S.F. CEO aims to heal the world, 1 percent at a time

When the League of Women Voters of San Francisco recently named Working Assets chair and CEO Laura Scher one of four local women who could be president of the United States, the plaudit was graciously accepted and firmly declined.

"There's no way on earth that I would want that responsibility," said the casually dressed Scher, laughing and sipping a cup of herbal tea in her downtown San Francisco office.

If she did choose to run for the nation's highest office, Scher could provide a pedigree most Beltway insiders (and a fair share of Jewish mothers ) would be proud of.

The recipient of the Wexner Fellowship — a Wexner Heritage Foundation program designed to enhance Jewish learning — received an undergraduate degree in economics from Yale University, graduated near the top of her class at Harvard Business School and studied international economics at Institute for International Studies in Geneva.

The Tiburon resident, who attends Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael with her husband and two children, grew up in Clifton, N.J., steeped in Jewish traditions. Her parents instilled a strong sense of tikkun olam in their daughter, especially concerning environmentalism, and she carried that activist mentality through college and into her professional life.

She has fashioned a career out of taking risks and sticking her neck out for issues she believes in. In fact, the reluctant politico recently set up the Election Integrity Hotline so her Working Assets customers could voice concern over possible voter fraud in Florida.

After college, she opted to start a company that provides long-distance calling plans, credit cards and Internet services, and whose business ethos was informed by both Wall Street and South America's rain forests. The concept was a tough sell in the "greed is good" heyday of the mid-1980s, and cynics remain nearly 15 years later.

They might wonder, upon seeing the boisterous bonhomie of her downtown office — decorated with posters demanding action on behalf of indigenous peoples, gun control and the environment — "What's the catch?"

To which Scher says simply, "There is none."

"People are going to believe what they want to believe," she continued. "But I wanted to create a company that melded my concern with doing good work with making a profit."

And, to manipulate a theme sounded throughout George W. Bush's presidential campaign, the numbers are far from fuzzy. In 1985, when Scher started the company with two other people, the office consisted of about six people on a shoestring budget. Scher's job description included being the head stamp-licker.

Now in 2000, Scher oversees a company with more than 100 employees, and with revenues exceeding $140 million. Inc. magazine has included Working Assets on its list of fastest-growing privately held companies for the past five years.

In 1999 alone, Working Assets generated nearly $4 million for 50 nonprofit groups. Customers of the organization choose the recipient of 1 percent of their total bill. Past recipients have included groups such as Greenpeace International, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Amnesty International and Planned Parenthood.

Scher noted that donations come from sales, not from profits; therefore, donations are locked in regardless of the company's bottom line.

In 1995, Working Assets founded Flash Action Network, where members are informed of rapidly developing issues central to their concerns. For $3 a month, they get news and phone numbers to connect them with their congressional representatives.

Some of the FAN issues of last year included stories on protecting organic food certification, securing increased government funding for family planning and civil rights enforcement and winning compensation from Daimler Chrysler for slave laborers during World War II.

But perhaps Scher's biggest reward as an activist comes in the form of a placard surrounded by numerous toys.

The award is from Working Mother magazine, which selected her as one of the 25 most influential working moms.

"That one took all of my managerial skills," said Scher, who, despite a vote to the contrary, would turn down the nation's highest honor.