NJPAC Spotlight Gala co-chairs look to add their startup spirit to the institution’s largest funding arm

The New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s Women’s Association will hold their annual Spotlight Gala tomorrow evening. The event will honor the much-awarded composer Stephen Sondheim, and will feature performances by Tony Award winners and nominees including Judy Kuhn, James Monroe Iglehart, Vanessa Williams and Tony Yazbeck.

But the black tie affair isn’t just about the performances. The event ultimately helps to fund NJPAC’s operations, including its community priorities, most notably arts education. Here, we profile the two co-chairs of the Spotlight Gala about what they’ve learned throughout their careers, and how they hope to imbue the Women’s Association and the event with some of their startup spirit.

Tenagne Jeffries

tenagne jeffriesTenagne Jeffries is the chair of the Women’s Association in addition to being co-chair of the gala. Many Newarkers will recognize her name from the 2014 mayoral campaign: Tenagne and candidate Shavar Jeffries are married, and she played a critical role during his run.

She’s now the founder and CEO of Newark-based development firm The Cultivation Group, but Jeffries began her career in the marketing world, where she racked up experience at an impressive set of firms, including Ogilvy and Mather and Grey Worldwide. It was in the course of creating entrepreneurial initiatives at mainstay companies that Jeffries gleaned some wisdom about making an impact at an established institution, knowledge she ported over to her role at NJPAC, and with events like the gala.

“Learning is an ongoing practice,” she told me. “You can’t just think you’re going to graduate and not have to invest in yourself further, whether it’s going to graduate school, doing certificates, or just being intentional about your experiences. You have to be aggressive in order to stay on top of how your field is evolving.

“I think to myself, ‘Where is the white space where I can add value? You get hired for your mastery, but you take it to the next level by adding value. I had to embrace what made me unique,” she said.

It’s that ethos that she’s bringing to NJPAC’s Women’s Association, an organization whose goal is to support the broader mission of NJPAC through its fundraising and programming.  The Spotlight Gala is a marquee event organized by the association. “The question is what can we do to make sure it’s engaging to everybody, and how do we make it new?” said Jeffries of her approach to this year’s event. “We decided having a diverse group of performers is really great, so they can resonate with the [association’s] different audiences and constituencies.”

In addition to chairing the Women’s Association, Jeffries is busy building The Cultivation Group, a community-minded real estate development firm focused on building in Newark using homegrown resources, and thus circulating dollars many times over within the city. She sought a project in a historical area, used community-based financing and a construction partnership with YouthBuild Newark to develop it, and will be mindful about bringing community-enhancing commercial tenants into the development.

Back at the Women’s Association, her goal is to continue diversifying the ranks of women who care about the arts, arts education, and networking with each other. “The Women’s Association has so many different types of trustees and members, but they all share a similar value of caring about our objectives, and [for] New Jersey,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity for people to congregate around shared values. No matter what age you are, it’s a great way to connect.”

Robin Cruz

robin cruz mclearnJeffries is chairing the Spotlight Gala alongside Robin Cruz, an attorney and entrepreneur whose family has a history in Newark, and who came into the NJPAC fold when a friend invited her to a Women’s Association luncheon. The experience opened her up to a channel through which she could round out both her network and her non-work activities.

“I find myself being faced with all kinds of challenges having been working for 25 years, and thought I’d be settled into a routine,” said Cruz, who founded advisory firm East Avenue Advisors, LLC in 2013. “You always have to say ‘yes’ to opportunities when they’re presented to you. I always enjoy it when I take on something new, because one opportunity leads to the next.”

A key opportunity in that vein was to become involved with philanthropy, something she did by first joining the Women’s Association as a trustee back in 2008. “I wasn’t sure what to expect because I’m used to being in charge, but taking on something like chair of an event has led me to meet these wonderful people who are so appreciative and supportive,” she said.

Cruz said she particularly welcomes the opportunity to work with so many women, a demographic that is underrepresented in the legal world. “My female networks are so important, and I’d never give them up. They came from my philanthropy work,” she said.

Also like Jeffries, Cruz is a woman who launches things. Along with her father and brother, she started the Cruz Family Foundation, after the trio sold a previous company and saw an opportunity to “put some money to work and find a way to make an impact,” said Cruz.

The Cruz family launched the small foundation in order to create educational opportunities for children. They set up a special gift to the Trust for Public Land, which creates playgrounds and parks throughout Newark. The foundation has also created scholarships to help students attend Westover School in Connecticut — an effort to help level the playing field for deserving children and families who lack the resources to fully fund a private education. It’s the school that Cruz and her daughter have both attended.

In addition to midwifing her into philanthropy, Cruz touted the relationships engendered by her experience with NJPAC. “It is amazing to be a part of a community like this; we generally lose that ability as we get older. This is a community where everyone has this purpose and these interests, but all come from different experience levels and completely different perspectives. It’s different when it’s not your job and you don’t have to be here.”

Of the gala, which she has been working all year with Jeffries to organize, Cruz agreed that it will hit its objective if it brings younger people into the fold. “I’m hoping that this year has a fresh and young feeling to it. The choice of decor, the food, the colors, and everything else we chose deliberately has a fresh, new palette,” she said. “We have to make this popular for younger people. We have so many members who have been involved for 20 years and contributed so much. So we have to bring those younger members up, and that means making this a fun, exciting event for everyone.”


The Spotlight Gala takes place Saturday, October 3rd at 7 p.m. at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Find out more about the Women’s Association on their website, FacebookTwitter, and Pinterest.