Women’s Month Special: Angelica Berrie’s Life and Works

by Mary Lou Cunanan

Angelica Berrie | Contributed Photo

Philanthropist, social entrepreneur, “accidental activist” – Filipino-American Angelica Berrie has lived an extraordinary life. From ousting an infamous dictator by bravely participating in the People Power Revolution to living out an epic love story that can only be found in the movies, Angelica proves that with grit, compassion, and authenticity, life can be quite an adventure.

Angelica Berrie (neé Urra) was born in Cebu and grew up in Bacolod, the capital city of the province of Negros Occidental in the Philippines. A natural entrepreneur, Angelica built a modest manufacturing business out of crafting and exporting Filipino papier-mâché art. In the early 90s, she met and married Russ Berrie, a New Jersey sales entrepreneur who made teddy bears and trolls and consequently moved to New Jersey. Since then, the two worked together in building up a multimillion-dollar global company. Angelica became Vice-Chair and CEO of Russ Berrie and Co., a public company on the NYSE company after his death in 2002. The company made the 2001 Forbes List of the Best Small Companies and an equally massive charitable foundation for the next decade. Today, Angelica is the Russell Berrie Foundation president, which supports advances in medicine, humanism, and nanotechnology, promotes religious understanding through research and education and seeks to recognize unsung heroes in society.

As an entrepreneur and a proud Filipina, I couldn’t wait to talk to Angelica about philanthropy, passion, and the Philippines.

MLC: What are the causes you are most passionate about? 

AB: I converted to Judaism after my husband died and developed a passion for Israel as a place where interfaith and innovation intersects. 

It is a complex, intense and diverse laboratory for the philanthropic investments of the Russell Berrie Foundation. 

We established the Russ Berrie Nanotechnology Center at the Technion University, which developed a nano-Bible the size of a granule of sugar as a gift of the Jewish people to Pope Benedict on his first official visit to Israel. That was a moment when my Catholic past and Jewish identity intersected! 

Interfaith work is also a passion for me as my husband and I were an intermarried couple. Bridging our faiths with a Fellowship program in Rome, the Pope John Paul II Center for Inter-Religious Studies at the Angelicum in Rome (Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas). We now have over a hundred Fellows from 33 countries. The program was created with the idea that leadership in interfaith dialogue is a legacy for building a better world. 

MLC: Is there a moment or memory that stands out for you that is tied to your Filipino identity?

AB: When Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, my Filipino roots and my Jewish identity came together. I described this moment in an Op-Ed piece I wrote for the Jewish Standard: “Global Tikkun Olam: What it means to be a Jew and a Filipino in the wake of Haiyan.”

My sense of belonging to the Jewish people did not come at the expense of my own roots in the Philippines. 

Throughout the twenty-two years I have lived in the United States, I developed a relationship with Israel but never had to think about whether I felt the same about the Philippines. I took it for granted. Typhoon Haiyan changed all that. Haiyan allowed me to add my Israeli relationships, disaster relief experts to the Philippines through a global Jewish humanitarian organization. 

MLC: What do you think is your greatest contribution so far?

AB: Launching the Negros Season of Culture, a digital platform to promote arts and culture, is a very personal tribute to my cultural identity and heritage. It honors my roots and enables our cultural heroes to lift their visibility in this pandemic time. It is a long-term investment for tourism and will generate economic development in the region. I want to brand Negros globally as a source of cultural creativity and innovation. 

Website: https://www.negrosseasonofculture.com/ 

MLC: What was the biggest challenge you’ve faced?

AB: Losing my husband at the age of 47 was an experience that forced me to grow. Widowhood is a journey of transformation. As a woman alone, there were many life lessons I learned along the way. 

MLC: What inspires you?

AB: Meditation and walking are spiritual practices that keep me open and ready to receive blessings from the universe. 

MLC: What makes you proud as a Filipino?

AB: The human capacity for resilience. No matter how poor Filipinos might be in material things, we have the biggest hearts and a positive attitude.

MLC: What Filipino values do you think the world needs to know about?

AB: Our generosity of spirit, the spirit of hospitality that is part of our traditional values.

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I have had the great privilege of working with Angelica Berrie on a few projects, and each time, she has treated everyone around her with great humility and respect. She asks intelligent questions, and she always focuses on the bigger picture. “What are you trying to achieve, Mary Lou? What are your goals? What are your plans?” She responds very fast and delivers as well. Everyone wants her attention, yet her laser focus and discipline allow her to execute what she needs to deliver, which is incredibly rare, especially for someone at her level. She exemplifies excellence, and this has a domino effect around her – you want to step up your game as well because she does. 

“To be a woman who leads and who wants to be a leader today in a world filled with complexities requires fearlessness. Fearlessness is a state of mind to be cultivated by enlightened leaders so they can bridge differences within communities and around the world.”

Angelica Berrie at the 2016 FWN Summit

Want to learn more about the Philippines? Check out www.suyomano.comSuyomano is a Filipino virtual platform focused on cultural learning experiences touching from local languages, ancient scriptwriting, indigenous tribal cultures and medicine, Philippine mythology, traditional martial arts and beyond. We believe that bringing forth the best of Filipino cultural heritage will spark a global movement that will connect people around the world through cultural understanding.


(The Philippine Daily Mirror welcomes Mary Lou Cunanan as a regular columnist. Mary Lou is a writer, world traveler, and a Filipina who is very proud of her identity, whose life mission is always searching for covering stories of amazing Filipinos, events, organizations, and businesses globally to celebrate and champion what makes Filipinos amazing wherever they may be.)

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