(Photo by Fred Greaves)

A Seat at the Table

UC Davis’ Women in Leadership Club helps MBA students get corporate training through placement on nonprofit boards

Back Longreads Mar 20, 2018 By Torey Van Oot

WEAVE was in need of a digital marketing makeover. The agency for survivors of domestic abuse had opened its second retail location in Sacramento to help generate funding for its shelter and crisis prevention services, and something about the online outreach just wasn’t clicking. Posts lacked a consistent voice. Separate branding for each store created confusion. CEO Beth Hassett worried there wasn’t a clear enough connection in the messaging between the nonprofit organization’s mission and the clothing stores that helped fuel its operations. WEAVE’s Retail Advisory Board developed a new strategy, recommending the creation of a social media style guide and a targeted Instagram campaign featuring styled outfits available at the store.

One driving force behind the changes was an unconventional source — not a longtime board member, or even a full-time one. It was Kelly Gillett, an MBA student on loan to WEAVE from the UC Davis Women in Leadership Club’s Board Fellowship Program, a new initiative that places graduate students on nonprofit boards.

Related: Vice president of the Women in Leadership club on gender equality

Related: Breaking the Cycle

“Having Kelly there made a big difference,” Hassett says. “We’d had a lot of the same people on [the committee] for a while. Bringing her new energy and new blood to the organization was really helpful. She brought that younger shopper voice to the table.”

This need for new energy isn’t unique to WEAVE. Many nonprofits find themselves seeking new, young members to bring fresh perspectives to their organizations — contributing to avid interest in the UC Davis program. The benefits don’t just flow one way, either. Gillett got a front-row seat to the inner-workings of a board, gaining experience and skills that she’ll carry into her career in business, she says.

Now the group of savvy young UC Davis women are expanding the program, giving more women the chance to step up as local leaders. And that, as they’ll tell you, is the entire point.

REAL WORK, REAL SKILLS

For most of its five-year existence, the Women in Leadership Club focused on the activities you’d expect from a student organization aimed at developing future female leaders. It hosted discussion groups and networking happy hours, and connected members with mentors.

While important, these offerings were not experiences a woman could “put on her résumé and that would develop skills and ongoing relationships that would give people the leg up they needed,” former WiL President Hilary Bekmann explains. Bekmann wanted programming to actually boost future job and leadership prospects for her female peers. On a broader level, she hoped to help the cohort close the persistent gender gap at the highest levels of business.

“I wanted to provide some marketable skills to the women within the program and also really provide those leadership opportunities,” says Bekmann, who now works as the associate director of sustainability in the University of California president’s office.

An idea to train and place students on nonprofit boards had been floated before. To Bekmann, it seemed like an innovative way to get young people into executive settings that are non-hierarchical; where they have influence without authority. “A nonprofit board, versus a lot of our general work experience, really gives people insight into peer-type leadership experiences — just the exposure to making high-level decisions,” she says. “[You] learn an enormous amount.”

Bekmann and other club members gauged interest among area organizations and secured $10,000 in seed funding from the school’s business development program. They marketed the Board Fellowship Program as a win-win: Students would gain valuable leadership and management insights, and the nonprofit boards would get new blood without having to search for and vett applicants themselves. That first year, 2015, WiL trained 19 students and placed four with partner organizations. By year two, the number of partner organizations doubled to eight.

“Every nonprofit I reached out to was keen on the idea,” Bekmann recalls. “It sort of sold itself.”

THE NEED FOR NEW ENERGY

The need for nonprofits to stay relevant is particularly strong in the Capital Region, where there’s a large concentration of agencies and high demand for donor dollars. One way to do that is to cultivate young community members for leadership roles. But while millennials volunteer and donate to charitable causes in high numbers, it’s less common to see them pursuing seats on the boards that make key strategic decisions for the future. One national survey of nonprofit boards published in 2017 found that just 17 percent of all members are under 40.

“The best boards are not homogenous, they’re a mixture of older and younger and people who are more diverse and less diverse and who have all different jobs,” Hassett, of WEAVE, says. “[But] it’s hard to find people who are younger in their career who have enthusiasm and interest in being on a board and who have access to and willingness to ask for donations.”

Kim Tucker, who trains nonprofit boards as president of The Impact Foundry in Sacramento, has seen that challenge firsthand. Organizations desperately need new members, especially digital natives to help amplify a nonprofit’s mission among the next generation. Additionally, early introduction to board service is seen as key for developing lifelong commitments to the community — and a pipeline of future board leaders. But Tucker says young professionals, consumed with career development or raising families, often don’t “feel like they have the time and understanding to serve on a board.”

“What I try to help young people understand is that you have skills that you don’t even realize are so needed in that nonprofit,” says Tucker, who has led training for the UC Davis program. “You can be a leader out the gate.”

What’s more, the short-term nature of the placement can help focus an enthusiastic new member’s energy around a specific project or goal. “A lot of times, the board really welcomes their participation and the person who is participating really gives back,” CalNonprofits CEO Jan Masaoka says. “Sometimes these people are more effective than a regular board member.”  

“We’re always looking to add new board members, especially ones who are an infusion of excitement.”Rob Shanahan, board chair, PUENTES

The program’s value was quickly evident at Valley Vision, which participated last year. Their fellow, MBA student Kirti Adlakha, offered helpful insights on everything from a rebranding campaign to making the board meetings more efficient.

“These were MBA students learning about the latest in terms of business, whether it’s about marketing issues or management issues, we were able to use that to have a student to do some evaluation of us, too,” Valley Vision Operating Officer Alan Lange says. “[Our fellow] provided a very helpful critical eye.”

Rob Shanahan, who chairs the board of the Stockton-based sustainable agriculture nonprofit PUENTES, described the board fellowship as “a great way to add someone who really brought a lot to the organization.” “We’re always looking to add new board members, especially ones who are an infusion of excitement,” Shanahan says.

PUENTES’ fellow was male (the program is open to all students), but the goal of the initiative got Shanahan thinking about what more the organization can do to promote gender equality within its own ranks. The board was predominantly female in years past, Shanahan says, but by the end of 2017, men outnumbered women by a ratio of two-to-one due to a number of open seats. He says the fellowship was a reminder that representation is an important component of an organization’s success. “The only way to make sure we progress toward that equality is to specifically address it,” Shanahan says. “Of course, we want the most qualified candidates, but honestly, the top candidates that I’d like to see join our board over the next few months, they’re all women.”

Nonprofits generally have a better record on gender parity than their for-profit peers. Nationally, about half of all charity board positions are filled by female members. Masaoka sees that as yet another incentive for women to seek such roles: “There may be many more openings for you to have a position for leadership in a board than to be on a corporate board.”

On top of that, Tucker sees extra benefits from the WiL program’s goal of elevating young women  to seek service opportunities in the sector.

“Nothing against the guys, but women have a perspective in how they approach decision making and collaboration,” she says, adding, “They have what it takes.”

WHAT IT MEANS FOR WOMEN

Gillett was no stranger to the world of nonprofits. She had long admired the work of WEAVE and other organizations in the Capital Region. Before pursuing her MBA, she worked at an arts nonprofit in Hawaii. But it had never occurred to her to seek a board position before she joined the Women in Leadership Club.

”I think a lot of women subconsciously, without even thinking about it, don’t even consider themselves for these roles,” Gillett says. “This [program] really instills in a lot of women the idea that they can do this, that it’s a feasible opportunity for them to also sit on boards and serve in these leadership positions.”

The experience didn’t disappoint. In addition to putting her passion for retail and marketing to practical use, she learned how boards operate. “It was really key and pivotal in understanding what it means to be on a board of directors, all the things that people need to keep in mind when making decisions for the betterment of an organization,” Gillett says. “Sitting on a [corporate] board isn’t possible until you get farther into your career, but getting that experience through a nonprofit is possible.”

For club leaders, providing those experiences to female peers was especially important. Women make up more than half the population, but hold just 20 percent of all C-suite positions, according to a 2017 study by McKinsey and LeanIn.org. California is no exception. One study released by UC Davis in 2015 found that women hold just 12 percent of corporate board seats and high-level positions at major businesses based in the state. In Sacramento, women make up about a quarter of C-suite positions, a study conducted for the Sacramento Business Review found.

“The opportunities are not at the same level for women as they are for men,” says current WiL President Julianne Fraker, a second year MBA student.“[This gives] female students the opportunity to put this on a résumé and say, ‘I’ve been on a board before, I know how it works, I’ve been in this leadership opportunity.’ That’s invaluable.”  

Adlakha, a computer science engineer looking to transition into product management roles who served as a fellow on the Valley Vision board, says prior to the experience she rarely interacted with high-level executives. Through the program, she says she gained confidence and found herself “talking to them like I was their colleague,” she says.

The program continues to grow. This year, at least 10 local organizations are participating, including The Woodland Opera House and Ticket To Dream, a foundation that supports children in foster care. Perhaps more importantly, alumni say they’re interested in continuing nonprofit board service beyond graduation. Gillett will remain on a WEAVE subcommittee. And Adlakha says she too intends to seek more opportunities post graduation.

“Every MBA student should take a leadership role, especially in a nonprofit,” Adlakha says. “It keeps you connected to the society. You’re doing your part.” 

Comments

Visitor (not verified)March 21, 2018 - 10:14am

My graduate project at #GoldenGateUniversity was to work with a Board of Directors for #TravelersAidSacramento, and that let me to more work with non-profits. I eventually worked for #HealthEdCouncil and served on the Board for #SacramentoCottageHousing for seven years. Those experiences strengthened my corporate experience to be able to office my services to many organizations.

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