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Acting with a Mission, with Tara Abrahams

Acting with a Mission, with Tara Abrahams


Episode 121: Acting with a Mission, with Tara Abrahams

Starting her path in non-profits a young age, Tara Abrahams, the Executive Director of Glamour’s The Girl Project, realized that she wanted to be a part of a mission-driven organization early on in her career. This week, Tara joined us to talk about the difference between non-profit and for-profit companies, the important role volunteering plays in making an impact, as well as The Girl Project’s work in providing girls all around the world with quality education. Tara also gives insights about importance of corporate social responsibility, challenges around non-profit sector, and when could be the right time to transition from corporate to non-profit sector.


Episode Transcript

00:12 Kristy Wallace: Hello and welcome to the Ellevate Network podcast. This is your host, Kristy Wallace, with my co-host Maricella Herrera.

00:22 Maricella Herrera: Hey Kristy.

00:22 KW: How's it going?

00:23 MH: Good. I was laughing because this mic feels like it set up for someone who's taller than me, in a weird way.

[laughter]

00:31 KW: Oh. Well, it looks good. So I have to tell you, we just had last week our 21st anniversary party, which was amazing. Lots of fun, but one of the best things about the evening is someone came up to me and I was ordering a drink at the bar, as you do. And she goes, "Oh my goodness, I know your voice. I've heard it on the Ellevate Podcast." And so I appreciated that. Everyone likes to feel loved, every once a while, so it was great. And then she was talking about our new office 'cause we had shared on the podcast that we were taping in a new space, so it was just felt so fun because I made a friend who knew all the stuff about us and the podcast.

01:16 MH: That's awesome.

01:17 KW: To my anniversary party friend out there. Thank you so much for listening to and supporting the podcast, and it was great to meet you at the anniversary party.

01:25 MH: That's awesome, I love when people come up and mention the podcast. I haven't had one of those in a while. I was mostly getting mentions on my dress at the party that day, which is kind of, kind of cool.

01:38 KW: Oh, you had the best dress on. You picked it up in Venice?

01:41 MH: In Sicily.

01:42 KW: No, in Sicily. In Sicily.

01:44 MH: I was going with my little Sicily dress, which is just white which is nice and it's kind of that time of year where I don't feel ridiculous wearing dresses and white dresses in particular 'cause it's so hot.

01:57 KW: Yes, it's hot.

02:00 MH: It's really, really hot.

02:00 KW: I'm not complaining though, I actually I love the summer. I love this time of year, and I'm all for the heat.

02:10 MH: Well, I am too.

02:11 KW: Beyond the freezing cold and wind. Although the humidity I could do without.

02:15 MH: It's been kinda gross. But you know what happened at that anniversary party too, that also has to do with our office?

02:21 KW: What?

02:22 MH: So, Jessica, who's our new office manager and ops coordinator. If you guys ever come to a New York event, you'll probably see her there. She was telling me that as you gave your speech at the party, you mentioned how we were in a new office space and people are welcome to come and stop by. And so several people already went up to her to ask how'd they book some time to come and stop by. [chuckle]

02:48 KW: Oh my goodness. Yeah, we have friends.

02:52 MH: So we now have to figure out a calendar booking.

02:55 KW: Well, we should just have a little open house. I think we should plan an open house and people can come and visit us and hang out.

03:03 MH: I agree, I think that would be fun to have a little office warming party. I know some of our peeps, Jess, who you've heard on the podcast, manages our largest chapters, and does our events in New York City has been wanting to do an office warming party. But I say we will not until we can hide all the boxes we have.

03:22 KW: Agreed, yes. [laughter]

03:24 MH: Thrown around.

03:24 KW: Oh my gosh, yes. You and I, we're so in sync sometimes. Yes. Alright, well, that'll be some good motivation.

03:33 MH: Yeah.

03:33 KW: Well, so we'll let you know, podcast listeners, when we have a little office warming party, but you're in for a treat today with our guest Tara Abrahams, who has been a frequent participant at Ellevate events talking at our non-profit event in New York City and also on our professional mission and career purpose event earlier this year as well. She just has a fantastic story, which you're gonna hear about shortly. She's generally just a really good person and is someone who has dedicated a lot of her life to supporting others, to giving back, and to being a true champion, particularly in the non-profit space. So Tara is great. I know you're a big fan of her as well, Maricella.

04:21 MH: I am. I'm a huge fan of hers. I think her career, being so focused on doing good for others, for the world, and for... And really acting as a mentor and a role model for other women who want to do good. It's something that really comes through when you talk to her. And I just, I really, really admire that. I am a huge fan.

04:44 KW: Alright, well, let's get to the interview of Tara and we'll see you here next week on the Ellevate Podcast.

[music]

05:05 KW: Hello and welcome to the Ellevate Podcast. This is Kristy, I'm joined today with Tara Abrahams, who is the executive director of the Girl Project and Tara is a big friend of Ellevates. You've spoken on a few of our panels and events, and have just wowed everyone with your humor, your wit, your passion. I think we all feel like we've known you forever, so I'm excited to finally get you on the podcast.

05:31 Tara Abrahams: Thank you, I'm happy to be here, for sure.

05:35 KW: We always start just getting to know a little bit more about you and how you got to where you are today. And so, can you share a little bit of your story?

05:44 TA: Sure. So my career trajectory, my story is really defined by impact and the decisions that I've made from a very young age to take every step through and look at it, every step, through the lens of impact. And that really came about because I started out as a volunteer at a very young age, at a time when I didn't have very many resources meaning I didn't have any money to contribute. I had the opportunity to contribute of myself, my passion, my intellect, and frankly just my hard labor in service of other communities. And to me, that was really critical and defined how I made decisions through college and into the early part of my career. Even something like eventually getting to business school, for example, was a decision which at the time was unusual for someone who had come from a very small non-profit, community-based non-profit organization based in Harlem. But it was because I saw that there was an opportunity I had to develop certain managerial disciplines, operations, finance, marketing, that I could then apply to the work of a mission-driven organization, or a non-profit and really help them get to where they want to be for their target population a little bit faster, a little bit more efficiently.

07:10 TA: And to me, that was a really fantastic opportunity to continue to have impact by really applying those disciplines in a different industry and so I'm just looking forward to continuing to be able to do that throughout my career because it's just been a really wonderful trajectory from a very early age.

07:36 KW: I associate with that story so much. I grew up going to Catholic school and service mission volunteer was a huge part of that.

07:45 TA: Huge part. I did too. When I first started elementary school, because my mom is Catholic she worked full-time and so she found a Catholic school that was pretty much walking distance from her office. And so similarly, I grew up with that same, from again, six years old, that sense of service and commitment to community.

08:04 KW: And it is a pretty amazing opportunity. Not just the impact, the service, the thinking about others. I think the perspective of that and the impact that can have on kids and on me, but also the leadership opportunities that you get at such a young age, because there's so many situations when you can take over a project, when you're trying to get donations, or run an event, or whatever that is, that you really start to cultivate those skills at a young age.

08:32 TA: Definitely. So I was the Co-President of my high school Social Service Club which to its credit was the largest student organization at the school. And I think it was... First of all, you're exactly right, which is that we had an incredible opportunity to exercise leadership skills at a very young age, as well as managerial and operational skills. So we were trying to figure out the logistics of getting buses from our tiny town to Chicago, figuring out how to do, as you said, events that would provide funding for the organization, interacting with different programs and communities across cultures. So that was just a really seminal experience for all of us I think at a very young age. And then I think beyond that, it was a very sheltered affluent community. My parents were drawn there because of how great the public schools were. And I think the flip side of it being a really safe and warm and nurturing environment was that there was the potential to remain in a cocoon and so the opportunity to serve really was about recognizing that we all had an obligation to extend and reach out to communities that were very different from our own and that we had an obligation and a responsibility to contribute in some way.

09:55 TA: And even if it was just our hard labor of painting a school or whatever it might be, that was important to the organization. And of course, volunteering has become so much more sophisticated and now it's about serving on boards and providing strategic planning support, but it really starts from that kind of interaction, and it can be very simple.

10:16 KW: Absolutely. Can you talk to our listeners a little bit about the difference between non-profit and for-profit? And particularly 'cause you were talking about going to business school, to create that skill set or to refine that skill set that could really help to support non-profits in a more meaningful way as a non-profit leader. And I think the nuances and the challenges of a non-profit business are not always recognized by the general public.

10:47 TA: Right. Yeah, happy to. So, I've worked pretty much my entire career in what I would say are not necessarily exclusively non-profit organizations, but are social sector organizations. But as far as non-profits themselves, the challenge is... Well, there are certainly opportunities of course, around being a mission-driven organization that is trying to be of service to a particular population or issue. You could talk about non-profit organizations related to the environment. From a business model perspective, there are challenges because you're often reliant upon philanthropic contributions and grants, whether they be government grants or foundation grants, donations from individuals, in order to actually run your business. So while there are many non-profit organizations who have introduced what we call, let's say, revenue generating activities, all of those revenues are driven right back into trying to serve more people or to serve the environment more effectively. And that can be challenging because there's a lot of uncertainty involved in those revenue sources.

12:05 TA: Organizations will have to invest significantly in their development or fund-raising function in order to survive, because without a strong function there, you don't have any certainty around what your revenues will look like in the next year, so that you can actually do the work that you're setting out to do for a charitable purpose, whether that's educating more children or preserving the environment. And so that becomes a place where if there's an opportunity to introduce management techniques that really help the organization do more with less, that's very powerful. So, one early... My first job out of business school was actually at a for-profit company with a social mission. It was run as a start-up. I was the fourth person in the company. It was co-founded by a classmate of mine from Harvard Business School, but it was a consulting firm designed specifically to serve the needs of Head Start programs which themselves provide early childhood education services for the lowest income families in the United States.

13:18 TA: And here I was a newly-minted HBS grad who kind of had the expectation, to be honest, that I went to business school, it was a check box on my resume, great brand, I would go off and do some work with a great organization and maybe use some of the skills that I had developed at HBS, but not all of them. How wrong I was, 'cause I was going into some of these early childhood programs and we were using everything from operations class in terms of understanding the work flow of teachers, data and monitoring for the health services that kids needed. We were trying to market the program more effectively in the community. We of course had to look at very tight budgets. So every single required class that I took at Harvard Business School had some application in my very first job outside of business school, which was this incredible thing. And I recognized very quickly that that was such a gift because it made me recognize that this was the right step for me, because I was literally applying every single thing that I learned to some of the most under-resourced programs in the country.

14:36 TA: And with incredible potential for societal benefits. Because if you can invest in kids and their families starting from when they're born perhaps even before that, but the sweet spot for Head Start is sort of that pre-school space, if you can start to invest in kids and low income communities from an early age, like pre-school, you can really have a better shot at ensuring that you narrow the gap, the education gap, the income gap later on in life.

15:04 KW: On that topic, talking about education, I think this is a great time to learn a little bit more about the Girl Project.

15:11 TA: So the Girl Project is a philanthropic initiative of Glamour and it was...

15:16 KW: Glamour Magazine?

15:17 TA: Glamour Magazine. Well, in fact, we like to think of ourselves as Glamour as a brand 'cause it's not just a magazine anymore, it's the website and the digital and social channels, video, etcetera. So that's why I typically say Glamour as a brand launched the Girl Project in 2014. And the catalyst for it was that in 2013, we honored Malala Yousafzai as one of our women of the year. Glamour hosts an annual Women of the Year Awards where we celebrate 10 or so game-changing women across a variety of industries. And in 2013, just a year after she was shot by the Taliban for encouraging girls to go to school, Glamour had her here in New York to honor her. And we at the magazine, at the brand had experienced just a tremendous sense of how inspiring Malala's story was to our audience as they were following along with her story in the magazine, through online coverage on the night itself. We realized that there was an opportunity to further mobilize our audience in service of this issue which truly connects to who we are as a brand, because if you can imagine women all around the country, predominantly, reading the magazine, experiencing the content by and large, they wouldn't be where they are without an education.

16:49 TA: So if we are a brand that's about lifting women up and celebrating them and encouraging them to live their best lives across work and family and health and friendships, then we also realized we need to be a brand that is helping to support the next generation of young women through education. And increasingly that's what our audience wants from us. It's what customers more in general, want from business is a sense of purpose and values beyond just the bottom line. So we launched the Girl Project with that in mind, with this sense of purpose and responsibility to not only talk the talk, but also to walk the walk.

17:30 KW: Yeah, and that is so key to business today. Looking bigger picture. So not just who is your customer and how are you gonna reach that customer, and how are you gonna monetize that customer, and how you gonna build products for that customer? But who is that customer going to become? And who is she before that? And what are the ways that we look bigger and we play smarter about engaging before and after, and starting to also have that social impact. And there is a positive ROI on social impact that of course it's good to do, but I think from a business perspective, you have an opportunity to not only differentiate yourself, not only to create more of a relationship with your customer, but to also drive good results for our world which lifts everyone up.

18:26 TA: Absolutely. What you said I think is spot on, and I really believe this. It's not just about who your customer is and what products he or she wants to buy, it's also about who that customer is as a person and what she cares about. And I think companies who really look at that question and try to answer it are going to be more successful. I think about that business case all the time in my work at the Girl Project particularly when we're working with some of our partners who are advertisers, they're constantly looking for different and new ways to connect with their existing and potential customers. So if you're a beauty brand, and you are making a mascara that another beauty brand is making effectively, how are you going to create that relationship with your customer that's gonna make them turn away from that other beauty brand and come to yours and pick that one off the shelf, that mascara? And so for us at the Girl Project, that's what we represent in part, is an opportunity for our corporate partners to engage with an issue that we know effectively half the population should want to care about and should want to get involved with. And so I think that's also a business opportunity that we're able to tap into, via the Girl Project.

19:55 KW: So I was listening to the founder of Warby Parker recently at an event and he was saying something that actually we see a lot at Ellevate which is that, often times your customer first and foremost wants a good product, they want a good experience, they're very much about them as the consumer, but having that underlying social mission. So, Warby Parker gives glasses to people in developing countries and also started a program in New York City as well. Really, again, endears you to the customer, but it also creates a culture within your own organization that is providing a mission and a driver for employees to really get behind. And so if you look at in your customer in one light and your employee in the other light, there's different motivators on both sides. And working for a company that has that type of mission and that impact can really be inspiring. And we've seen that in the past with non-profits and obviously people wanting to work for non-profits to feel like they have that impact. But now being able to work for for-profit companies or different brands that are also driving impact as well as revenues and business growth and hopefully industry disruption is a very interesting mix to start to see how the world of business is changing.

21:22 TA: I completely agree and it's my belief and hope that that's the direction that we're going to move in in the future. And I have people, especially young women, coming to me all the time to ask about my career trajectory particularly because it has been so consistently in the social purpose space, but then I have this MBA, this dip into the business world. I worked at a hedge fund helping to start up their foundation, and now I'm at a big media company doing a CSR initiative, a philanthropic initiative. And a lot of times what young people will come to me and ask is, "Well, I have this opportunity to go in one of two directions. I can either go to the private sector or I can go straight into the non-profit sector. Ultimately I know that what really is exciting to me is to be part of a mission-driven organization, so I feel like maybe I should go in this direction with the non-profit." And what I always say is that it can be challenging to start off on the non-profit track and move into the private sector track. It's much easier, I would say, to go from private sector to non-profit a little bit later on in your career, because you're valuable.

22:41 TA: Whether or not you get an MBA, if you've spent some time at a consulting firm, a bank, doing marketing at a traditional company, you are going to be like gold to some non-profit organization. And if you can swing it from a salary perspective, then you would be able to have your choice of many different very attractive options. However, what I think is exciting about what you just described is that you might not have to choose anymore. So you could go into the private sector, work at a great company in tech or in consumer products and ultimately help to shape that company strategy around not only business and profit but also social good. And so you're doing both within the context of a traditional business which is no longer traditional, which is great.

23:30 KW: It's exciting.

23:31 TA: Very much so.

23:32 KW: Let's talk a little bit about girls' education, where are we today and what is your goal with the Girl Project, what is the impact you're looking to have?

23:39 TA: Where we are today is not nearly where we should be, so the latest data will tell us that there are at least, at least 66 million girls around the world who should be in school at the secondary level and aren't. That's still a moving target. Some estimates, if we look at primary through secondary, are upwards of 130 million girls around the world who are not in school. And it's staggering. And for me, the aha moment was several years ago when I met one of the executive producers of what would become Girl Rising, the global campaign focused on girls' education. And the genesis for Girl Rising was a group of journalists who went out to research this big question, which is how do you end global poverty. So they went and talked to every expert in the field around international development from water experts, public health, peace and security, and every single expert that they talked to, within their top, let's say, three interventions, said, "You should send girls to school. If you want to make a difference with peace and security, send girls to school because, ultimately, those girls will become women who will be at the table for the peace negotiation process. If it's about water, send girls to school because educated girls will be able to re-invest in their community when they're women later on."

25:01 TA: And so it was like the light bulb went on because it was about this... It's not simple, it's not a silver bullet, but it's a consistent driver for economic growth, for peace and security, for community development, for breaking the cycle of poverty. So for us at the Girl Project it's about being the megaphone for that issue of girls' education, because we at Glamour have access to this platform where we can raise awareness about how important it is to protect girls and also to invest in them via an education. Ultimately, our hope is that we can support our portfolio of partners in encouraging girls around the world, including here in the United States, to become scholars, leaders, and heroes in their communities. And in addition to that, what we want to see is that our readers really get engaged in the issue whether that's sharing content, volunteering in their local community, writing their own op-ed about the importance of sending girls to school. This is a movement for sure, and it needs as many people, women and men, girls and boys in the movement as possible because our belief and the experts belief is that this is an issue that affects all of us. If we look to, let's say, the 19th century and the issue of slavery as being the fundamental moral issue to address at that period of time. I think we all can see given what's happening in the world right now that the status of girls and women around the world, is that issue for us.

[music]

26:44 KW: Thank you. Thank you so much, Tara, for joining us today.

26:46 TA: Thank you so much. It's such a pleasure to be here.

26:50 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 at Ellevate N-T-W-K, 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, www.ellevatenetwork.com, that's E-L-L-E-V-A-T-E network.com. And special thanks to our producer, Catherine Heller, she rocks, and to our voice-over artist, Rachel Griesinger. Thanks so much, and join us next week.


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