Jessi Snyder: Where Water and Community Development Meet
Women's History Month | 5 MIN READ

Jessi Snyder: Where Water and Community Development Meet

[This is interview part of RCAP’s series to celebrate Women’s History Month and highlight the leadership and wisdom of the wonderful women who support this network]

Jessi Snyder is the Program Director for Self-Help Enterprises (SHE) and an RCAP Board Member. SHE is a nationally recognized community development organization that works with low-income families to build and sustain healthy homes and communities in the San Joaquin Valley of California.

Jessi has lived a life of service woven with a common thread of access to water. She has worked with SHE for fourteen years, beginning as an employee in the housing program and working her way up to Director of Community Development. Jessi has served on the RCAP Board for two years.

Can you share a bit about your background, the environment you grew up in, and the influence it played in your career choices and path?

I grew up in Phoenix Arizona, where water is at once an all-consuming concern and a totally opaque mystery. It is a mega-city and all anyone there knows is that they can turn on their tap and water will come out, like magic. I always found water to be incredibly alluring but also intriguing.

After college and few years in social services, I served in the Peace Corps in Malawi. There, I went to the other side of the spectrum in the water supply world. It was a situation of one central borehole where everyone went to fill up their buckets then carry them home. It was the complete opposite of the metropolitan U.S. city. This experience abroad brought home the way other people live and the challenges they face in a tangible way.

One of the projects I was involved in there was to fund money to drill a new well. Malawi also had a problem similar to what happens in small systems in the U.S.: a well would be built but left without any support or maintenance. There was no one around to fix small things like a handpump when it breaks. Boreholes, which are an incredibly valuable resource, would sit unused because of this.

These experiences were profound and perspective altering in every way. Upon coming home, I had the good luck of working for Self-Help Enterprises in our self-help housing program, but almost immediately a position opened up in our water & wastewater program. We call our water program “Community Development.” Like RCAP, we work on rural drinking and wastewater issues in the context of community development.

When you started your career, what environment in the workplace stood out to you? Can you compare the workplace from when you began your career to know?

Self-Help Enterprises’ values stood out to me. I went to a Quaker college where I was exposed to Quaker values, which include equality, peace, integrity, community, and simplicity. When I moved to the San Joaquin Valley, I sought out the Quaker meeting and learned about SHE through the meeting. The organization was founded on Quaker values by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). They looked to improve the lives of farm workers, many of whom were without resources. Farm workers asked AFSC for help building homes, and so a group of six families came together to build six homes. 55 years later, SHE is still building homes.

This beautiful origin story really drew me to SHE. The organization’s work and the people who truly believe in its mission captured me. The people who are there love to be there and are passionate about what they do. This, and the impactful work I get to do has kept me with SHE for all these years.

Have you had any female professional mentors or close colleagues who you look up to?

I really admire the CEOs of the RCAP Network – I look around and I am blown away. These five women (along with Mike Brownfield, Midwest Assistance Program) are beyond compare. I cannot think of a more diverse selection of personalities. They are each directing their own giant organization while influencing RCAP as a national organization.

I want to be like every single one of them! You have Ines (Ines Polonius, CU) who is so capable and smart. Then you have Hope (Hope Cupit, Treasurer/Secretary, SERCAP) who is bubbly, kind, and again so incredibly capable. Ruthann (Ruthann House, GLCAP) is a bit more soft-spoken and has razor-sharp insight. Karen (Karen Koller, RCAP Solutions) is the most direct and powerful person I’ve ever encountered. Suzanne (Suzanne Anarde, RCAC), is our newest CEO. She is an unstoppable woman who has worked her way up through affordable housing to lead an extraordinary organization. They are an incredible rainbow of amazing people with remarkable traits. I’m so lucky to be among them.

What advice would you give yourself from earlier in your career?

I would tell myself to be patient. I remember feeling such feelings of panic. I remember thinking “there is no way I’m going to learn all of this.” You have to give yourself the patience to work through it and trust that the knowledge will come. You will learn things here and there and connections will form. It will all start to make sense. Just relax and trust your own intellect.

Jessi Snyder, Program Director for Self-Help Enterprises

 

March 31, 2021
The Power of Being Yourself – A Q&A with RCAP Solutions President & CEO Karen A. Koller
Women's History Month | 9 MIN READ

The Power of Being Yourself – A Q&A with RCAP Solutions President & CEO Karen A. Koller

[This interview is part of RCAP’s series to celebrate Women’s History Month and highlight the leadership and wisdom of the wonderful women who support this network]

In today’s reality where so many women have had to and still must conform and stifle themselves to thrive in workplace environments, it was a breath of fresh air to chat with Karen Koller.

Karen’s legacy as a bold leader and changemaker supporting community and economic development in the Northeast U.S. and the U.S. Caribbean has spanned decades. She is the President & Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of RCAP Solutions Inc., and serves as a Board member for the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP), a national network of non-profit partners across the country helping rural and small communities build capacity through access to safe drinking water, sanitary wastewater and economic development.

From beginnings, where she was often set up to fail and judged negatively as a woman leader, to transforming and growing RCAP Solutions into a multifaceted $58 million organization offering critical services to communities, Karen has had quite a journey. And she has navigated it all with courage, style and a sense of humor.

Can you share a little about your background, your youth and how you think that shaped you? 

I was born in Brockton, Massachusetts which was called the shoe city of the world at one time. My dad was a gemologist, a jeweler. That was the beginning of my love for nice things. My mother was a southern belle and my dad moved her north from Virginia. I’m an interesting blend of the southern belle mentality, very independent, focused on doing the right thing, and my dad brought beauty into my life with retail and a commitment to customer service. I’ve always had a belief that I could accomplish anything. My parents were very supportive to the point of probably being obnoxious, but they never said no. They would just say, “Karen, if you want to try it, do it.” And so I did.

When you began your career, what stood out about your workplace environment that is different from today?

I started young at the jewelry store, and by the time I turned  fifteen, I worked side by side with my dad, learning how to sell. I moved into the management of the office while I was still in school. The workplace environment during this time was very supportive of young people.  As my career progressed, I worked in insurance, retail, and human resources. Back then the workforce environment was very male dominated. But I do see a big difference now, and my strong message to anyone today is you need to always believe in yourself, have a good sense of humor and be willing to make mistakes.

We employ five generations at RCAP now.  So as CEO, trying to stay on top of how you communicate with someone of a different age bracket is interesting. It’s’ been a challenge. But it’s also been enlightening for me.

Can you share about some of the obstacles or barriers you faced early in your career journey?

My first Executive Director role was when I was 32 years old. I was just getting my MBA and was hired by a  chamber of commerce as the first woman in 1986. My husband was a professor at the local community college, but nobody knew who I was. It was the first indication I ever got that these types of jobs can be very political, even though it wasn’t a political position. Through the first couple of years, I was blackballed from the local Rotary club. Typically, the chamber executive was given automatic membership to all the local service and community groups. Not so with me. They did not admit me initially.

Also, shortly after I was hired, some members of the community took out a petition to get me fired.  It was a very small, male-dominated, manufacturing based community and they didn’t want a woman who actually had the chutzpah to push back and ask tough questions. They didn’t win because the board of directors stood behind me as their hire.

In my next position, I moved to a much larger suburban Boston chamber, where I thought it would be less political when in fact, it was more. I beat out several local candidates for the position, and the next thing you know someone is saying I must be sleeping with someone. I don’t know where we are today but every time those hits come, you can either fold from it and say, I don’t want to deal with this, or you can stand up and say, well, I’m going to prove to you that I’m worth this job.

Another barrier for me has always been that I love to dress. I love to sparkle, and some people took it as an affront that I wasn’t trying to mold myself like the women that were in early banking. They were trying to give them little bowties, and they were supposed to be men in business suits.  I had no money, but I got myself a lot of vintage clothing and I started playing with my personal brand.  I still love to play to this day, and maybe one day I’ll get it right.

How did your organization change you and how did you change your organization?

I have been here for 20 years. I didn’t know anything about housing other than I owned a house. In the interview, I said, “I know nothing about water except that I have running water. If you want content experts, you’ve got a ton of them. What you need is a transformational leader.” I got the job. There were a lot of people who were very unhappy that they didn’t hire from within. There was a real drum beat to get me out and embarrass me.  But I was very lucky that the executive director at that time at the national RCAP wanted to help me. I decided I really loved what we do, but the organization itself was in shambles. They literally didn’t have to be in business when I first got in, except for the fact that they had $23 million in state and federal contracts to be fulfilled.

There was a lot of organizational change. It was rebuilt from the ground up. There was a huge culture shift in nonprofits, or at least in mine. The idea was that if you work for the poor, you have to be poor. As an example, their compensation rates were below market and they didn’t have any air conditioning in the building because it was considered a luxury. Since I dressed up every day to the nines with or without air conditioning, I was going to prove to them that this can be fixed. When you go in as a changemaker, you also really have to get a strong handle on what is true and who to trust.

I’ve changed tremendously. What I’ve done over time is to keep learning also. I joined networking groups that would help me keep my head on straight when I needed to. I never thought I had all the answers. If anything, I think it’s important to ask the right questions.

How would you define leadership, and do you have any examples to share?  

I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a natural leader. However, I will say my instincts were always strong as a young girl. I think some people just have a clarity in their mind as to where they should be, and I always did. As an example of leadership, I got cancer several years ago and it was truly an experiment because I was going to be out for a series of months. So, it was about delegating and empowering my entire senior group. They learned that I had their backs, and that whatever they were doing, I was always available. I just wasn’t in the office at that time. That was really an important shift for me in terms of realizing you don’t have to walk the halls of a building every day to be a leader.

What advice would you give young women today trying to navigate their career?

The world might have changed a little bit. Maybe we’re more aware of things. But let’s not kid ourselves. If you are a young woman trying to navigate a career, I’d say take every opportunity that’s handed to you. Even if you doubt that you can do it, take a risk. I think people have to take calculated risks and be willing to make a mistake. You’re never going to be perfect as you continue to grow. And just don’t lie. It’s so simple. People don’t want to fail, but I can tell a mile away if someone’s making up a story.

And if you’re going to be accepted and get through a long-term career, no matter what path you go, be true to yourself. Know who you are. If you don’t know who you are, then help yourself to find out and just take opportunities as they come along.

Be inquisitive, be smart, always have humor, and make people that don’t know how to, laugh, especially at themselves.

When you reflect on your journey, what would you say you’re most proud of?

I think the most fundamental thing for me, and this goes back to my youth, was to be true to myself, and stand up for what I think is right. If you are a woman who wants to make a difference, believe in what you’re doing. Believe in yourself. If you don’t believe in yourself, who the hell is going to? Throughout my career, it’s been about staying true to who Karen is. Like it or not.

Karen A. Koller has just completed radiation from her second bout with cancer and is feeling optimistic about the future

 

March 29, 2021
Ruthann House’s Story
Women's History Month | 5 MIN READ

Ruthann House’s Story

Ruthann House, President/CEO of Great Lakes Community Action Partnership (GLCAP)
This is part of RCAP’s series to celebrate Women’s History Month and highlight the leadership and wisdom of the wonderful women who support this network
When I began working at Great Lakes Community Action Partnership 36 years ago, I never dreamed that I would stay in our organization for so many years, and never knew that I would one day become GLCAP’s president/CEO. While I did not set out to become a CEO and it was never my life’s plan, it truly was a natural progression that began even before I started working here. I was born and raised into a rural northwest Ohio family where service was expected, which most certainly guided my choice in professions. Neighborhoods were tight knit in my childhood. We knew all our neighbors and developed lasting friendships with many. This shaped my belief that we can count on one another in times of need.

Helping others is what we do at GLCAP, and it is why I am here. Among our many services we offer as a community action agency, we are also a proud partner in the Rural Community Assistance Partnership. Serving as the Great Lakes RCAP, we operate in the states of Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, West Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. As one of the RCAP partners, we have the opportunity to work closely with the national office and the other five regional partners, along with a dedicated group of skilled, committed, and professional board members from across the country. Being a partner in bringing clean water, wastewater improvements, and economic development opportunities to small, rural communities is truly an honor and privilege.

The good work of Great Lakes RCAP is one of the many reasons why I consider myself fortunate to serve as our agency’s president/CEO, a role I have had for nearly nine years. The past six of these years has been especially rewarding and challenging for GLCAP. We have added new programs, expanded our footprint, and doubled the size of our agency—something that could only be accomplished through a strong, dedicated team. But, just as our agency has “grown up” over time, in essence, I have too. In my early years, the “good ole boys” club was alive and well and there were certainly fewer women in positions of authority. During those years, I have served in many positions, always looking to challenge myself. Perseverance, hard work, focus, furthering my education by obtaining my MBA, and building my leadership skills have all led to my current role. I have also had the pleasure of working alongside many GLCAP family members who have grown up while spending their careers here. While I am proud that we have built a strong, resilient, and dedicated team throughout the years, part of my journey here has also led me to recognize that we will always be building and growing as we move into the future. Part of being a leader means accepting that leadership is a never-ending journey of continuous improvement and maintaining our integrity, as what we do when no one is looking shapes our public actions.

Likewise, being a leader means respecting and learning from the talents of others. I have always tried to surround myself with the best and brightest talent I could hire. No one steers the ship alone, so having the best possible crew makes us all more successful. Being a leader means taking care when making decisions. One important lesson I learned from a mentor was “the 24-hour rule,” meaning do not make a hasty or reactionary decision unless it is a matter of extreme urgency. Take 24 hours to think over the options before proceeding. This rule has proven itself many times over the years. Being a leader also means taking care of yourself and your family, and it means making sure your team knows to do the same. I hope that I have made the organization better prepared for the next generation of leaders while always stressing my “family comes first” mantra. We must first take care of ourselves and our families so we may be prepared to serve the individuals, families and communities that count on us daily.

Finally, being a leader means recognizing the value and importance of those around you. I trust that I have imparted onto my GLCAP family members that what they do each and every day makes a difference in people’s lives and our communities. We have a strong focus on building partnerships, both internally and externally, knowing that it takes a village to make great accomplishments.

Now, both within and outside our organization, the new generation of young women are beginning their careers just as I did 36 years ago. My advice to them is to show up prepared for each day as a new adventure. Utilize the talents of your team. Be prepared and willing to negotiate for yourself—others won’t do it for you. Put family first for yourself and your staff—you will never regret this. Finally, when things get “scary” as Fred Rogers said he learned from his mother, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” This is remarkably true. There are always helpers. Look for people who are helping when you need it and look for opportunities to help people when they need it too. Happy Women’s History Month—let’s keep building and holding up our sisters as we continue to move forward.

March 22, 2021
A Story of Hope Part 2
Women's History Month | 5 MIN READ

A Story of Hope Part 2

Hope Cupit, CEO of Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project (SERCAP)
This is part of RCAP’s series to celebrate Women’s History Month and highlight the leadership and wisdom of the wonderful women who support this network
In 1987 the United States Congress declared March as Women’s History Month. This long overdue recognition and celebration honoring the many accomplishments women have made in this great country was long overdue. After all, the popular saying is that behind every great man there is a woman making it possible for him to be great. Now that March is officially Women’s History Month, it is our duty to empower ourselves, our friends, and our colleagues by supporting women and women’s work/life balance.

In the early 1900’s most women did not work outside of the home.  As a matter of fact, 20% of all women were “gainfully employed” in the early 20th century compared to 2020, when 57% of women made up the workforce. Currently, only 33% of women are working due to COVID-19. African American women were more likely to participate in the labor force than any other demographic, even after getting married. Most women left the workforce upon getting married due to cultural norms. As a child, none of the women in my life “stayed at home” to raise us. They all had to work to provide for their families, and we as children had to grow up fast and learn how to care for ourselves, our siblings, and our cousins. I was fortunate to have a huge family, and we often stayed with other cousins while my mother worked. If we were lucky our grandparents would take a turn to watch us. As I got older it was normal to see most kids walking home from elementary school with keys around their necks to get into their homes. We were known as latchkey kids. I often say being a woman for me started in first grade. I was responsible for my younger brother and maybe a cousin or two who stayed in the house with me. I was forced to take charge and take care of those around me. I believe having this responsibility shaped my life and my drive to work hard.

I am honored to share my story, especially now when most women are in the workforce and have careers. My educational background is in accounting. I have a master’s degree in accounting and am a Certified Public Accountant. I worked for a regional CPA firm that mainly audited nonprofit organizations in the state of Virginia. When I was young, I went to public schools and had a two-year period in a private school. The private school experience shaped my educational path because it was there that I was introduced to accounting and decided that was what I wanted to pursue as a career. I had great family support from my mother, uncles, aunt and both set of grandparents. They encouraged me to do well in school and in life.

When I started my career I mainly worked with nonprofit organizations as their CPA. At the accounting firm I worked for, if you were seen out in the hall talking with others, they would reduce your hours.  I had strict bosses, which was a good thing for me. They emphasized having a good work ethic, staying busy, and being a team player. There was no room for mistakes. Of course, over time things have changed and technology has made the work place more flexible. You may work anywhere these days and do not have to be in an office to get the job done.

The advice I would give myself twenty years ago is to enjoy life and spend more time with family. I was so concerned about my career that I found it hard to have work/life balance. Although if I had to do it all over I would also advise myself about time management. Having mastered that skill would have provided me with a perfect work/life balance. Being a married woman with children and working in a male dominated field may leave most of us behind due to constant competition in the workplace. I am very thankful for the support of my husband and I know he is grateful of my support of him as well.  We are a team.

The advice I want to give young women trying to navigate careers in today’s world is to be prepared to spot appropriate career development opportunities that allow for stepping stones to reach the next career level. Please know that life is a marathon and not a sprint, so do not feel pressured to rush into anything. Always think strategically. Surround yourself with people that are successful, both men and women, and learn from them. Develop a career network that will promote and expose you to other fields that are different than the one where you currently work. Finally, always be yourself and stay focused on the vision to cultivate goals needed to become a better version of you, both at work and at home.

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, get to know the women in your circle and learn from their experiences. Remember that life experiences and challenges shape who we are and how we present ourselves to others. I encourage you to join a women’s professional network and continue to grow.

Happy Women’s History Month!

Hope F. Cupit is the CEO of Southeast RCAP, serving the south Atlantic States and a proud member of the RCAP network. She also serves on the RCAP board and is currently the Treasurer/Secretary of the board.

March 19, 2021
Women Mentors, Big Vision, and #RuralMatters
Women's History Month | 5 MIN READ

Women Mentors, Big Vision, and #RuralMatters

Ines Polonius, CEO, Communities Unlimited
This is part of RCAP’s series to celebrate Women’s History Month and highlight the leadership and wisdom of the wonderful women who support this network
Saturday morning breakfast was dedicated family time in our German household. One Saturday morning when I was fifteen, I wondered out loud between bites what I could do with my life to impact the lives of others, perhaps by fighting world hunger or protecting human rights or some such thing. My father, whom I love dearly, proceeded to tell the story of his executive secretary and how she kept the entire company moving forward. I looked at him in utter disbelief. I remember saying, “Dad, I need to be CEO to change the world.” A derisive chuckle circled the breakfast table.

Maybe subconsciously, this conversation put me on my entrepreneurial path, although I have always been more focused on fighting poverty than becoming a CEO. College texts on leadership and management make a convincing case that you can’t learn vision. The next few decades showed me that vision is about the future you want. The rest is imagination and small steps every day toward that vision, even if sometimes it requires a step back to take two forward.

The quest to fight poverty took me first to the Dominican Republic and then Chile, each time working for the same courageous woman. She taught me everything I know about facilitating groups of people toward a common, self-defined outcome. But it was her abusive management style that may have taught me even more. Those toxic years taught me the importance of leading through respect and dignity and taking care of the people with whom I work.

In the mid-90s, a fellowship at the North Carolina Institute for Minority Economic Development (The Institute) allowed me to work for civil rights and anti-poverty champion, Andrea Harris. These two years were both life and career changing. Watching an esteemed, Black woman change policy and secure resources in a state of white male economic developers gave me the courage to step into the arena. Working in a predominantly Black organization where conversations about daily experiences with racism altered my white, privileged perspective forever. Ms. Harris also gave me and other fellows the opportunity to build one of the country’s first minority-business development programs. At that time, we had no models to use for guidance. Instead, we allowed Black entrepreneurs’ needs to define our tools and approach.

In 1998, when our fellowship at The Institute ended, Jonathan Harrison and I then took the entrepreneurial plunge to launch alt.Consulting, one of the country’s first social enterprises (long before the time of B-Corps) to provide intensive technical assistance to entrepreneurs of color in order to build intergenerational wealth. At age 29, I was grateful for a business partner who was willing to become Executive Director. alt.Consulting would move to the Mid-South thanks to partnerships with Hope Credit Union and Southern Bancorp.

Because Jonathan was the epitome of an entrepreneur, he was ready to start the next venture five years later. Naturally, I would step into the Executive Director role. Not so fast. I was more interested in helping grow small businesses in the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta than run an organization. In searching for an executive director, our wise board chair invited me to the final five interviews, all with white males. As he and I reflected on each of the candidates, he quietly said, “The time is now for you to step up and lead or lose what you have built.” And so at age 34, I was catapulted into becoming the CEO of a struggling non-profit enterprise. It was all but glamorous.

The opportunity to participate in and help shape WealthWorks, a new model for rural community-economic development funded initially by the Ford Foundation, allowed a vision to take shape for a more comprehensive approach to building prosperity in rural places. Through this work, I encountered several more amazing women mentors, especially Deb Markley (now with LOCUS) and Janet Topolsky (Aspen Community Strategies Group).

Boom. At 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning in February of 2014, John Squires, a long-time respected colleague in the rural work called to inquire if I would explore merging alt.Consulting with Community Resource Group (CRG). John had founded CRG in 1975, launched the National Water Demonstration Project which led to the forming of the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP). He needed a decision in six hours before he met with his board chair. I went on a run, I meditated, I called our director of lending, Deborah Temple, and I talked with my life partner, Mark. Exactly five and a half hours later, I called John to tell him I was ready to explore the option. Nine rapid-fire months later we had merged two Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) to form Communities Unlimited. Again, I felt catapulted into a whole new CEO experience with an amazing team of 42 people.

All along I have been more interested in fighting poverty than becoming CEO. And so it is that I feel a deep sense of gratitude every day to be allowed to lead a growing team of 70 hard-working professionals. Regardless of our specific job descriptions, each of us works to ensure that individuals living in rural, persistently poor places in the South have access to healthy foods and safe drinking water, while having the opportunity to follow their entrepreneurial dreams successfully. I get really excited seeing a growing number of individuals, especially young women, step into community leadership positions where their vision for change will shape the future of their rural hometowns.

 

March 16, 2021