, yet she doesn’t speak in directives. She teaches. Yvonne’s life is full of underdogs, but her story may be the greatest underdog triumph of all.
Yvonne Hawraney Shaheen is the daughter of Lebanese immigrants; her father sold newspapers on street corners to make a living growing up. Her mother, defying tradition and attending college in her native country, was pulled out of school for an arranged marriage to him and suddenly moved to the United States. Yvonne’s future husband, Riad, also was moved to America by his father during his formative years, and the Shaheens became neighbors of the Hawraneys. Riad spoke no English, and his Arab-American dictionary was stolen during his first week in the U.S. He would act out so much that his father would send him to his room with no food.
“My mom was always fond of him,” Yvonne recalls. “She would see that he wasn’t treated very well and would sneak him food. They bonded quite a lot.”
Riad Shaheen was a “scrawny little kid,” she says. Separated by three years’ age difference and a bit of a cultural gap, their interaction was limited, despite their families being friends. Yvonne eventually became a teacher and taught for a year in California, returning home in the summer to help care for her father, who was ill. Serendipitously, she went to work as a temp in Riad’s office; the scrawny kid had followed in his father’s footsteps as an electrician, and later, as an electrical engineer. An invitation to a party and a few dates later, Yvonne and Riad were hooked. They moved to Indianapolis in the early 1970s with Riad operating Long Electric starting in 1972. He was a sharp businessman, and Yvonne jokes that he had a great personality despite being an engineer. He became a devoted civic leader, virtually starting economic development in the Circle City, and became a member of the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce. His was the ultimate American success story: an underdog who came out on top.
Indianapolis is a bit of an underdog story,too. The city was sprawling and sleepy when the Shaheens moved to town some 40 years ago. It was the people who made the difference: attracted to the acceptance and friendliness of their fellow residents, the Shaheens saw the city’s future as positive, vibrant, and full of culture.
‘They needed to see I was strong enough’
Riad Shaheen died of a heart attack in 1987. At the time, he was running three businesses, employing more than 300 people, and operating offices throughout the region. While many people might have panicked in their grief, Yvonne saw only one course of action. She stepped in as CEO. “I had never read a blueprint,” she says. “I had never been on a job site. I had never dealt directly with the union.” It was now Yvonne who was the underdog. With no relevant experience or credibility, she dove into an industry where it was unheard of for a woman to lead. She more than made up for those drawbacks with grit and determination. “I really had to do it,” she says. “I just knew that in order to salvage what we had invested, I would have to get involved. I went back to work the day after I buried my husband because they needed to see I was strong enough to run the company. Out of inner fear, I gained strength.”
She rose at 3:30 every morning and often didn’t come home until 11 o’clock at night. She tried to absorb every aspect of her company, conquering the steep learning curve. She never showed emotion once. She had to tackle it alone. “I just didn’t want to disgrace my husband’s name. He worked so hard.”
Seventeen years later, in 2004, Yvonne Shaheen retired from Long Electric as CEO and president, with the company’s sales up 60 percent from when she took over. The company was the largest woman-owned electrical contractor in the state. The underdog had come out on top.
‘I want to make sure I have given my all’
Meanwhile, her husband’s passing had left a void on several prominent boards around town. And as had been true in her company, it wasn’t easy earning a seat at the table. “The organizations that my husband was in would not let me in,” she recalls. “I talked to the president of the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce at the time and he said, ‘You have to earn your right; you may not be in business after a year.’ When he came back to me two years later and asked me to serve on the board, I almost said ‘No,’” she adds with a wily smile. But she did join, and joined countless others. At first, membership around town was just good business, especially for a woman trying to make it, but it soon became a passion for her city.
The lengthy list of her involvements includes board work with the Community Hospital Network, Central Indiana Corporate Partnership, Arts Council of Indianapolis, WFYI Public Broadcasting Co., Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and the University of Indianapolis. “I feel time is precious, and I want to make sure I have given my all to make something better,” she says. She still works 40 hours a week via her many philanthropic activities, and she is demanding in her leadership roles, ensuring that each organization moves forward in a way that is about good business. Her hands-on approach to philanthropy has made her the ultimate cultivator for nonprofit organizations in Indianapolis. She cites her 20 years of work with the Children’s Museum as a point of pride (several dinosaurs on display are named for members of her family). But her work on behalf of the arts in Indianapolis is legendary. Simply put, without the Shaheen legacy, the arts in central Indiana would be years behind their current state.
Her work with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra animates her, for example. A music minor in college, she played piano, sang in a barbershop quartet, and marched in the high school band. She even trumpeted reveille for a Boy Scout troop as a youth. “Nonprofit arts organizations cannot survive without ‘angels,’” says Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra CEO Gary Ginstling. “For us, Yvonne Shaheen has been our angel. Thanks to her generosity, dedication, fortitude, and perseverance, the ISO has been transformed and faces a bright future.”
Shaheen despises frills, fluff, and excessive spending (extravagant floral centerpieces at fundraisers seem to strike a nerve), yet she would love to see the city put more money into the arts. The ISO has made budget for two years, she’s quick to point out, but notes that other cities are supporting their arts organizations with greater civic participation. “I’d like to see Indianapolis do well. I think there is a lot of talent in this town and I’d like to be able to give them the opportunity to show people what they can do.”
It’s fair to say that Shaheen views the University of Indianapolis as an underdog too. She beams at the number of “16-letter-last-name” students she saw walk across the UIndy stage at Commencement, a sign of the diversity she cherishes at the institution. Such diversity includes students Harleen Athwal ’15, whose family moved to the city’s south side from India. When she went on to UIndy’s College of Arts & Sciences, Harleen’s participation in two immersive research projects helped her stand out in a crowd: she parlayed that success into admission to the highly competitive joint PhD/DDS program at the University of Michigan.
Intrigued by the success of such students, and by the community commitment inherent in the University’s Vision 2030 strategic plan, Shaheen has made the largest single gift in UIndy history. In recognition of her generosity, the University announced the newly named Riad and Yvonne Shaheen College of Arts & Sciences.
‘I am always for the underdog’
The gift that created the Shaheen College of Arts & Sciences will support a broad range of programs and activities: scholarships, faculty development, interdisciplinary initiatives, and opportunities for faculty and students to collaborate on research. It also will bring important national and international figures to campus for lectures, performances, and other events. “If you ask employers what they want employees to do,” says Jennifer Drake, dean of the newly endowed college, “what they list off are all of the learning objectives that are embedded in arts and sciences major. This gift, in the context of those findings, is a real assertion of the value of a liberal arts education.”
Shaheen hopes that the realization of those objectives will lead to a vibrant partnership between University and city that improves both. “I’d like to have those students exposed to CEOs not just in the Midwest, but in every corner of the country,” Shaheen says. “Let them hear what those CEOs expect from them so that their companies can flourish, and see how these students can be an asset. If the students can get a profile of what these companies are doing, perhaps they can see how something they are studying can be of help.” Students at UIndy, Drake adds, are already learning in student organizations that provide tangible services to the Indianapolis community. The endowment will not only enhance those programs but also provide a broad-based education to all students on an even grander scale. In an ever-competitive educational space, the possibilities are endless.
“One of the dangers of thinking of higher education as a trade school,” Drake says, “is that liberal arts will become only the privilege of the elite. It is very powerful to have a university like UIndy, which serves a population including many first-generation students, making liberal arts and sciences an essential part of every student’s education. It is transformative.” Such students reflect the work ethic of Yvonne Shaheen and the determination of her late husband, Riad. They might even be described as underdogs with a chance to succeed at an even higher level and change the world for the better. “I’m hoping some of these students will come back and teach what they learned and tell us where we are not hitting the right buttons to make us successful,” Shaheen says. She’s investing, in many ways, in the next generation of herself.
Yvonne Shaheen quickly shoots down the notion that she is a trailblazer. She is, however, the underdog who won on many levels. She tries to mentor young female professionals, largely because of the void of mentors she encountered while rising to professional prominence. She never forgets. “I am always for the underdog. If they have talent and can’t get anywhere, I want to help them, but they have to show some initiative,” she adds. In her role as a curator of the city, her focused passion keeps Indianapolis, its arts, and, now, its namesake university on track for a greater future.
Always a fighter, Shaheen is ever mindful of those around her who need a boost. It was she who overcame the odds to be one of the city’s most powerful women over the past quarter century. Thirty-six stories above Indianapolis, the windows offer a panoramic view of a city that has felt her touch in every conceivable way. Entering her eighth decade, does she plan on slowing down?
“I hope not. I seem to have a lot of energy and it keeps me going.”
For a long time, we hope. —Will Haskett
At the May 2015 Commencement ceremonies, President Manuel announced a $5-million gift to the University from longtime trustee Yvonne Shaheen. The College of Arts & Sciences is being named in honor of Yvonne and her late husband, Riad.