I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeffery T. D. Wallace, a native of Richmond, California, is a next generation social entrepreneur uniquely equipped to fulfill the dual roles of visionary and architect to find a sustainable solution to almost any social issue. He is president and CEO of LeadersUp, non-profit that bridges the gap between the untapped potential of young people and the business challenge of finding and keeping the best talent. With Wallace, LeadersUp has established best practices by facilitating employer-led solutions that are demand-driven and human-centered to tackle high youth unemployment in Chicago, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. He gets in front of the issues that fuel educational and economic inequities and unites people around shared goals to achieve disruptive and transformative change.
A graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles (he studied music and earned a BA in education), Wallace was the first undergraduate student conductor in UCLA’s music department. He later earned an MS in education from UCLA and an MS in organizational development from the University of California, Berkeley. Additionally, he is a fellow of the Presidio Institute and a Metropolitan Non-Resident Fellow of the Brookings Institution. In 2019, he received the Dr. Winston C. Doby Community Coalition Award from the Los Angeles Urban League. In 2018, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., Alpha Nu Omega Chapter, recognized him with the Excellence in Community Advocacy Award, and he was named one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you got started?
When I grew up in Richmond, California, it was the Murder Capital of the U.S.A. In spite of that onerous title, I was blessed to have family and community resources to maximize my potential. From an early age, I saw the need to challenge inequality and advocate on behalf of young people. I didn’t want to be the exception in my community, I wanted to be the rule, the standard as it relates to young people of color being able to maximize their potential. Throughout my career, that has been the prevailing theme behind what inspires me.
As president of the youth ministry at my church, I honed my leadership and public speaking skills and learned how to connect people and build coalitions. At UCLA, as one of a handful of African Americans in the music department, I learned through cultural isolation the importance of establishing and advocating for inclusive environments.
Before joining LeadersUp, I championed initiatives that enhanced education, public safety, public health and community development in South L.A. as senior program officer for the Los Angeles Urban League. One of the highlights was when I organized a trip to China for 35 high school students. They were exposed to a larger world and an international economy that lifted their thinking to a global level. Our young people will run through walls to get to an opportunity. That experience strengthened my resolve to ensure that at-risk talent in communities of color have access to economic opportunity in inclusive environments.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or takeaways you learned from that?
When I first started at the Los Angeles Urban League, I was in charge of board engagement. It was my responsibility to facilitate the logistics of the board meetings for board members. During one such event, the agenda was perfect, the room was perfect. I thought I had everything done but for one thing. I did not test the conference call line to make sure that it worked. And, of course, it didn’t work. For the first 10 minutes, me, the administrative assistant, and the CEO were all trying to figure out how to get the phone line working. What struck me as funny in that moment was all of that capacity trying to figure out the phone line. It taught me that in every situation you have to focus on the details that matter. It also helped me understand that as I am planning and moving, I have to be strategic. Even now, during the COVID-19 crisis, I must be thinking about how I can move forward with intention.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
One book that has helped me in my career is “From Good to Great.” Author Jim Collins explains that there are five levels of leadership, and that great organizations are run by great leaders who exercise Level 5 leadership. The difference between Level 4 leadership, which is a capable manager, and a Level 5 is that the Level 5 leader submits their ego to focus on the mission. That approach has kept me grounded and helped me recognize that I have to make room for others and be inclusive. That being a great leader is about having a great team composed of people whose expertise supplements one another.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company, what was your vision, your purpose?
My vision was to ensure that, in a racist society, young people of color have the support to access opportunity and to maximize their potential. As a nonprofit, we have a core mission to benefit society. We realized that in order to create opportunities and support access for young adults, we had to encourage employers to shift their hiring practices. We systemically operationalized our mission by reimagining what corporate citizenship looks like.
Do you have a №1 principle that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
My guiding principle is this: To whom much is given much is required. It is a privilege to be able to do what I love for whom I love with whom I love. What keeps me inspired to lean in at times like this is recognizing that heavy is the crown. It’s during the worst of times when our services are most needed and that inspires me to push forward.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family-related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
During COVID-19, I’ve recommitted myself to being more curious about what brings me joy, what inspires me and what I love to do, and prioritizing those things as a means of sustaining my own emotional agility. Being stuck between four walls reminds me of what it feels like to be in the communities we serve. Having control being taken from me and our family around how we live and operate has inspired me and my team at LeadersUp to double down on the fight for justice.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
One of the biggest work-related challenges I have faced during the pandemic has been maintaining and growing team morale, and ensuring that the culture of LeadersUp from an employer engagement standpoint doesn’t diminish. In response, I’ve taken a poll around the opportunities, challenges, wants, needs and desires of our team and given people space to reflect on all that’s happened in 2020. I have also doubled down on investing in our Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and providing access to mental health resources during this stressful time. It’s important, that in my role, I show up as an employer who demonstrates a commitment to caring about the quality of work and the culture in which our team members operate.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I’ve increased the utilization of FaceTime with immediate family and friends, and have been more intentional around communicating with friends and loved ones in the same manner in which I want to be communicated in terms of frequency, consistency and depth of discussion. I would encourage anyone to make the time to facilitate human contact. Even if it’s not visual, a conversation over the phone can be an uplift.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the post-COVID economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the post-COVID economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time, the post-COVID growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the post-COVID economy?
There is going to be a significant opportunity to advance racial justice through diversity and inclusion strategies. A post-COVID-19 America will require a new “New Deal” that is centered around young people and investing in human capital to grow talent here at home. This time, the architect should be industry, not government. The New Deal under President Roosevelt was built on the premise that the government would step in and do everything and that hasn’t worked. We set policy and assume that practice will align with the fidelity of the policy premise. However, due to racial inequality and influences at work that are counter to the mission, the potency of the policy gets diluted.
Businesses that want to be competitive will be a part of the talent acquisition solution to future proof our workforce. Looking ahead, the consumer base will be diverse. For employers that means your talent base needs to be diverse so your products and services can penetrate that market.
We must invest in our most valuable asset — our youth. Post COVID-19, that means employers should rethink employee benefits for part-timers and evolve with the world of work and the advent of the gig economy. Uber is as much a part of our society now as Yellow Taxi.
Going forward we must do a better job of making sure relief gets to the most disadvantaged in our communities. The linchpin of success is for all boats to rise. When we talk about a new New Deal, we must be clear that it is being fashioned to advance racial and economic justice so that it works for everybody.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
It has and will continue to impact every aspect of life. I think it’s going to shift culture into more boutique, bespoke experiences as opposed to large crowds. We have to rethink safety in some of our large public convening locations. Not just arenas and entertainment hubs but our educational institutions, as well. This notion of public school systems and institutions being safe places, how do we get those safe again from a public health perspective? And in an equitable manner? That’s going to be a major challenge and change we haven’t experienced with any other global health pandemic before.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the post-COVID economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the post-COVID Economy?
Author and activist Angela Davis said it’s not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist. At LeadersUp, we’re going to seize the opportunity to support Corporate America and redefine what corporate citizenship looks like from the lens of advancing equity and being anti-racist. This is an opportunity for companies to significantly shift business practices to become a prominent influencer in addressing racial equity and impacting the communities LeadersUp serves. I challenge businesses to this with unmatched levels of honesty and transparency and lead from that position.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I would encourage others to embrace the reality that COVID-19 has been the great equalizer. There’s a realization that we are much more fragile than we think we are. The reality is that everyone needs to commit to rebuilding America in a way that is just and equitable for everybody. At the end of the day, if we don’t, America will never be the same. The global economy will never be the same.
Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I learned from being the drum major of my high school marching band that you must lead from the front. I could not influence the band, or set the tempo or the direction of the musicality standing behind the band or beside it. LeadersUp and the work I do is about leading from the front. We can’t have a peripheral conversation on race in America, a peripheral conversation around corporations and employers advancing workers’ equity rights. Leading from the front is about more than being an advocate but also an example. As we challenge employers to be more anti-racist and a place where people can thrive, we’re challenging ourselves to do the same thing.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Follow LeadersUp on LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @Leaders_Up and bookmark our website, www.leadersup.org, and sign up to receive notifications about our research and insights from young adults, employers and talent development partners’ points of view. Please review LeadersUp’s 2019 Year In Review clip to get an even more comprehensive view of our work.