Commonwealth Club CEO Gloria Duffy Has Built a Career Out of Showcasing Viewpoints

By Pati Navalta Poblete | November 27, 2019 | People Feature Politics Profiles News and Features Features

After an accomplished government career, Commonwealth Club CEO Gloria Duffy has found her calling as an expert conversation starter.

Illo_cropped_CW_Club_SANF_CR_Nathan_Daniels_yellow_2blue_HIGHRES(PE).jpgCommonwealth Club CEO Gloria Duffy has interviewed Gov. Gavin Newsom, the mayor at the time; former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; former Gov. Jerry Brown and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Gloria Duffy looks out from the rooftop of the Commonwealth Club of California, intrigued by a fireboat she spots on the bay. “I wonder what they’re celebrating,” she says. “Usually they only come out on a holiday or to celebrate something. They came out for our grand opening. There were two fireboats.”

This is the closest to boasting Duffy comes to, though she has plenty of fodder with which to work. Under her leadership, the club was able to secure this new state-of-the art building, located on prime real estate along The Embarcadero. Depending on where you’re standing, you can take in and appreciate a different view—a symbolic feature on which Duffy cleverly capitalized. Right now, she is looking out at the fireboat from the Taube Family Viewpoint. Yes, a sponsored view, which is clearly marked along the wood and glass ledge as people gather to the scenic spot.

This is what Duffy does. Since 1996, the CEO and president has been finding ways to keep the century-old institution innovative, exciting and ever-relevant. This $5.5 million building, which opened its doors in 2017, is a prime example of that.

“With this,” she says, pointing to the sponsor label, “we were looking for something unique for our donors. This was actually my idea because the club is all about viewpoints, and, here, we have literally a viewpoint.”

The reputable organization has provided a community platform for public opinion since it was founded in 1903. In addition to its regular and diverse panels, it produces a podcast, radio show, magazine, website, events and other content-driven activities. Perhaps just as reputable and impressive as the institution are its CEO’s credentials.

20141016_RITGER_Penetta_121.jpgCommonwealth Club CEO Gloria Duffy interviews former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

The mild-mannered 66-year-old has had security clearance from the federal government since she was just 23 years old, having worked with the the U.S. Department of Energy, Air Force and Department of Defense. The bulk of her career in government was focused on international security.

“This is an agreement I had negotiated in Ukraine,” she says, pointing to a framed photograph in her office, “and that’s an SS-17 missile. I had negotiated this agreement. My boss was on some kind of a celebration tour for what we had gotten done with dismantling the nuclear weapons. Bill Perry was secretary of defense, and here I am saying, ‘Sign here,’” she laughs, as if she were pointing at an ordinary photo of an ordinary memory.

But, in fact, there’s nothing ordinary about Duffy. As the deputy assistant secretary of defense under Defense Secretaries Les Aspin and William Perry, and Assistant Secretary Ashton Carter, she was responsible for negotiating the dismantlement of nuclear weapons in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. According to reports, she completed more than 50 agreements with these countries for dismantling and disposing of their weapons of mass destruction, managing a $400 million annual budget in the process, and was honored with the Secretary of Defense Award for Outstanding Public Service in 1995. She traveled to Ukraine 17 times while negotiating the agreement.

The Commonwealth Club may seem like an unlikely destination given Duffy’s career path, but she says it was a natural fit. “I’ve always been interested in community affairs since I was young,” says Duffy, whose diverse background also includes cattle ranching. “I was very involved in Lafayette, where I grew up. I co-founded the Youth Services Commission there. I’ve always been interested in a wide variety of social issues and became very interested in the armed race and the Cold War. When I came back from Washington, I was contacted by a board member of the Commonwealth Club and told they were looking for a CEO.”

Duffy then met and spoke with the board members and search committee. It was 1995, and, at the time, she had already co-founded the World Forum of Silicon Valley, a public affairs education group. “I started to think of a long list of things the Commonwealth Club needed to do,” she says. “They didn’t have a website; they weren’t involved in Silicon Valley. There were fairly obvious things the club could do to be up to date and be of more service to the community. It needed to modernize. I had ideas; the board had ideas; so it clicked.”

Today, Duffy is happy giving a tour of the club’s new 30,000-square-foot home base, made possible by an impressive list of donors. She navigates and narrates each floor, each room, each feature as if they are priceless works of art in a gallery—and, in a sense, they are. Everything has been designed with the sole purpose of providing a platform, elevating voices and exchanging ideas, from the Copper Loop hearing technology in each meeting room to help people with hearing aids to the Meyer Sound Constellation system throughout the building to the theater lighting to the rooftop area designed for socializing and networking. This is the house that public opinion built.

“This is the sound studio in there,” says Duffy, pointing to a room located behind the main forum stage. I used to record voice-overs for our radio show in a closet with foam glued to the walls,” she laughs. “It was a makeshift studio, and that’s how it was since 1924. Now we have places designed to specifically do things like that.”

Though Duffy has made countless relationships with high-profile people over the years, she is very selective about which panels she moderates, leaving the bulk of forums to be moderated by journalists and experts on the given topics. On May 29, she interviewed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, her longtime friend, before a sold-out crowd.

In a not-so-subtle reference to Pelosi’s age, Duffy asked what she thinks about the debate over Sen. Dianne Feinstein and whether she should retire.

Pelosi paused, turned to the audience and said: “Do I consider this a rude question? Coming from anyone else but Gloria...” The crowd erupted in laughter.

Anyone else but Gloria, and there might not have been fireboats at all.

Photography by: Illustration by Nathan Daniels; photo by Ed Ritger