THE BLOG
12/28/2014 08:14 am ET Updated Feb 27, 2015

Women in Business Q&A: Louisa Benton, Executive Director, of the Hope for Depression Research Foundation

Louisa brings the skills of over 20 years in non-profit leadership, education, journalism and public relations to HDRF. She has led the development efforts of several major non-profits including American Ballet Theatre, Theatre for a New Audience, and the American Associates of the Royal Academy Trust. She has been a public relations executive and written for the Miami Herald, St. Peterburg Times, and the New York Times. Immediately prior to HDRF, she was part of the team that built the non-profit Worldfund into the premier US-based NGO focused on education in Latin America. She graduated from Harvard College with a Bachelor of Science cum laude in the double major of History and Science, and a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University.

Louisa's life-long interest in the mind-brain connection began in high school, where she won top honors in Biology and spent a semester in a neuroendocrinology lab at Mass General Hospital. During her senior year at Harvard, she wrote an original biography of the scientist Arturo Rosenblueth, whose research team at Harvard Medical School discovered the chemical transmission of nerve impulses. The thesis is now permanently stored in the Harvard Archives and has been cited in other scholarly works.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Hands down, I had a great education - I have to thank my parents for that. But I've also been called a maverick - I never followed the straight and narrow, and I always sought out new people and experiences. I think that has shaped my character and toughened me up. At Harvard, I allowed my intellectual curiosity to reign free. I became majored in Biology so that I could explore the brain and might discover the secret of consciousness! I wanted to know how a three-pound mass of tissue is capable of reflecting upon itself. Later I changed my major to History and Science because the dual concentration allowed me to incorporate philosophy and religion into my studies. As senior I wrote an original biography on an important but overlooked neuroscientist who was part of the team that discovered the chemical transmission of nerve impulses. The biography, which took me to Mexico for several months of research, is stored in the Harvard Archives and has been cited in other scholarly works. That project eventually led to my becoming a journalist in the early part of my career. Education, communications and independent-thinking are three themes that run through my life.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at HDRF?
I know non-profits inside and out so at this point I feel it's in my blood. I've been in leadership positions in non-profits now for 15 years. I've worked for non-profits both large and small so I know what it means to wear many hats in a small start-up, and also be a cog in the wheel of a giant national non-profit. From communications to fundraising to budgets and governance, I really understand what it takes to make a non-profit succeed from knowing how to communicate its mission, and the rationale for its mission to its stakeholders. One of the most important things is that donors feel confident their gift is going to make a real difference in moving the mission forward.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at HDRF?
The highlight has been working with the Founder and Chair, Audrey Gruss who has an enormous sense of wonder and creativity, not to mention passion and experience as a former marketing/ad executive. Once I understood the vision and activities of the Foundation, we created marketing and communications pieces together and the sparks flew! We are even known to finish each other's sentences, so it's a very exciting collaboration.

A challenge is to take an issue - depressive illness - that is still faced with so much stigma and build national awareness so that society's discussion of mind-brain issues can be more elevated and less abashed. Depression is so misunderstood, under-researched and under-funded and we want to see depression discussed in the same manner as other illnesses that were previously in the shadows, such as breast and prostate cancer, which are now openly viewed as important medical issues.

We just finished a major event honoring two incredible mind-brain health advocates: Chiara de Blasio and David O. Russell, the filmmaker. Both have had a profound effect on raising awareness about the facts of depression, have inspired others to seek help for this serious but treatable medical condition, and have brought attention to the need for new treatments and research in the greatly under-funded area of mood and emotional disorders.

What advice can you offer women who are looking to establish a non-profit?
Passion is a given, but you also have to be realistic about the absolute commitment it takes to build a non-profit. You have to be ready to move mountains on a shoestring so you need to make sure you have plenty of time and can carve out days and nights away from other commitments, like family. Starting a non-profit is not a quaint pastime. On a practical level, you will want to be sure you get all your legal, tax and financial plans in order. Make sure you identify a trusted set of advisors that can form your board of directors - preferably who can also support the organization financially -- and good legal counsel.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Almost everybody has to work for a living. But I love that everything on my to-do list is toward building a mission that can help millions of people across the globe and quite possibly change the way we define the human condition and ourselves. We are funding paradigm-changing science into the brain, mood and emotion so I'm not overly concerned about balance right now! That being said, I make sure to get enough exercise and sleep during the week, and see friends and family during the weekend. I live a ten-minute walk away from the office, so I don't spend precious time in a train commuting.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
It's so important to find the right mentor - somebody that you can trust and bounce ideas off of. Somebody that recognizes and values your strengths and knows how to give both praise and the kind of constructive criticism that builds you up and makes you want to go at each day 100%.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
It's made all the difference. I'm the youngest of a large family, and our dinner table was always very lively. There were a lot of wonderful storytellers, and I was happy to give the older members of my family the spotlight. The great mentors of my life have given me the security and confidence to step into the spotlight myself.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Jane Goodall -- wise, authentic, compassionate. She is truly an icon. I also admire Elizabeth Gilbert, the writer. She has made a career out of living her life as authentically as possible, without compromising to appease others' expectations. I admire both women for their strong sense of personal agency.

What do you want HDRF to accomplish in the next year?
I want us to make strong strides in neuroscience, and build greater awareness about depression and the critical need for research. I also want to double everything - double our donor base, staff and revenue. We are poised at an exciting moment of growth, and I want to see us not only become the leading non-profit dedicated solely to depression research, but a national brand.