People in your Neighborhood: La Jollan Selwyn Isakow thinks of giving as ‘bestowing kindness’

La Jolla resident Selwyn Isakow

South Africa native and La Jolla resident Selwyn Isakow is known in the financial world as the founder, chairman and chief executive of private equity, real estate and venture investment firm The Oxford Investment Group Inc. But his philanthropic efforts span from supporting cancer research to alleviating poverty in the Jewish community.

Q. What brought you to La Jolla?

A. “After 23 years in Detroit, my wife and I came to a wedding in San Diego over Thanksgiving weekend in 2004. We left Michigan in a bitterly cold, gray, blustery snowstorm and arrived in picture-perfect Southern California chamber of commerce weather. After a couple of days, my wife stood on the corner of Prospect Street and Exchange Place in La Jolla and said, ‘This is where we are moving. Make a plan!’ A couple of years later, I founded a bank in La Jolla and we now live two blocks from that fateful corner!”

Q. Talk about City of Hope. What does it do, what is your role as chairman of the board and why do you feel it is important to support?

A. “City of Hope is dedicated to transforming the future of health by turning science into practical benefit, hope into reality and eliminating cancer and diabetes through compassionate care, innovative research and vital education.

“At every chance, I regale how amazing this organization is. Its leadership, clinicians, scientists, researchers, nurses and support personnel are all world-class. But I believe that the secret sauce that differentiates COH, in a sea of wonderful cancer centers and health care systems, is its corporate culture. A culture of compassionate, caring and collaborative dedication to treating patients, to pursuing cures for cancer and diabetes and to providing a nurturing, supportive and spiritual environment of personal well-being and growth for all who visit and work at COH. COH was recognized as the leading cancer hospital in the western U.S. in 2019 by U.S. News & World Report.”

Q. In what other charitable/philanthropic efforts are you involved?

A. “My most recent philanthropic interests are driven by a study completed at the beginning of this year (pre-COVID), which indicated that more than 20 percent of the Jewish population in San Diego County either live in poverty or on the edge of poverty. This is a largely misunderstood and ignored segment of the huge and diverse spectrum of those in need in San Diego.

“There are two programs I was involved in founding this year: the Kindness Initiative, a coordinated, collaborative program for alleviating poverty in the San Diego Jewish community by meeting basic physical and psychological needs with dignity and kindness through a broad array of service organization collaborations, a large volunteer corps and many innovative solutions; and Hebrew Free Loan of San Diego, whose purpose is to aid and empower members of the San Diego Jewish community by providing interest-free loans with dignity to meet financial challenges or finance opportunities to create or maintain self-sufficiency.”

Q. Where did you get your interest in philanthropy?

A. “The word ‘philanthropy’ doesn’t really adequately express the concept of giving because it heavily implies a financial component.

“I prefer to think of giving as bestowing kindness. It is not just monetary assistance. The essential characteristic is personal involvement and kindness to others. So philanthropy to me is the combination of charity, time and personal kindness toward others. I tend to focus my meaningful giving where I am involved in, and committed to, the cause.

“I am blessed to be in a position where I have the time, energy and resources to assist others. Using David Brooks’ terminology in his book ‘The Road to Character,’ I moved from focusing on ‘resumé virtues’ to ‘eulogy virtues,’ from focusing on physical success to spiritual success. From thinking that financial success was the goal to believing that gratitude led to happiness.

“It probably evolved when I started studying texts on Jewish philosophies and ethics. But maybe it was when I read a Dr. Seuss book to my grandkids [that includes the phrase], ‘Unless someone like you / Cares a whole awful lot / Nothing is going to get better / It’s not!’”

Q. What do you see as the importance of giving, especially during the holidays?

A. “There are so many people in need. There is so much to do. Each of us has a personal, moral and communal responsibility to assist those less fortunate than ourselves. In our tradition, even those in need have an obligation to give to charity.

“I often quote John Ruskin — ‘What we think or what we know or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only consequence is what we do.’ This quote sums up the need for action at a time of traditional giving.”

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