Edie Shapira grew up in a Squirrel Hill home where social justice, racial equality and poverty were topics of the daily conversation.
Her father, Saul Shapira, ran the Giant Eagle grocery chain. Her mother, Frieda Shapira, whose father had co-founded the supermarket business, made her own mark as a board member and advocate for numerous organizations that focused on civic issues, human services and education.
So it was fitting that when Mrs. Shapira died at age 89 in 2003, her daughter -- a psychiatrist -- should succeed her on the board of The Pittsburgh Foundation -- Frieda Shapira's favorite philanthropy.
Last month, Dr. Shapira, 59, assumed the post of board chair and became the first female leader of the foundation's board since its creation in 1945.
Not that her mother couldn't have handled the assignment. Though Mrs. Shapira served 18 years, or six terms, on the board, she never held the top seat in the board room.
"Frieda was a giant. It's hard today to imagine someone like that not being chair," said Grant Oliphant, president and chief executive of the foundation, which has more than $800 million in assets and distributed roughly $35 million last year including grants to nonprofits and scholarships.
When Mrs. Shapira joined the foundation board in 1984, women were still largely absent from executive positions at Pittsburgh corporations. Only a few years earlier, they had gained membership status at the Duquesne Club, a longtime power center for the city's business and political deal makers.
"It was a different time," said Edie Shapira. "I'm sure she didn't feel deprived or resentful. She always spoke with admiration of the leaders here and never expressed desire for another role here."
Even now, women at nonprofits lag in earnings and hold a minority of board seats.
A 2012 study by BoardSource, a Washington, D.C., consulting organization, showed that of 1,341 nonprofits surveyed, women held 45 percent of board seats. At the largest nonprofits with budgets exceeding $10 million, women held only 37 percent.
With Dr. Shapira's election as board chair at The Pittsburgh Foundation, women hold five of 19, or 26 percent, of that organization's total board seats.
Another prominent Pittsburgh-based foundation with a female chair is The Heinz Endowments, headed by Teresa Heinz Kerry.
Frieda Shapira wielded considerable influence at The Pittsburgh Foundation as chair of the program and policy grant-making committee -- the group that recommends where to allocate millions of dollars of foundation funds.
"That was where she was really interested," her daughter said. "She brought home the thick program books and read them cover to cover."
Now her daughter will take up the task of overseeing the decisions about where those dollars go. She served nine years on the board after her mother died and, during a year off, remained a nontrustee member of the program and policy committee.
"What I love about this organization and what my mother loved is that we have generations of Pittsburghers entrusting the philanthropic resources here," Dr. Shapira said during a recent interview at the foundation's offices in PPG Place, Downtown.
"They leave us with the job of -- through our program officers -- always learning what's going on in Pittsburgh and how to support the gaps in the safety net and address them. And where there's no program, the foundation looks to devise new programs.
"The model of a community foundation seems perfectly suited to let people know that someone is looking out for Pittsburgh."
In the latest ranking by the Foundation Center, a New York-based organization that compiles research and data on philanthropy, The Pittsburgh Foundation was the 13th-largest community foundation in the U.S. and 77th-largest foundation overall. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation topped the list of all foundations with assets of $37.4 billion, while the largest community foundation was the Tulsa Community Foundation with assets of $4 billion.
Among all the programs and organizations funded by the foundation, Dr. Shapira held up The Pittsburgh Promise -- a nonprofit that works to improve the city's public schools and offers up to $40,000 in college scholarships to city school students -- as one she believes has enormous potential.
"For the foundation to be squarely behind our public schools and our superintendent ... and what it can do for the wider community, the Promise has more of a chance. I love [Promise executive director] Saleem Ghubril's leadership there."
Dr. Shapira is on the Promise board and also serves on the boards of Riverlife, the Board of Visitors of the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work, the Allegheny County Board of Health, and Pitt's Institute of Politics Shale Gas Round Table.
Though Frieda and Saul Shapira instilled in their children a strong awareness of societal problems and their duty to address them, their daughter admitted she wasn't happy when her mother began taking a more active role in work outside the home in the mid-1960s, starting with her appointment as chair of the National Council of Jewish Women's Pittsburgh section.
"I was 11 years old and the youngest with three older brothers. [The boys] were older and not competing for her time. I was jealous. She had been home for a lot of years."
But once Dr. Shapira became a teen and gained insight into her mother's work -- including helping to lay the groundwork for a Head Start program in the city schools and forging partnerships between the Jewish women's council, civic groups, African-American organizations and local foundations -- "I figured out what she was doing and then I was proud of her. I could really celebrate."
Dr. Shapira earned her undergraduate degree at Oberlin College, a medical degree from Pitt and completed her residency training at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. She and her husband, Mark Schmidhofer, a cardiologist at UPMC Presbyterian, have three children.
She began a private practice in 1991 and maintains a part-time schedule "purposefully for balance and to do the nonprofit activities I enjoy so much."
While growing up, she recalls being engaged in conversations about the family business with her grandfather, her father and her brother, David Shapira, who is now chairman of Giant Eagle. But Dr. Shapira didn't aspire to a career there. "I always wanted to be a doctor."
As chair of the foundation, Dr. Shapira said she doesn't come with her own agenda.
"I'm here to support Grant and his staff and to work with our board. It's not my job to lead them, because they are all leaders. But it's to help get them as excited about our mission and what we're involved in as I am. I'm the luckiest kid on the block."
Joyce Gannon: email@example.com or 412-263-1580. First Published February 3, 2013 5:00 AM