Amy Dornbusch’s road to the V Foundation reflects her passion for human connection and unending quest for a legacy of change.
Amy Dornbusch is the chairwoman of the V Foundation Wine Celebration.
Meeting Amy Dornbusch (amymarksdornbusch.com) is like encountering a happy tornado of ideas. Every minute of her day is parsed for meaning and squeezed for impact. One of the first things she says to me is that she’ll sleep when she dies. She says it in a way—a wry smile, leaning forward for effect—that feels like she’s the first person who has ever uttered the phrase.
“I want to live my life fully and deeply. I’ve always had this frenetic energy,” says Dornbusch, the V Foundation’s Wine Celebration chairwoman. The event raised a record $21 million during its 25th anniversary in Napa last summer. The V Foundation (v.org) honors legendary basketball coach Jim Volvano; it has received 11 consecutive four-star ratings (out of four) from Charity Navigator, a leading charity evaluator, placing the organization among the top 2% of charities evaluated. Dornbusch has served on its board for eight years. “I want to be involved with organizations, professionally and personally, with renaissance people who are proficient and curious,” she says.
Dornbusch, who grew up in Los Altos Hills and attended Palo Alto grade schools, attended boarding school in Western Massachusetts and college at George Washington University in DC. She launched a New York specialty food service business, served as a consultant for Fortune 500 companies and owned and ran Gemstone Vineyard (gemstonevineyard.com). The entrepreneur currently runs a consumer venture fund and oversees her family’s foundation. She and her husband have three children under 7 and recently moved to Tahoe for a year. “I take a lot of calls while I’m on hikes,” she says, laughing. “I also need to be in the water daily—and that means jumping into the chilly lake.”
Lake-jumping and aphorisms aside (“Life is short—buy the shoes,” she says), Dornbusch is serious about philanthropy. “Donating time and money is a critical catalyst for change and a way of life. Fred Rogers said the hardest assignment you’ll ever have is to try to make goodness attractive,” she says. “That’s what we’re doing with the annual Wine Celebration. We’re living our best lives, which allows us to give back. Our guests might not remember what was said, what song they danced to, what appetizer they ate or what data point they learned. But they’ll remember how they felt. We laugh, we think, and we cry. It’s the ultimate expression of Jimmy V’s legacy.”
Dornbusch tells a story about the death of a family friend several years ago. He was 21. “His family members went into his room to pack his things and found a Post-it note that he had placed above his computer. All it said was, ‘Be Kind, Show Up and Try.’ I probably think about those words every single day. They apply to my work with the V Foundation. I don’t want cancer to be my generation’s legacy after we’re gone. I want our legacy to be about creating change and finding cures.”
Philanthropists love the V Foundation’s simple approach (100% of direct donations go to cancer research, with an endowment covering administrative costs) but admire its innovative flair for funding science.
“As a venture investor, I appreciate that the V Foundation is risktolerant,” says Dornbusch. “The greater the risks, the greater the rewards. Want to talk about catalytic investment? Every researcher that the V Foundation has funded—either individually, in their lab or as part of research teams—went on to secure $18 billion from other sources during their career. There’s no doubt we’re a big part of why the cancer death rates have fallen 30% since Jimmy V gave his speech [in 1993].”
One of the V Foundation’s grantee’s early work eventually evolved into developing Keytruda, a leading cancer drug. “This past summer, my family discovered that my mom’s advanced stage uterine cancer had returned one week before the Wine Celebration, and she started on Keytruda a few weeks later,” says Dornbusch. “I’m happy to report that she’s tolerating it extremely well with minimal side effects—the results look promising. It’s a full-circle moment for me. What we’re doing is working. We invest in up-and-coming researchers with new ideas, and we never know which one will be a star with a life-saving solution.”
The Foundation-supported research teams don’t toil in obscurity. They’re stars in their own right. “We have this incredible scientific advisory committee that ultimately selects where the greatest opportunities and researchers are,” says Dornbusch. “These brilliant cancer researchers also all come to the Wine Celebration, so all of our donors have an opportunity to sit at their table and meet with the greatest minds at the forefront of their particular area of oncology.”
Dornbusch oversees her family's foundation, which supports a range of great causes, especially music and the arts.
Each morning, Dorbusch says she wakes up early and begins planning everything and anything. “I walk into the kitchen distracted, and my husband and kids always make fun of me since these ideas are churning so early in the day. I’m already planning my next launch, a new nonprofit or whatever will be challenging and fun. They look at me and say, ‘Oh boy, stand clear. She’s working on Mommy Projects,’” she laughs.
One of those projects came to fruition last summer during the Wine Celebration, which always runs from Wednesday through Sunday. Dornbusch’s family foundation supports many causes, especially those in music and the arts. “We do a lot of work with musicians, including Project Music Heals Us (pmhu.org), founded by a resident musician of the Juilliard string quartet who brings music to disenfranchised populations. They play and teach music in refugee camps and prisons. They even perform in hospitals,” she says.
For a Saturday event before the Wine Celebration Gala, Dornbusch had an idea. Why not allow her worlds to collide? “We brought in the founder of Project Music Heals, and he told stories about how music has changed people’s lives and affects the healing process,” she says. “The group specifically works with patients in cancer wards. A neuroscientist, who was also an opera singer, moderated the session. He explained what music does to us physiologically. During the presentation, we heard beautiful music. Moving quotes from patients, nurses and doctors were projected onto a large screen. It was so powerful. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.”
Early in our conversation, I ask Dornbusch about the best career advice she ever received. “It was human advice: Be a good person,” she says. “Relationships are at the core of everything I do. My work with the V Foundation is perfect. It’s the intersection of all of the experiences that I’ve ever had.” It wouldn’t be a stretch to think another Dorbusch edict—end the day with a glass of wine—plays a part in her enduring spirit and endless brainstorming. After all, it might be the only time this dynamo sits still in 24 precious hours. V Foundation Wine Celebration, Aug. 1-4, Napa Valley, winecelebration.org
Photography by: TRACY EASTON; STYLED BY THERESA PALMER, A PALMER IN CALIFORNIA