I chatted last week with veteran philanthropist Kerry Sullivan, president of the Bank of America Charitable Foundation, about her passion for improving education, the value of service in schools, and the glass ceiling for women in corporate America.
Last month, Bank of America announced a $50 million philanthropic pledge to fund education programs that help at-risk youth successfully graduate and connect them to workforce development opportunities. Beyond just the impressive cash contribution, however, Bank of America has also led the effort to better engage and leverage their volunteers and skills to benefit partners in the community.
Aaron Hurst: If you suddenly received a huge sum of money to create your own foundation based on your personal passions, what would you invest in?
Kerry Sullivan: One would be education for the underserved. People need to be educated to find a job with a livable wage, particularly those who are trying to make a living in a democracy. It is the key to personal success, a company's success, and a country's success. The other thing I feel strongly about is basic health and human services, with hunger at its core. It is so essential, especially considering the economic downturn and the whole issue of food insecurity in this country, as well as other developed countries -- let alone developing countries. Looking right now at the drought in Somalia, we as a world player need to respond.
Even though they seem totally different, I see these two issues working together: one is a Band-Aid to provide for immediate and critical needs, while education serves to lift people out of that situation.
AH: That sounds wonderful -- I hope you get the money to start it! What do you feel you are able to take from your personal everyday life to help you understand the issues and be more insightful and effective in your job?
KS: I have two young girls, who grew up volunteering, being engaged and caring about issues. They understand there is a role for all of us to play to help individuals and families and communities move forward. I feel fortunate to have that perspective.
In this country, the divide between the haves and the have-nots is growing, and there is a shrinking middle class. I don't think any of us are that far removed from these issues. No one is immune from knowing somebody who is in a dire, tough situation right now, given the protracted downturn. Every community has issues, and even in upscale neighborhoods, there are still people that are in need. There are millions of children in this country who go to bed hungry. When you analyze the numbers on how food pantries are being accessed right now, they are not used just by people who have been chronically unemployed. It's working poor, and some of these individuals, who are accessing food pantries just to make ends meet and feed their family, may not even be entitled to food stamps. It's no longer something far afield from who we are as individuals.
AH: Speaking of your daughters, do you think you get exposure to what some of the educational challenges are in this country, having watched the development of their education?
KS: They're fortunate to go to good schools, so I'm not seeing directly why we're falling behind compared to the rest of the world. But I do see we have some issues of equity in education. If we really look at what 21st century jobs are going to be, particularly in this country, you're going to need at least two years of post-secondary education. We need to develop a system where kids see hope, a track that will connect them to one of their goals in life. We need to ignite the excitement of learning in children and connect them to the idea that they need education to get a successful career that they have passion for. I think we have a lot of things to work on, and it is clearly going to take collaboration between educators, nonprofits, and corporations to help solve.
Despite the issues we have in our education system, there is a bright light around what they teach children about volunteerism and cultures of service that didn't exist when I was in school. Particularly right now, there's a keen awareness of service as a noble profession and cause and that it's something really positive to be part of. There is a call to service that is happening in all kinds of schools because there is equity in service. Everyone has something to give.
AH: I also have a daughter, who is five years old and a brilliant businesswoman. She runs the best lemonade stand in Park Slope, Brooklyn. What are the challenges you've had to face as a woman in business, and to give me hope, what have you seen changing to make it easier for my daughter to succeed in corporate America in the future?
KS: I think sometimes women in corporate America think they have to do it all themselves, and that's not how life works. You need to make friends, and you need to connect with them along the way. I'm not a huge networker -- I'm actually probably more of an introvert--but when I have a passion for something and admire someone for how they conduct themselves in business, I'm not shy about connecting with them. I think often we don't empower ourselves to find individuals who are willing to help. Sometimes it's just reaching out and making your needs and interests known. I've done that, and it has been very instrumental in the opportunities I've had. Women do have more control over their careers than they know.
From my journey in banking, I have not seen very many roadblocks for women. With any work, you have to find passion for what you do, and if you have that, you can figure out your next steps because you're propelled by your interest. I think I've always had a passion for philanthropy, so I've always been able to find my next opportunity. I didn't graduate from college and know right then I wanted to work for a foundation. I did a couple things before, but I always made a link to the next opportunity and found my way. Talking to some younger graduates, they think it is a linear path, but it's not. It's okay to meander a bit and learn what your strengths are and develop a passion. You don't have to know what it is when you're going through school. It's always changing and evolving.
For more of this interview, including Kerry's insights on connecting local and global strategy and further discussions on integrating philanthropy, CSR and business, visit Taproot's Pro Bono Junkie's blog.