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Alan van Capelle is CEO of Educational Alliance, a non-profit that serves 50,000 New Yorkers annually. Alan is past CEO of Bend The Arc, a Jewish Partnership for Justice, and former Executive Director of Empire State Pride Agenda.
I asked Alan to be on this series because he is one of THE most dynamic speakers I’ve ever heard. He’s an incredible leader, as evidenced by his myriad #TakeAways below. I didn’t even have to ask for Alan’s advice – he just naturally offered these insights in the course of our conversation.
Alan’s already done so much and is just getting started. Enjoy hearing & learning from him!
(Published August 2016)
Alan on the power of persistence:
I ran an event in college and someone approached me afterwards and said: “Now that you’re graduating from college, we’d love it if you’d work in the union.” I replied, “I’m not graduating from college.” The response came back: “Well, then we don’t have anything for you.” But I don’t like taking no for an answer, so I called the labor union office every single day for close to a month until they brought me in for a job over the summer.
Jessica Lipps: How did you grow into the position of Executive Director of Empire State Pride Agenda at age 27?
Alan van Capelle: I was so young that I didn’t know to be afraid. And because I didn’t know to be afraid, I ended up doing things and taking risks.
There are 15 decisions that a non-profit leader needs to make on any given day. 5 will be great decisions, 5 will be fine and 5 will be mulligans, you would have wished that you had an opportunity to do them over. But the reality is that tomorrow there are another 15 decisions that need to get made. And if you obsess over any one of those first 15 decisions, you will be paralyzed in this job and you’re not going to be able to move the ball up the field. And ultimately, that’s what you’re there for, to help move the ball up the field.
You don’t have a lot of time to lament the decisions that were mulligans and you don’t have a lot of time to pat yourself on the back for the good ones. Because tomorrow there is 15 more decisions and it all goes on the tape.
So the idea is: maybe I didn’t do so well on this one. Now, if in 3 days I have the same decision and I mess that one up too, I need to ask myself why I’m not learning. But hopefully you ARE learning and you don’t beat yourself up.
I learned how to be decisive in those early years.
On Stepping Down as CEO of Empire State Pride Agenda:
After putting Senators on record to know who would be with us in the next election cycle, I knew that someone else would have to come in and close the deal. And that is a life’s lesson that will always be with me and probably one of the most professionally difficult lessons. Because If you’re like me, I like before and afters. To work so hard on this and to not be there on the day that the bill passed the Senate, that was a character building moment. And sometimes character building moments really suck. But, we got it at the end of the day. And what I tell anyone who asks is that everyone has a role to play at some significant period of time and that just wasn’t going to be the role I was going to play at that moment. But I can now tell my sons that I had a hand in passing that bill and I’m proud of that.
On Alan’s Work at Educational Alliance:
-Being in the field and seeing our clients’ faces when they receive help makes me a better advocate.
-I don’t have to be the smartest person in any of the rooms I’m in. I just have to hire the smartest people, and then every conversation feels like a masterclass.
-We help individuals, but what’s really important is to serve the whole family unit, so we take a family approach.
-Educational Alliance’s Teen Center serves kids from 81 high schools around the city. 100% graduate high school and go to college in a neighborhood where only 37% of kids graduate high school. What’s the secret? Relationships. You’re not anonymous. Someone cares about you and calls you if you don’t show up. We are at our best when someone checks in on us and cheerleads us, and that’s what we want to give these young people.
We do it because we think that that is society’s role, to lift people up. And our hope is that some of these young people will be society’s greatest leaders and that they will in turn remember what we did for them and do that for someone else.
-If there is one thing that I’m most proud of it’s that we are building an agency that is curious: curious about the world, curious about the people walking through the doors and interested in knowing them and their story because that helps inform the work that were doing.
-I’m fanatical about internal culture and management. Every organization has an internal culture, and those cultures are either created passively or intentionally. I believe in creating intentional culture.
I believe that part of that culture is created by the CEO but that lots of that culture is created by the staff if you give them the ability to create it. So I’ve empowered 20 individuals in the agency – from janitors to program managers – all of whom have volunteered for the role to decide what the culture currently is inside the agency, what it should be and what we do to get there. And also to tell me when we’ve fallen down on the job and what I in particular can do to be better.
-Internal culture includes: having staff into my office for a drink on Friday afternoon to share accomplishments; showing up before work starts and opening the door for the clients and the staff that come in; I call everyone on their birthday or email them and invite them to tell me something about what’s happening in their world, personal or professional
Jessica: How do you have the time?
Alan: It’s a priority.
My customers are not the 50,000 people that use the agency every year, my customers are the 600 staff that work for the agency. Their customers are the 50,000; My customers are the 600. My job is to keep our team happy.
Jessica: How do you as a CEO with a lot of responsibility balance that with being a partner and a father?
Alan: It is a constant tension that is I believe a healthy tension to have.
I have a great husband who has his own successful career. Both of us really believe in community, community service and responsibility to community and we take that seriously. There will be some things that I won’t show up to for my kids. I hope that they know that if I don’t show up, it wasn’t because I was playing golf or tennis. There are trade offs and there are no easy decisions. You hope that everyone is understanding at the end of the day. It’s a work in progress.
Jessica: What can we expect from Educational Alliance moving forward?
Alan: There has been a lot of conversation about the gentrification of our neighborhood in lower Manhattan.
I wish that a fraction of that attention and rhetoric by the community would be devoted to the fact that our public schools are failing our children. When you have a graduation rate of only 37% and when there are elementary schools whose doors are open that have a proficiency rate of only 3% , I don’t see us doing right by our young people.
Everyone can debate on what the solution to that is going to be, but I believe that getting enough energy and attention on that issue alone is going to be critical. So I’m gonna bet that moving forward, education is something that we are going to spend a lot of time thinking about, because that is a singularly good thing that we can do for our neighborhood.
-Be open to receive opportunities. When you walk through life with a positive attitude, you turn down opportunities because they come to you.
-Start or end a conversation with taking the ‘happiness quotient’ test. Where are you on a 1-10 scale? 10 is blissed out; 1 is I need an interventionist. It’s a good way to check in.
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