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Gap Foundation President's Thoughts on Passion, Gen Y and Service

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One of the best parts of my job is meeting amazingly smart and cool people. This week I talked with Bobbi Silten, the President of Gap Foundation and Senior Vice President of Global Responsibility for Gap Inc., about her killer career, her passion for service and how her background in business is key to running a successful foundation. Besides being sworn in as a member of the White House Council for Community Solutions earlier this year, Bobbi is the central force behind the Reimagining Service collaborative, increasing the impact of volunteerism.

Aaron Hurst: Each generation seems to have such a different outlook on life and social change. What generation do you identify with and why?

Bobbi Silten: I'm technically a boomer, but I'm on the tail end of the boom, so I haven't felt as connected to this generation. I don't feel like I'm in that life stage, so it's different. I'm very curious about Gen Y and how optimistic they are, how much they are open to sharing their beliefs and possibilities. They're very much a generation that believes in innovation and technology solving a lot of things, and I like that hopefulness. In a lot of ways, they have that same kind of boomer optimism that it's a world of possibility.

AH: Definitely. I ask because one of the things I like about my generation, Gen X, which I see in you, is the desire to leverage business for good.

BS: I think about the business side of things: creating a vision and strategy, converting that into an operating plan, setting goals, holding people accountable -- it's the same process. I don't lead any differently than I led in business. I think the biggest difference is when you're on the commercial side, it is inherently competitive. What's funny is that I never thought I was going to be in business. I thought I would run a nonprofit.

AH: What ever happened to that? What changed your mind?

BS: When I finished school, I ended up going into business with the social goal in mind. I wanted to change the way we marketed to women, and that's why I went into advertising. My senior thesis was on mass media's relationship to the onset of anorexia.

AH: One thing led to another, then you were selling khakis, and then...

BS: I almost quit in my late 20s. But it was actually Peter, my husband -- he defends people on death row -- who convinced me to stay in business. He told me businesses can do a lot to change the world, and he said if you can move up and influence business to do that, you can make a big impact. He's a wise, wise man.

AH: You are at the top of your game and at the height of your career. I wonder if most CEOs would ever even consider that someone with your background would want to run a foundation -- that it can attract that kind of talent.

BS: I tell my team all the time that my vision for this work we do is that, one day, it's going to be a deeper part of the business. It's not going to be a department anymore. I want to make sure all of my players keep their business skills sharp because one day, they're going to go back, when there are no longer functional boundaries for this work. I understand how value gets created on the business side. I often think, how do I help the business leaders understand how this work also creates value for everyone, and that this is an investment worth making -- not as a charitable cause, but truly as an investment to raise things for everyone?

I think what has happened to HR in the last 30 years is a great parallel. HR has moved from being a department to really being a way of thinking about talent management and development, and most corporations have experts at the center who are staying on top of the latest ideas and innovations in the field.

AH: How has the work of the Gap Foundation changed in the last few years?

BS: A little over five years ago, we identified our people and their talent as our greatest strengths. Being a company that has a lot of employees, we said we have to leverage this group beyond just their time. While time is valuable, we think that talent is a multiplier. Now, 100 percent of our youth-serving grants all have what's called "link and leverage," which is they're linking to a company asset beyond cash. We also leverage internal talent pro bono to get our work done as a foundation. From strategic planning to surveys to website redesign, employees from different areas of the company volunteer to help us meet our goals.

It's been hugely transformative for our foundation to integrate skilled volunteering into our work. We couldn't have the kind of community impact we are having if we only relied on our cash.

AH: How do you know if this strategy is working?

BS: I had a nonprofit leader call me last week to tell me how much she's grown as a leader because of the Gap Leadership Initiative, a program that helps nonprofit leaders become even more effective by leveraging the talents of our Human Resources team and some of our company's best practices on developing leaders. It's not because of all the money we were giving them. It is a small organization, but she has essentially doubled her revenue in the last four years. She told me, "I have grown so much because of your volunteers and what you've been teaching me as part of the Leadership Initiative." It wasn't about "thank you" for the cash we gave them, which I think is really cool.

For more of this interview, including Bobbi's insights on leading passionate, diverse coalitions and further discussions on integrating philanthropy, CSR and business, visit our blog.