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This Is What An “Innovative Solution” Actually Looks Like, with Laura Atwell

This Is What An “Innovative Solution” Actually Looks Like, with Laura Atwell

Episode 105: This Is What An “Innovative Solution” Actually Looks Like, with Laura Atwell

Laura Atwell is solving two big problems at once. As VP of Development at Team Rubicon, Laura helps military veterans get reintegrated into civilian life by connecting them to disaster relief projects. Laura uses her background in journalism and her fundraising skills to tell Team Rubicon’s powerful story and raise funds that fuel disaster relief missions all over the world. Follow along with our conversation with Laura as she talks about her path to making a difference and what goes into creating an impenetrable, positive work culture.

Episode Transcript

00:12 KW: Hello and welcome to the Ellevate podcast, this is your host, Kristy Wallace, with my co-host, Maricella Herrera. With my co-host, Maricella Herrera. Hey, Maricella, what's going on today?

00:25 Maricella Herrera: You did a double take with my name.

00:27 KW: I did.

00:27 MH: I had to call it out because I think it's funny. [chuckle]

00:32 KW: It's just like speaking too fast. [chuckle] Yeah, how's the going Maricella?

00:37 MH: It's going great. I'm doing well. All is good.

00:42 KW: You're wearing your lovely heart shirt today.

00:44 MH: I'm feeling all it feels. I don't... I don't know, it's pretty and red and colorful and I can't do more black. And why not? [chuckle]

00:53 KW: Are you very visual? Do you do certain things, if it's like a pattern or a shape or is a picture, does it make you happy?

01:02 MH: Yes. Especially colors and silly pictures, cats. I do, they do. And to be honest, that's how a lot of what I wear comes about. I tend to go with all out colors and yellow pants and yellow shoes and it just makes a big difference in how I feel, depending on what I have on myself.

01:27 KW: Yeah. I don't know, I know nothing about the statistical relevance of that, but how many people are visual, versus some other trigger for happiness or for emotion? But I'm very visual, too, so I appreciate that. So looking at your shirt today, it's making me happy.

01:45 MH: Good.

01:45 KW: So who's our guest today?

01:46 MH: I am so excited, today we have Laura Atwell from Team Rubicon. If you don't know Team Rubicon, it's a great non-profit. They deal with disaster relief and the people who are doing that disaster relief are all veterans. So it's a great way for them to tackle two things at once and really get veterans who have a tough time coming back into civilian life also find that source of purpose and keep that going.

02:16 KW: That company sounds amazing, and I cannot wait to hear this interview.

02:21 MH: You're gonna love it. I've been thinking a lot about... So you know how we've been talking about this lately a lot in our intros, of how Ellevate is growing and we're changing and there's a lot going on and our team is growing, our team has grown already significantly and we'll keep growing and it's exciting. It's really, really exciting to see. But one of the things I've been thinking a lot about is how do we make sure our team grows and maintains the culture that we have. And how do we really do it in a way that's sustainable? And the reason I bring it up is because Team Rubicon is really well known because of their culture and a lot of the things Laura and I talked about kind of were things that were coming back to me as we've been talking about these things internally, for Ellevate.

03:04 KW: Oh yeah. Culture is hard.

03:08 MH: It's extremely hard.

03:10 KW: And I think about that a lot because as we talked about in the last podcast, I've been travelling quite a bit, and not in the office. And sometimes I just feel not physically connected and that pains me because I love our team and I love being here all the time with everyone and hanging out. And so culture is tough. And we have a lot of remote workers too.

03:30 MH: We do.

03:31 KW: So it's how do you create a culture that transcends time and space, and that grows with you as you grow, and it's not easy. And I think it's easy... I think it's easy to have a toxic culture that can be very pervasive, but you really have to work hard to have positive, good culture that's driving employee growth, business impact and revenues and overall happiness.

04:02 MH: I cannot agree more. I really think it's massively important and it's very hard, just as you said. And it really, I think, comes down to making it part of your core objectives or priorities. And I think we've been doing a better job. Yeah, sometimes you get so busy, it's just, you don't... You just do and you don't stop and think.

04:26 KW: Yeah. You're not intentional about it. And you have to be intentional.

04:30 MH: Yeah.

04:30 KW: Alright, well, let's listen to your interview with Laura. I can't wait to hear it.

04:33 MH: Yeah, she's great, you'll love her.


04:44 MH: So Laura, we always like to start asking our guests to tell our listeners a little bit about your career journey and what brought you to where you are today.

04:52 Laura Atwell: So I was a journalism and political science major in college and I was going to be the female version of Woodward and Bernstein. I worked for a couple weekly and daily newspapers and then found myself being offered a job by an individual who ran public relations, as well as fundraising for the local hospital.

05:19 LA: And I thought, "Oh I can't do that, that's gonna go work for the man. That would be terrible." And then he basically offered me double the salary I was making at a newspaper and I said, "Okay yeah, I can do this." So that's how it started. And I wrote newsletters and did public relations, and because it was a small office, I also got sucked into doing golf tournaments and galas and lobster bakes and road rallies, and all sorts of strange fundraising things. And that just kinda continued. I just sort of continued down that path. I worked for a couple of hospitals. I worked for a human service organization. I did consulting in fundraising. I worked at New York Presbyterian on a huge capital campaign. I worked in education. And fast forward, I got a call from a headhunter, Team Rubicon was looking for their first development director and the rest as they say is history. So here I am four years later, almost, at Team Rubicon as their VP for Development.

06:28 MH: That's great. And so, from journalism to fundraising, how did that translate to?

06:35 LA: I think it's similar. I think you have to be curious. You have to be curious, as a journalist, you have to wanna know about people, what makes them tick, you have to find interesting stories be able to share that with other people and I don't think fundraising is totally different in the non-profit space. I think you have to figure out what interests the donor. You have to figure out how to tell the story of your organization in a powerful, impactful way and be able to talk about that. So I think I am pretty curious. And I think I'm also not afraid and I think fundraising, some people are really afraid. They're really afraid to ask people for money, and I just think, I don't know, it just sort of happens and I've really enjoyed it. It's been really, really interesting.

07:27 MH: So it's interesting to me that you say that some people are afraid to ask 'cause that we see that a lot. And I would say at Ellevate, we see it a lot in the sense of asking for a raise or asking for capital for your company or something else. And yet a lot of, I would say, development or fundraising in non-profits are women and a lot of the people say that it is easier for women to ask when it's not for them.

07:51 LA: Oh yeah, I totally believe that. I think that's totally true. You're asking a donor to make an investment in something that they already feel passionate about, whether it's veterans, whether it's disaster relief, whether it's working to find a cure for cancer, children, homelessness whatever. I do think, and I know I'm the same way, I have difficulty advocating for myself or we're just going through at work, our performance reviews and you have to do your self-review. And I do mine and I'm like, "Oh and we did this as a team, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." And I look at some of my male colleagues or people who work for me and I read theirs and it's all, "I did this. And I... " they're much better, I think, at advocating for themselves than women. I wish I had the magic answer to that. And I think that would solve zillions of problems in the world. But yeah, it is challenging. I agree.

08:54 MH: It is. Sally was just saying, at an event, I think, last week, that we were there, we were talking about defining success on your own terms, and one of the things she said was we as women have to stop with the "we", there are some points and some things where it should be "I". I did this and I deserve this. So something to keep in mind and something we see.

09:17 MH: So you said being curious, telling the story, how do you make a story really resonate, and especially when telling the stories of a non-profit over the work, what you're doing to really resonate and get people to... People, foundations, donors, to open their wallets?

09:34 LA: I think, it depends on the non-profit. So I think Team Rubicon's a little unique. I think it solves two problems with one kind of elegant solution if you will. It helps reintegrate veterans coming back from military service into the community and into civilian life. It also helps people on their worst day during a disaster. I think it's a little more interesting, maybe, than trying to raise money for a linear accelerator at your local hospital, even though having a linear accelerator can help diagnose cancer, and it's great.

10:16 LA: But I think at TR we're really lucky because we do have these wonderful stories. We have these fantastic stories of veterans who have the US government has invested hundreds and hundreds and thousands, and sometimes millions of dollars in their training. A fighter pilot, they spend $2 million to train a fighter pilot, they spend $6 million to train a Navy SEAL, they spend 100,000 for, or 250,000 for a Marine sniper to go through training. And they serve four or six or 20 years and then we ask nothing of them ever again. They have these fantastic skills that they can use to help people that have just been devastated. So it's a great story and we're lucky to be able to tell it. And we have a fantastic marketing and communications team that does wonderful videos, fabulous photos and does great storytelling. So that really makes my job a lot easier. So that's been really great.

11:22 MH: Yeah, I've looked at your page, because I really do think what you guys do is really amazing because it's both ends of the spectrum. You're tackling things and in a way that's very different and a lot of what you have on your marketing stuff on your website that to me, really resonate, and I think resonates to a lot of people, is you have the numbers. You can see the impact that it is making, and that goes a long way.

11:46 LA: We've made a really concerted effort to, in the last couple of years, to really be able to capture those numbers to show impact, to show transparency. So we've done a lot of work with insurance industries to use their... They use a system called Xactimate. That's what the people who, the adjusters go out and when you have a claim on your home, they have this software that will tell you that in Iowa it costs $22 to put up drywall. And I'm making that number up, I have no idea what it costs to put up drywall. But we can then determine by using that, if we took out 25 feet of drywall of somebody's house and mitigated mold and tarped their roof, it has this value in this market. So being able to partner with corporations on things like that has really, I think, elevated what we've done. No pun intended.

12:46 MH: [chuckle] I'm all for the Ellevate puns.

12:48 LA: But yeah, I think that's given us a little bit of differentiation in the space too.

12:52 MH: Yeah, no, it's great. And I just wanna go back to something you were saying just now, which was the amount of training in the military. So we know that veterans and military people in the military and service are probably the most highly trained workforce that exists, and we have heard both from some of our partners or from our members who are involved in the space, that it's always also difficult to come back from service and re-enter civilian life in a way that's meaningful and in a way that really leverages that very highly trained skill set these amazing people have. Do you have any ideas on how we can engage, how companies can engage more with these groups, both in hiring and helping them re-enter civilian life?

13:45 LA: Yeah. Yeah I think it is challenging. I think employers need to recognize that they have skills that while it says they flew 25 sorties in Afghanistan. Okay, so what our COO likes to say, "I know how to bomb people," 'cause that's what he did. He was a fighter pilot. So, that doesn't translate really well [chuckle] in the civilian market, necessarily. But he did a lot of other things. He led a squadron. So he's got leadership. He's worked in a team, they work together as a team, they have to adapt to changing environments really quickly, they have to be decisive. So there's a lot of skills, I think they can get kind of lost in translation, so I think that's some of it.

14:32 LA: I also think companies have to allow veterans to continue service. Team Rubicon allows them to kind of put back on a uniform, our gray t-shirts that say Team Rubicon which everybody wears when they go out and deploy. So it allows them to go back and serve their community. And I think that sense of service is what probably drew them into the military to begin with. So having that ability, being able to get time off from your job, whether it's using your own vacation or if companies have a certain amount of time that they give as PTO to do days of service or a week of service or whatever, I think is really, really valuable and it enables them to continue in their job but also maybe feel more empowered from that sense of service.

15:31 MH: I like that. I actually hadn't heard that which is we sometimes talk about this. For us, we talk about how can we engage military and veterans, and this is actually a big thing that we're looking to do this year at Ellevate, which is open our network more and more to groups that we normally don't see, because we have heard for example, on this side, that it's hard to find a network when you've been deployed for a few years, or you've been moving or it's... So it's nice, it's interesting to hear that part of continuing service, I really like that.

16:06 LA: Yeah, and then it's not... It doesn't have to just be Team Rubicon, there's other organizations, both in New York and around the country, that may not have the exact same mission, but have service as one of their kind of guiding principles, if you will. So I think it's just finding the right fit. Maybe not everybody wants to go out in the mud, and muck out flooded houses but there's...

16:33 MH: Absolutely not.

16:34 LA: No?

16:35 MH: Come on. [laughter] Can do other types of service.

16:38 LA: No, we'll get you out there. But there's other things people can do for sure.

16:42 MH: Right. No, and this brings me to your culture at Team Rubicon. Because I know that it's very specific. I remember on that panel getting some good insights into what it's like. Can you tell me a little bit about it?

17:00 LA: Yeah, our culture is something that our CEO has really worked tirelessly to foster. I think it makes us unique, I think it makes us nimble and different again in the space, it is really important to us, and we spent a lot of time talking about it, and a lot of time making sure it's the right fit when we're hiring people. So I can go through the principles again for you.

17:34 LA: So our very first one is "mission first, gray shirts always", being sure that we put our people first. "Step into the arena", so always making sure that what we're about is front and foremost in everybody's mind and that we're willing to go out and take risks. "Everybody has a role; know it", pretty self-explanatory there. "Change your socks", and that really means just make sure to take time and take care of yourself. "Adults only", again, hopefully self-explanatory.


18:11 LA: And "your mother's a donor", so we wanna be sure that we're good stewards of the people that help us do what we do every day and those are really important to us.

18:21 MH: What would you tell your younger self? What piece of advice would you have given Laura a few years ago?

18:29 LA: Oh, Lord. [laughter]

18:32 KW: I'm stealing that one from [18:35] ____. [chuckle]

18:35 LA: Yeah, there's a lot of... There's actually a lot of advice, probably not so much on the professional side as much as the personal side. I think in the beginning of my career, I was very, very tentative. And I think I would tell myself to trust my instincts and don't be afraid to take a risk. I had a lot of people saying to me, "Oh, do you really think you should switch your job? You've only been there maybe two years. And I don't know if it's the right thing, and you need stability." And in some cases, I stayed at jobs that I knew I should have left earlier. They just, they weren't interesting, they weren't challenging for me. And I think now I'm much more willing to kinda throw it all out there and see what happens and not be afraid and not be nervous, like I was in the past.

19:42 LA: So I think just, to go back and I'm telling you, these source principles are pretty good. I don't know who the hell wrote them, but they're great.


19:51 LA: Really just step into the arena, give it a shot. What's the worst that can happen? I think and it's kind of like fundraising. Somebody said, "Oh but I'm so afraid to ask people for money, I'm like, "Well they're not gonna shoot you, I mean they're just gonna say no. They're not gonna be angry at you." Generally people are flattered that you think they can make a donation at that kind of level, that you've asked them for. So I think just get over the fear.

20:20 MH: I love it. We came full circle with the conversation, so thank you so much.

20:25 LA: Oh, my pleasure, things for having me.


20:29 KW: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate. If you like what you hear, help a girl out. Subscribe to the Ellevate Podcast on iTunes. Give us five stars and share your review. Also, don't forget to follow us on Twitter @ellevatentwk, that's Ellevate Network, and become a member. You can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate Network is doing at our website: That's E-L-L-E-V-A-T-E And special thanks to our producer, Katharine Heller. She rocks. And to our voiceover artist, Rachel Griesinger, thanks so much, and join us next week.


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