As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Blatz.
Jennifer Blatz is the president and CEO of StriveTogether, a national nonprofit working in nearly 70 communities across the United States to enable more than 12 million young people to succeed in school and life. Jennifer is a nationally recognized leader and expert in building place-based partnerships. For two decades, she has designed, developed and implemented strategies that drive large-scale community improvement through partnership with local leaders and organizations.
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?
Education is critically important to my family. My parents didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, but they knew it was a ticket to upward mobility for my brother and me. So, being the first in my family to go to college shaped my career. This personal experience drove me to pursue a career in higher education and student affairs so that I could support students through their post-secondary experience. My early work in college admissions helped me to understand how systems are designed to favor the white and the wealthy. This was when I started to understand my own privilege, which led me toward a path of working to dismantle inequitable systems and rebuild systems and structures that support every child from cradle to career. Over time, I learned that lasting change can only come by transforming those systems.
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?
Early in my career I accidentally hit reply to an email that I had intended to forward to my boss. In that reply, which inadvertently went back to the sender, I complained about how the sender was handling a situation. I don’t know that I’d consider this a funny mistake, but as with all of my mistakes I learned a lot from the experience. First and foremost, I learned to ALWAYS double check the intended recipient of an email. But the learning I value the most is how my boss handled the situation. He was very understanding and empathetic. He helped me think about how to apologize to the sender of the email for not addressing the issue directly. And he helped my younger, more perfectionist self recognize that everyone makes mistakes and as long as we fail forward we’ll be okay.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Listening to the “Seeing White” Podcast from Scene on Radio was transformative for me in my role. As a white woman, leading a national movement working toward transforming systems to create more equitable outcomes for children and families, it was an important step in my personal race equity journey for me to understand what it really means to be white in America and how my whiteness impacts everything I do. I learned that the history I had been taught for most of my life was “whitewashed” and how much more I needed to learn and unlearn to effectively and authentically lead a multi-racial organization and transformative movement.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started at your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I began my StriveTogether journey in 2001 as a program officer at KnowledgeWorks with a focus on college and career access. Helping children overcome obstacles to unlock their full potential has always been a part of my life. As the organization grew, I began growing with it, taking on other roles including: director of operations for StrivePartnership, senior director of the Cradle to Career Network and deputy director of StriveTogether. Each year helped clarify that vision and the values that drive it. Today, I see how one of the keys to scaling up to population-level outcomes is transforming systems that drive inequity. While education is still a big part of that, we’re working on building the kind of civic infrastructure, a connection throughout the community, to ensure that a child’s potential isn’t dictated by race, ethnicity, zip code, or circumstance.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
There are many principles that guide our work but one of the most important to me is this: equity has to be explicitly named, lived, and breathed. With many organizations, it is something that is inferred — perhaps they have products or services that help lift communities — but it has to be crystal clear so that those who are the most invisible to our systems see themselves in it. That can only happen when they are recognized an included in the work. I’m a firm believer that those closest to problems should be a part of the solution.
When I became President and CEO of StriveTogether in January of 2018, I was charged with implementing a new strategic plan that involved growing our team exponentially and centering racial equity in our work. Over the past few years, we’ve grown into a more diverse team and simultaneously worked with our national Network to center racial equity in the work that we do with communities. From adding Equity as one of StriveTogether’s core values, to the development of a racial equity statement to provide a vision for StriveTogether’s racial equity, diversity and inclusion work, we’re finding new ways to live this principle. This includes our commitment to become an anti-racist organization and our work to support our Network members in their antiracism work. Through this work we have established affinity spaces, worked to establish policies and practices for equitable selection of vendors and partners an equitable compensation policy, etc. As we learn and grow more, we’ll continue to use an equity framework to help us make the right decisions.
As a white leader for racial equity, I’ve had to continue to do my own personal work to ensure that I recognizing the privilege and power I hold in this system. But this is the most important work that StriveTogether can be doing right now. Centering racial equity in everything we do in this work is critical.
Thank you for all that. 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?
Like so many in my generation, I faced the challenges of living in the “sandwich generation” through the pandemic — caring for and supporting my aging parents and my own children. It was a difficult time, in which we were doing everything we could to keep our parents –who in their 70s experienced the greatest health risks from Covid-19 — safe, healthy and engaged, while also caring for and supporting our children, whose worlds were turned upside down when schools closed and they were isolated from their friends. I know how fortunate I was to be able to work from home and support my children and parents during this time. I navigated these challenges by asking for help, which isn’t something I often do. My brother and sister-in-law helped with the care of our parents and I sought out resources to help support my children, especially my teenage daughter who was experiencing debilitating anxiety during this time. I learned how important it was for me to practice self-care, during this time, as well if I were going to be able to care for my family and lead an organization. I continued running, scheduling zooms with friends, taking hikes and having movie nights (at home) with the kids and my husband.
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?
As an extrovert who gets energy from being with people, the shift to remote work was one of the biggest challenges. I’m grateful our team was able to figure out ways to build community and connections via Zoom. It was also challenging at times to balance work from home with supporting my children’s learning at home. I’m fortunate to have a wonderful partner in my husband and we took turns supporting our kids with their learning. As a leader of an organization, one of the biggest challenges I have faced during the pandemic is figuring out how to support our team virtually as we face these cascading crises. Throughout the past year team members have had to wrestle with their own health challenges, have suffered loss of family members and friends and have been navigating many different challenges. To support my colleagues as they navigated these experiences, I communicated often with transparency and empathy. I heard it was helpful for me to share my own stories and struggles and it helped me to have this sense of community.
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?
First, I’ve encouraged family and loved ones to distance themselves from social media and news at times, especially when it’s creating more anxiety. I had to do that for myself as well. I found myself doing way too much “doomscrolling” and stepping away from the news helped to curb my own anxiety. I tried to create opportunities for laughter and fun, especially for my kids. We played a lot of board games, watched movies and spent more quality time together than we had in years. And the most important thing I think you can do in situations like this is to just listen. My teen daughter has suffered with tremendous anxiety throughout this period and I try to be there and listen. That’s what people need — someone to make space, be there and listen.
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?
We are certainly going to experience some challenges during the Post-Covid economy, especially in the United States. Prices are up, housing is scarce, inflation is soaring. Although the economy has picked up, these issues could slow the economic recovery over the long term.
The world of work seems to be permanently changed, as well. Although with many unfilled jobs and many still unemployed, this creates some challenges, this can also drive more opportunity as workers demand higher wages and better working conditions, which in many fields is a long time coming.
Another opportunity comes through the economic stimulus packages such as the American Recovery Plan (ARP), which is putting public money directly into communities across the country. This is an incredible opportunity for the place-based partnerships we support across the country, which offer civic infrastructure to drive a more equitable recovery that produces better, more equitable results for children and families.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
The dual pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism laid bare the vast inequities in our society. I believe that people will be holding businesses, nonprofit organizations, and the government to a higher standard — not only for an equitable recovery, but to put sustainable solutions in place so that we can be better prepared to deal with times of crisis. We should not have to wait for one crisis after another for opportunities to address these deeper, systemic issues. We should be using a mindset of continuous improvement in order to overcome these obstacles.
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?
In our work, which is about supporting communities to create more opportunity for children and families through systems transformation, our focus will be on ensuring that the public resources flowing to states and municipalities is used to create and support civic infrastructure that drives more equitable outcomes.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” — Maya Angelou
I believe this advice is relevant no matter who you are or what you do, but it’s been especially meaningful to me over the last few years as I really unpack what I need to learn and do in order to become the leader I want to be for racial equity.
I’m a white woman leader, with tremendous privilege, leading an organization that supports a network of communities working to change systems so that they produce more equitable results for children of all races, incomes and circumstances. And the work we’re doing is taking place during unprecedented times, with dual pandemics — COVID-19 and systemic racism and oppression.
It’s no small task. I don’t know half of what I need to know to lead right now, but if I continue to listen and learn and turn what I learn into action, I’m confident that my actions will be effective and meaningful in this moment.
How can our readers further follow your work?
And of course, at strivetogether.org