People do good for others every day in the community surrounding Austin. At RecognizeGood, our mission is to help strengthen that community by sharing those inspiring examples. In our Doing Good Better series, we take a docu-series look into innovative collaborations around the Austin area that make our community stronger. Leadership Austin launched a pilot Fellows Program to connect experienced retirees with sustainability-building projects that nonprofits often don’t have the resources to execute. Projects that require a different caliber of candidate.
33-year IBM executive Becky Austen was paired with Mission Capital to strengthen collaboration and impact within the organization’s Social Venture Partners (SVP) program, a network of business leaders that invests in innovative solutions to create positive social change. We spoke with Becky and Mission Capital’s CEO Madge Vasquez about their Fellowship experience.
“If I had written a check that was equivalent to what my time is worth, it would not have had the same value for Mission Capital. I feel like there are so many other people like me running around Austin, ready to do this kind of work and this kind of philanthropy and then just as many nonprofits that need that.”
RecognizeGood: So Madge, tell me from the beginning, how did you find out about the Fellowship program – what caused you to apply?
Madge Vasquez, CEO at Mission Capital: Well, Mission Capital’s been very grateful. And we’re just so appreciative to Leadership Austin and the St. David’s Foundation for launching this unique program, which leverages the wisdom, experience and expertise of executive leaders here in Central Texas. Mission Capital was delighted to be part of the inaugural class. We were able to apply for that first round of interviews and we all just fell in love with Becky Austen, who was a retired executive from IBM, and who really just brought an amazing combination of skill sets to the role that we had envisioned to redesign our Social Venture Partner (SVP) program.
RG: Did you go in with the intent of SVP being the focus?
Madge: We did. I was really new to my role – I had just stepped into Mission Capital as a new CEO and we were about to start a strategic planning process. I was looking at the programs that really just needed a little bit more investment during this process. Social Venture Partners as a program had gone through a five-year life cycle, and we were at a point where we wanted to really renew the focus and mission of the program by revisiting our recruitment strategy and the business model of SVP. And so we enlisted Becky’s help in that effort.
RG: Becky, how did you find out about the Fellowship pilot program?
Becky Austen, Leadership Austin Fellow: It was late 2017, I was rolling out of my three-decades-plus job at IBM and had planned to just retire, clear my plate, and do nothing – when I ran into [Leadership Austin CEO] Christopher Kennedy at an event. We started talking about things going on with Leadership Austin, he asked me what I was doing next and he said “Oh, we’ve got this pilot program.” I said, “No, no, no, I need to do nothing for a while and figure out what’s next for me.” He said, “Well, you should just check it out.” So one thing led to another, they send the link, I look at it, I click the link, I apply. I tell people I failed at retirement because two months later, I was walking in the door at Mission Capital!
RG: What made you click the link?
Becky: I think it was my gut. I tend to trust my instincts and I have made choices like that all along the way. Something just kind of feels right, and I just feel like there’s a little voice in my head telling me this is the next thing you’ve got to do. It was not deliberate. There was no plan. I wasn’t looking for it. I wasn’t seeking it out. It was kismet that we ended up at the same event the same night and had that conversation.
RG: Madge, what was it about Becky specifically? Was there anything about her personality or skill set that made it seem like it was meant to be her?
Madge: Becky was a full package for us in so many ways. One, as a senior executive from IBM, she brought that very methodical, engineer-like approach to problem solving, and amazing business acumen. She was also very engaged in the community and she’s been a leader at (local giving circle) Impact Austin for many years. She really knew what it was to engage volunteers in meaningful philanthropy.
RG: Becky, what did you expect when you began working with Mission Capital? What was your experience and how did it change?
Becky: I’ve worked with a lot of nonprofits as a volunteer and I’ve served on boards and various committees. I’ve always had that role on the outside looking into a nonprofit as a volunteer, but never working as a staff member. I was used to the corporate, IBM world and figuring out how to get what I needed. I didn’t know what to expect, but I asked when I needed help, and told folks to let me go when I didn’t and that seemed to work. They gave me a lot of room – this was a position that didn’t really exist. What I was doing was rebuilding and figuring things out. How do we change this up and change the game? There were not a lot of rules and no job description. It was up to me to figure out, okay, what does this need? I checked in frequently with Madge and [Membership Manager] Chelsea [Hartness] and other leadership to ask, am I on the right track? Are we doing the right thing? Do we need to change course? The main guidance was to do the good stuff we did before, but do it with a lot less energy, money and time. So don’t lose the good stuff, and figure out new good stuff if you need it. These are your parameters, make that work – which was really fun. [Previous to becoming a Fellow] I spent a lot of time in positions where I had seniority and I had authority, but I always had other folks that I had to answer to and specific outcomes that I had to achieve, so this was really freeing. I felt responsible to accomplish something as a Fellow, and to come out the other end with measurable results and something tangible – but it was just me. I had to figure this out.
RG: To use your expertise is a game changer for this program. What would you say the value is in having someone like you there and not just a checkbook?
Becky: This is immeasurable! I mean, if I had written a check that was equivalent to what my time is worth, it would not have had the same value for Mission Capital. I’m filling in a blank that existed in these organizations. I mean, you want people writing the big checks, and you want philanthropy, all of that is great. But sometimes people don’t have that time to give, or they’re not at the right place in their life and you need that whole spectrum of giving. I think programs like this should be pervasive, because it’s very different from showing up as a volunteer or board member. You have be all-in, owning and working on these projects. I was bringing in what I have from business and learning what I have to learn from the nonprofit and social sector folks around me. There’s nothing like that! My only regret is that we had six Fellows last year and 10 this year – why can’t we do 100 of these? I feel like there are so many other people like me running around Austin, ready to do this kind of work and this kind of philanthropy and then just as many nonprofits that need that.
Madge: One of the things that we’ve been thinking about at Mission Capital is how to leverage all of the leaders in this community. Our new strategic plan is really focused on equipping and connecting mission-driven leaders, organizations and networks. I think the leadership piece of that is really our lever for social change. When I think about the Leadership Austin Fellowship program, we have senior executives who have amazing expertise, and social capital in this community. I really feel like the Leadership Austin Fellowship allows us to activate 20 or 30 years of amazing networks, business expertise and talent in this community. At Mission Capital we have a bird’s eye view of the nonprofit sector – we know that there are executives retiring; we call it the “silver tsunami” that is happening all across the country. Here in Central Texas, as it relates to business leaders and nonprofit leaders, we really feel there’s a unique role for Leadership Austin Fellows to play as they are passing on the torch helping to cultivate and nurture future leaders.
RG: What do you think you would have done if it weren’t for this program?
Madge: We were at a unique inflection point in that we had had a program manager transition from SVP. We really needed a unique staff person who could really look at the legacy vision and model of SVP and then take it to the next level. I think in an ideal world we would have hired a new SVP senior leader, but we just weren’t at that place from an organizational or financial perspective. Having the luxury and the gift of pausing to really reflect and redesign the program was the biggest boon for our organization.
RG: What draws each of you to giving back?
Becky: I have the capacity in myself and the capacity financially to be able to give. I’ve always felt like it’s part of being in the community. It doesn’t matter what your means are, wherever you are on the financial spectrum, you should be engaging the community in whatever way is meaningful for you. I feel compelled to do this work. I have a lot of stuff going on in my life and I could choose to say, this is not a priority for me right now, but I feel like I can’t let those things go. I’ve moved in and out of different forms of philanthropy at different times in my life, depending on the capacity that I had. Right now, the pull is so strong to do this work. I could just be kicking back and drinking margaritas with my feet in the sand on a beach somewhere, but I’m choosing not to.
Madge: I, personally, give because I love this community. I believe in this community and its potential. I, as an individual leader and professional, have received SO much in terms of just opportunity and support. I firmly believe that it’s our duty to give back and that’s why I invest. I think we have a really unique opportunity in Central Texas, as Austin continues to grow very rapidly – we have new people coming in to the city, as well as seasoned professionals and volunteers who have been here for decades. I firmly believe that there’s an amazing level of power and influence in connecting across nonprofit, for-profit, government, and public sectors!
Have a great example of someone in the Austin area doing good better? Let us know!