Changing Lives: A Conversation with Amy Saxton, CEO of Summer Search

11/18/2015 04:28 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2016

Sometimes the decision to change the lives of others can end up changing your own. I had a chance to ask Amy Saxton, CEO of Summer Search, a nonprofit youth development organization focused on education, about her decision to become a champion for underserved youth.

I met Amy when I was a national board member for Summer Search and she was interviewing for the top job. I have mentored her for the last five years and watched her come into her own as a leader and push a progressive agenda. In this conversation, she shares valuable perspective on her personal mission and leadership, and how she is transforming the organization she leads.

1. You have been CEO of Summer Search for close to five years. What inspired you to take this job?

I joined Summer Search because it works, and I was ready to make a change. There was a point in my career when I was in my mid-20s and working about 80 hours a week for a dot-com startup in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was around 2001 and I was having a quarter life crisis. I wrote in my journal at the time, "When I talk about my job, I want to light up like a Christmas tree." That was my sort of personal litmus test, and it was a wake up call around my career because I was so far from that vision.

I decided to switch sectors and, several years ago, I was delighted to find a program like Summer Search--an organization with values that aligned with my own. For 25 years, Summer Search has successfully helped low-income students develop the skills they need to become college-educated leaders who give back to their families and communities. That resonated with me because education and opportunity is what lifted my mother out of poverty, and it's why I have been in the nonprofit sector working on issues of youth and education ever since.

2. What makes Summer Search special?

Two things make Summer Search stand out. First, we are a long-term intervention--we stick with our students from sophomore year of high school through college graduation. We're one of very few organizations to leverage paid professional mentors who help students see how they hold themselves back and how they can push themselves forward during this important time in their development.

Second, we are about college success and leadership. We choose students who demonstrate certain mindsets and behaviors (grit, resilience, altruism), and we invest in them expecting that they in turn will become leaders who invest in their families and communities. Our model aims to strengthen these non-cognitive skills that are critical to success in school and in life. The outcome is college graduates and leaders who give back to their families and communities.

Since 1990, we have served over 5,700 students--95% of our students are low-income and over 90% are the first in their families to earn a college degree. Their hard work and Summer Search's support lead to tremendous success. We work in many schools where only half of low-income or students of color graduate. Ninety-nine percent of our students graduate from high school. Over 90% of our students matriculate to college, and more than 70% of them complete a Bachelor's degree in six years, compared to just 1 in 10 of their low-income peers. Summer Search works.

3. What has surprised you during your time at Summer Search? What didn't you see coming?

I have been surprised by the profound importance of leading through influence and inspiration. We are an organization working in seven cities with eight boards. That's a lot of geographically dispersed stakeholders that we want rowing in the same direction, and we currently reach a fraction of the kids who could benefit.

I have a vision of Summer Search impacting exponentially more kids by partnering with other organizations and sharing what we do best--mentoring adolescents for college success and leadership. That is a big shift. And a challenging one for a 25-year-old nonprofit that, up to this point, has served kids directly. To do this effectively, hundreds of board, staff, and supporters must become as obsessed as I am about achieving this vision. Painting a clear, transformative vision is both powerful and risky--because some will want to row whole-heartedly for it and others may want to get out of the boat. My job is to help us to choose a destination together--because the power of all of us rowing in one direction will accomplish so much more for the kids we care about.

4. What leadership lessons would you share with others who are trying to create change in their communities?

Know thyself is a profound lesson that I keep learning. To drive change, I've recognized the need to be aware of my thoughts and to challenge and re-examine my own stories because they usually define the boundaries of what I believe is possible.

I find it valuable when I share my vulnerability. I used to think my job was to have the answers and present them as professionally and emotionlessly as possible. Being a woman of color, I always wanted to have it all together--to be more buttoned up and better prepared. I have consistently been told I am articulate and polished, but as I got further in my career people pointed out another side to that: would my teams feel comfortable being real with me? Would I be able to inspire people? I learned at Summer Search that vulnerability fosters understanding and connection, and demonstrates strength rather than weakness. For the last few years, I have been working actively to impact others by sharing more of myself in everything I do. It is scary but also feels amazing and affirming to allow more of myself to be seen.

5. You're also busy raising a two-year-old daughter. How has your parenting experience changed how you approach your work?

Parenting has been infinitely rewarding and tremendously humbling. It has grounded my work particularly because my daughter has asthma. Being in the ER with your kid when she is struggling to breathe puts work in sharp perspective. It makes the stresses of work not particularly stressful anymore.

Parenting has made my work even more personal. I look at my daughter, Olive, and have so many hopes for her: that she will grow up healthy, have a quality education, and the opportunity to thrive and offer her gifts to the world. It kills me that so many young people do not get the kinds of opportunities I wish for Olive. That is endless motivation.

Learn more through Summer Search's website and follow @SummerSearch.

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