Ellen Robinson Rolfes


for a woman who seized the
opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:

Ellen Robinson Rolfes

In the Mississippi Delta in the 1950s, a sickly girl, bed-ridden by serious asthma, made up stories about her dolls, a little woman and man and their little table and tiny cooking pots.

Years later, now a Junior League of Memphis leader working on the charity’s cookbook in the 1980s, she hears potential in not only the recipe ingredients but the richness of stories shared around the meal. From those domestic voices Ellen Robinson Rolfes launched a national consultancy in cookbook publishing and a career that has carried her into prominence as an entrepreneur, philanthropy strategist and innovator.

Ellen’s national seminar business in the late 1980’s taught more than 3,000 women how to publish a community cookbook, generating millions of dollars for their hometowns. Dr. Dorothy Height, the legendary activist and leader of the National Council of Negro Women, became her mentor after they met around cookbook projects in the 1990’s including The Black Family Reunion and Mother Africa’s Table. Deeply inspired by Dr. Height, Ellen’s philanthropic projects would be characterized by intentional inclusion of women from diverse geographic, economic and racial backgrounds who come together to embrace a shared vision.

As the Internet provided instant access to any recipe, Ellen pivoted her fundraising talents toward women and “the feminine face of philanthropy.” Ellen reinvented herself as a philanthropy strategist who has worked with academic and healthcare institutions, nonprofits in social service and the arts.

In 2000, she brought the idea of a women’s council to the female vice chancellor of the University of Mississippi in Oxford where, Ellen said, “the culture was male dominated and its philanthropy silently patriarchal. There was no awareness that 54% of the wealth in the country had quietly shifted to women. . . They were losing half their money.”

Ellen contacted Ole Miss alumnae Edith Kelly-Green (who happens to be the 1993 Woman of Achievement for Initiative) to chair the new council. And so it began.

At first some of the folks at the university called the 25 women “the Council of Ole Misses.”

Not anymore. The Ole Miss Women’s Council for Philanthropy is responsible for 187 scholarships and an endowment of $23 million so far. On its 20th anniversary the Council established the Ellen Rolfes Rose Garden Endowment to support their leadership-mentorship program. Kelly-Green said, “(I)t was Ellen who had the vision…It was her enthusiasm and energy that made the other 23 inaugural board members commit to an idea that has made such an impact on this university.”

In 2010 the Memphis Symphony was greeting its first female music director Mei Ann Chen. As a consultant to the Symphony, Ellen could see that the orchestra needed new faces and new money. She contacted three well-known philanthropic women and asked each for $1,000. With that $3,000 she founded the Mei Ann Circle of Friends, a women’s philanthropy initiative that fosters intentional inclusion as well as a Musician Fellowship Program for Latinx and African American graduate students.

The Circle of Friends continued after Mei Ann Chen departed Memphis and today has 100 active members, 45% of them women of color. The Circle has brought more than $1 million to the operations budget as well as first time subscribers and patrons who had never been to a classical concert. Just last year Ellen pushed the Circle to establish the annual Eddy Award to salute a community member who has made a transformative contribution to enhancing cultural awareness in the arts through music.

Ellen is a founding member and past president of the Society of Entrepreneurs and former executive director of the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis and Memphis’s ACE Awareness Foundation. As a book packager she produced 17 titles in trade publishing identified as “An Ellen Rolfes Book.” As a consultant with Baptist Women’s Hospital, she led a partnership with the Women’s Foundation in creating the Hall of Legends, a permanent exhibition of the Foundation’s Legends Awards art collection celebrating extraordinary local women.

Women of Achievement has rarely had an honoree as deserving of our plate as Ellen Rolfes whose early work unearthed the power of the plate, the dinner table, the meal and the ways those have historically given voice to women’s creativity and contributions to community life. Ellen’s initiative has made her life endlessly interesting and her community forever better.