After completing her BSW at the University of Vermont, Elise joined the Peace Corps in Botswana where she worked in a primary school as a youth development volunteer, with a focus on capacity building, HIV prevention, and gender equality. In 2017, she completed her MSW at Columbia University. Currently, Elise is the Executive Director at TEEEM, an international nonprofit, focused on meeting community needs through strategic partnerships.
Number of years in management: 1 year
Tell us about your path to management:
Right out of my MSW program I began volunteering with TEEEM, a small international nonprofit run only by the founder. After long days of working full-time at a technology company, followed by nights of volunteering with TEEEM, I realized that I was splitting my efforts, and not pursuing my passion. I had dreams of managing the strategic vision for the nonprofit, strengthening the management of our existing programs and strategically expanding to new sites. So, I put together a work plan and proposal and pitched my ideas to the founder. Two months later, I was working full-time as Executive Director.
What leadership qualities do you find to be the most effective in reaching your organizational or career goals?
A good leader balances humility with vision. As the leader of an organization, it’s crucial to listen more than to speak, yet be decisive when needed, always linking the decision back to organizational priorities and objectives. In my professional life, I’ve found it vital to keep my values top of mind and to learn and grow from past mistakes.
How do you motivate your team members?
As a low-overhead organization, TEEEM relies upon the passion of volunteers to succeed. Of course, that poses additional challenges in motivation when financial support is off the table. As a result, I work closely with new team members to identify aspects of the work they find particularly exciting and which adds value to the organization. I try to make volunteering fun and promote a sense of ownership over projects and assignments, assigning tasks that help volunteers work towards and achieve their individual professional goals.
Is there a leader or mentor who has inspired or assisted you along your professional journey?
I’ve been fortunate enough to have many mentors and inspirational figures in my life. I’ve valued my professors (shout-out to Rick Greenberg!), social worker advisors (thanks, Laudy Burgos) and several professionals working in international non-profit management. Everyone has provided invaluable insight, that has helped shape me on my professional journey. However, this list would never be complete without mentioning my father, my go-to business person. As a serial-entrepreneur, who is currently running two successful businesses, he always grounds me and helps me stay focused on what’s best for the organization.
How has networking impacted your career?
Networking is a skill that I continue to practice. It’s hard to walk up to someone at an event and introduce yourself, but it’s immensely important. I wouldn’t be working at TEEEM if I hadn’t utilized my Columbia network and most of the international programs we work with have been identified through networking. Beyond professional connections, I find networking personally valuable – while not every conversation will lead to a new job, funding or partner, it will often lead to an interesting dialogue where I leave with a new book to read, an article to research, or simply a new perspective.
What are you reading and/or following now (book, blog, social media groups, etc)?
I’m usually reading at least 2 or 3 books at a time. I typically have my easy-read, a narrative that pulls on your heartstrings, and one that challenges me, by furthering my education, and shifting my paradigm. I’ll leave you in suspense of the latest trash romance novel I’m reading, but I’m also in the middle of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty as well as Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.
What advice do you have for those beginning their professional journey or who are already in leadership positions?
Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. I wouldn’t be in my current position if I hadn’t advocated for myself. Put some time and effort into considering what you want to achieve, be thoughtful and intentional in your approach, and then go for it!
Do you have an initiative or project you would like to tell our readers about?
While in the Somali region of Ethiopia in early-October, I conducted interviews with internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to the violence between the Oromia and Somali borders. It is my hope to share their story with others to raise awareness of the trauma and hardship faced by women living in this part of the world.
What do you wish you had known before you started your career?
Find your people. I cannot stress enough how important it is to surround yourself with individuals who can challenge you and offer new perspectives. Find the mentors who can help guide your professional and personal development. Don’t be afraid to initiate that relationship: reach out and ask for advice. And once you do, stay in touch – a little effort goes a long way in maintaining those valuable relationships!
Share a mistake or failure that provided the most growth in your career.
I make mistakes every day. While there isn’t one mistake or failure that stands out as a pivotal moment in my career, I know that I can always do better in the smaller moments. Whether it’s being able to prioritize important versus urgent tasks, keeping a meeting focused on the agenda, or simply taking the time I need to organize my thinking. I value and respect feedback from the people on my team, relying on them to challenge what I say and keep me accountable in my actions. Only through honest dialogue can I become a better manager, and support the needs of my TEEEM.
*The views expressed herein are those solely of the author and not necessarily endorsed by The Network for Social Work Management.