5 things I wish someone told me when I first started – Carla Javits, REDF President and CEO

Our President & CEO, Carla Javits, was interviewed recently by Yitzi Weiner, a writer for Forbes, Huffpost and creator of the  blog series – “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me,” which appears in Thrive Global. In it he interviews CEO’s, leaders, and celebrities in order to share advice that can empower people and help to improve the world. This is an excerpt from that conversation.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. 

The team. Establishing the right team is critical, but it is not just about brilliant, talented individuals. It’s about people meshing with the mission, and their colleagues. I have had the good fortune to work with many amazing people who have contributed a lot. The times we have made the most progress are when I’ve worked with a group that is diverse across race, class, gender, while motivated by the same vision, trusting one another, and enjoying on a personal level interacting with each other. That’s where REDF is right now. It’s the one reason I’m so optimistic about the progress we’ll make.

Results. Start with the results. Figure out what you’re trying to get done. Figure out how to measure if you’re getting there. From there, decide what you’re actually going to do. When I was at the Corporation for Supportive Housing, we had the nerve to set out what we thought was a really audacious goal — creating 100,000 affordable apartments with supportive services for people experiencing homelessness. Publicly defining that goal led to a National Press Club announcement by five leading foundations, who committed $50 million to reaching that objective, which resulted in years of good work that affected far more than 100,000 people. We’re applying that kind of thinking at REDF now.

Time. Change takes time. Nonprofits, businesses, government agencies, individual people and our culture all embody a sort of DNA. It is devilishly hard to change once it’s set in place. To move the needle on poverty, and huge problems of that kind, in a substantive and lasting way, takes a really long time — not a few years — decades! It requires courage. And it requires tenacity. The cultural and institutional backdrop of racism, and other ‘isms’ has a profound impact that are too often underestimated. We have to take all of that on to make real change, and that takes time — and a lot of partners.

Social enterprise. The beauty of social enterprise is that it very deliberately takes on two sides of the equation: social change and a business model. Historically, it was seen as crass and insensitive for nonprofits to talk about or focus on how to generate revenue and organize their business in order to address a social problem. And for- profits should, as Milton Friedman emphasized, maximize profits and let government and others deal with the “negative externalities.”

The beauty of social enterprise is also in challenging this orthodoxy on both sides. As it turns out, when nonprofits are clear about their revenue needs, and pay attention to generating that revenue sustainably, while setting up their “business” approach to achieve and measure their performance against clear objectives, they accomplish a lot more. And it turns out that when for-profits integrate social concerns—from who they hire to how they treat their employees to the social and environmental impact of the products they sell—they actually beat the competition.

This kind of cross-sector effort social enterprise embodies is essential. Social enterprise is a great vehicle for solving big problems, and will grow and thrive over the coming years as millennials come into leadership, because they embrace the idea of a “double bottom line’” in a way that my generation has not.

It’s personal. If you take on big issues in any kind of public way, you will be personally attacked. Withstanding that, staying open to learning, and persisting are essential skills. Everyone does that differently. When I first started working for the City of San Francisco in the 1980’s, a group of families who had been homeless marched into our building, rightfully furious at the conditions in the city-funded apartment buildings they lived in. Rats and roaches in a big glass bottle set on the stage of our agency’s meeting room told the tale. Their wrath was directed at me and my colleagues. There were many incidents like this that left me in tears daily. Over time, I learned it was not about me personally, and it did no one any good to dwell on feelings of inadequacy and hurt. Better to channel those feelings into action. We visited the buildings, cleaned up the programs, and put our energy into solving problems.

Read the whole interview here, and learn why Carla wants to have lunch with Oprah.