DeRusha Eats with Kim Valentini

Founder of Smile Network International

Jason DeRusha and Kim Valentini at Salut
Photo by Eliesa Johnson

It all started with a list. Kim Valentini was a successful working mom in her 40s when she decided to take stock of her life. The then-director of tourism for the Mall of America took out a piece of paper and wrote “lose 20 pounds,” “travel more,” and “dedicate five hours a week to a volunteer project.” Check, check, and check.

Eleven years later, the fit mom of two grown children has traveled to remote villages the world over with the nonprofit she created kind of by accident. Smile Network International has improved the lives of more than 10,000 impoverished children by repairing cleft lips and palates with a 45-minute surgery that costs just $500.

It’s heartbreaking to see these children born with facial deformities. When I worked for Mall of America, I traveled with then-governor Arne Carlson. I remembered seeing these cleft children. What if I could take my marketing and public relations and operations experience and combine it to put together a tiny little charity?

Random Fact:

Valentini travels with rope, duct tape, and bubble wrap, items that come in handy in remote villages.

Tiny little charity? I had made a list of the things I wanted to accomplish in the next 40 years. I wanted to open an art gallery or retail store. I wanted to pursue my love of photography. The last line item was to commit five hours a week to a service project. It was get a few people and let’s figure out how we can get together once a year to make a difference.

You talk like an oldest child. I’m the eldest of four children. I grew up in a home where my parents were separated and divorced. I never did anything wrong. I never pushed the envelope!

You’ve come so far. I used to wake up feeling like I had come a long way from Fridley, Minnesota. Not that that’s a knock on Fridley, I just felt like I was living someone else’s life. It was very charmed.

Did you feel guilty about that? I didn’t feel guilty. I worked hard for it. But I got to a point where it wasn’t fulfilling. Climbing the corporate ladder, making money for others, that wasn’t enough. I did feel an obligation to pay it back.

What makes someone leave the corporate world and go in a different direction? I was at a point when I wanted the sum total of my life to add up to something more substantive: deeper, richer. It wasn’t about making a mark; it was about making a difference.

And you have, and you’ve gotten some odd gifts. In Peru, I was asked to be a godparent. They were very appreciative, very insistent. At the end of the baptism they gave me a guinea pig and a goat. I kept trying to explain that Delta Air Lines was not going to allow me to bring a live goat on board. I finally convinced them to donate it to an orphanage.

What do your kids think about sharing their mom with these children around the world? Gino is 20. Isabella is 18. They’ve come with me all over the world. The combination of the travel and the service has formed who they are and the career paths they will choose as a result.

How often do you travel? In the last eight or nine weeks I’ve been in nine countries: Ecuador, Haiti, Malawi, Kenya . . .

Do you stay home for vacation? I do. I take the phone off the hook, draw the blinds. I’m still for a few minutes.

Most of us are trying to prove that we have more substance. I wonder if you find yourself trying to prove that you can be fun. [Laughs.] Part of the nature of being in the nonprofit world is that you’re always fundraising. I don’t want my friends to see me walking down the street and duck into an alley because they’re afraid of what I’m going to ask them.

What’s next for Smile Network? We’re at this interesting transition point. Ten years ago, there was a lot of need. Now a lot of organizations are doing this kind of work. What do you do with that? Do we wind things down? Or do we look at evolving? On the heels of this evaluation, we received a $1 million donation.

That doesn’t say wind down. That gift was a clear signal that we’re not done.

Wow. The beauty of our mission statement: We deliver life-altering surgeries to impoverished people around the world. There’s a lot of room in that.

Our Lunch

The Restaurant: Despite the name, Salut is about as authentically French as I am, but it is authentically delicious. We ate there because Salut’s general manager is Zach Saueressig, whose daughter Zayla was born with a cleft lip. One night a year, the restaurant hosts a benefit dinner for Smile Network International. The most recent benefit raised $70,000—enough for 140 surgeries.

What We Ate: Valentini ordered the Duet of Fish, grilled salmon with citrus and sesame-crusted ahi tuna. I had the crab cake sandwich, a panko-crusted blue crab cake served with spicy mayo, and French onion soup.

My Dinner Date: Valentini ended up in the news in 1996 when former Timberwolves guard J.R. Rider was convicted of kicking her at a sports bar. Rider settled a lawsuit.

Jason DeRusha anchors WCCO-TV’s morning and noon news. He also asks some really good questions.