An Interview with Lauren Casteel, President and CEO, The Women’s Foundation of Colorado

Lauren Casteel shares how a mountaintop taught her more about leadership than any book and why she is willing to take chances on young people.

This interview is the twenty-seventh in our series, Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership.

Lauren Casteel, President and CEO, The Women’s Foundation of Colorado

Grateful. Visionary. Impassioned.


What are some of your career highlights?

Funny…last night I had an experience that epitomized my career highlights. I had dinner with a young African American woman who had been my intern at Swanee Hunt Alternatives Fund when she was 24. (She is now 50!) She has gone on to lead the Pan African Film Festival, start a food source nonprofit in Colorado, co-found Impact Hub Oakland, and open an art gallery! The point of the story is that people in my life are career highlights. (Lauren Casteel pictured at right.)

Another young woman who interned at The Denver Foundation is now the youngest person ever on the school board. My current executive assistant is a former intern. The Mayor of Denver is a former intern. This week I received an email from a young woman who was part of The Women’s Foundation Girls Leadership Council. She had a difficult life and her father was recently deported. She persevered, got a full ride to Yale, and just graduated. She sent an email to thank The Women’s Foundation of Colorado and share next steps about her journey. I could go on and on.

There’s a young Black man I hired out of undergrad who graduated from Manuel High School as salutatorian. He also had faced numerous challenges and was a first-generation college student. He told me he wanted to go to law school. Five years later I drove him to his interview at Colorado University Law School. He’s now a City Attorney with Denver Human Services where he feels as though he’s a better attorney as result of being able to translate his personal experiences.

Every year, I can’t wait to meet our new interns at The Women’s Foundation. I love the diverse voices and viewpoints they bring to our team and our work. I’m profoundly honored to be part of those journeys and don’t think it’s about me. One thing I have been willing to do is take the chance. I’m good at recognizing authentic stories, passions, and dreams and I have been honored to be able to open up doors for these young people.

If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?

I think it would be “Grateful for the Opportunity.” I’m grateful to have found a career in philanthropy — I’m NOT particularly special. There’s a quote in my office that says, “To find a career to which you are adapted by nature and then to work hard at it, is a near formula for success.” I was lucky that a philanthropist, Swanee Hunt, saw something in me. I am the youngest daughter of civil rights leader Whitney Young, Jr., and Swanee is the youngest daughter of H.L. Hunt. Our backgrounds were diametrically opposite, yet she tapped me to be her executive director and then president of Hunt Alternatives Fund.

On the journey of grantmaking, I learned about risk-taking and how a little bit of money could make a difference if funders asked — in real partnership — what grantees really needed and trusted them to do great work. I’m grateful to have found a career where I can do those things and to give voice to so many who are “making a way out of no way.” The privilege of working in philanthropy should not be underestimated. There’s an inherent power dynamic, and it’s not even about how much money. I’ve learned to treat that privilege with respect, to listen, and to participate. At times, I’ve made mistakes and haven’t used it as effectively as possible. I’ve met people in the nonprofit and social sector who are passionate, smart, doing amazing work, and changing lives in communities one-by-one and systemically. What could be more joyful than that?

What are your favorite types of challenges?

Over the years, I’ve found that I’m best when I can be a part of an organization at a time when it’s poised for change. I like to be part of that change agency. I love to find the possibility and the future of what it can be. Sometimes I’ve come into an organization — even here at The Women’s Foundation — that is experiencing change. I’m grateful for the opportunity, yet being a change agent can be really hard. There’s something exhilarating about looking at challenges, working through them, building relationships, and building the voices of others to help them claim their power so they are also part of the change themselves. I look to build infrastructure that helps organizations be sustainable in the long-term. In the early stages, I helped Swanee figure out her giving. At the Temple Hoyne Buell Foundation, I helped to shift from philanthropy that put names on buildings to investing in people. That entailed strategic planning work to facilitate the board’s coming together and claiming a different vision.

During my tenure at The Denver Foundation, philanthropy was changing. Donor Advised Funds were just coming on the scene. There was a focus on “putting the ‘community’ back into the community foundation.” I was excited to support our cutting-edge work on inclusiveness. I don’t like to self-proclaim myself as a leader; others need to do that. There’s a difference between leadership and management, where leadership is looking ahead to the possibilities, goals, and vision. Leadership has to be supported by strong management that helps to execute and buys into that vision to get it done right. I certainly fall more heavily into the vision side of things. I’m fortunate I’ve been able to build teams that work really well together in support of those visions with the board and community. My teams are grateful for the opportunity and make me look good. (Laughter.) Again, it’s back to the people. I’m so grateful for the staff I have the privilege to work with. There are times when I’m real fast with ideas: What about this? What about that? Bap! Bap! Bap! I need staff to say, “Of the 12 ideas you just threw out there, we can hunker down on 3. There are another 3 we can consider next and 6 you need to just let go. Stop for now.” I need to be surrounded by people who will do that with me.

Is there one book that has been meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?

I was asked that question about a week ago and my answer was, “No.” I’ve never been one that was drawn to leadership books. In 1986, I was part of the Denver Community Leadership Forum through the Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado. We completed a five-day Outward Bound experience with people from the public, social, and private sectors — I loved the cross-fertilization. Doing Outward Bound was where I learned the most about being a leader. I was terrified to climb a 14,000-foot mountain. I remember spending the night in the woods with string, a bottle of water, and a journal. It snowed that night! Here I am, a Black New Yorker living in Colorado. I had gone to summer camp, but not like that! As we were climbing Mt. Massive, Mark Udall, then executive director of Outward Bound Colorado (and future Senator), tapped me to lead us across the summit, knowing I was terrified. The way that I ended up doing it was kind of corny, but it worked for me. I told the group I needed their help and to hear their voices behind me. In that instance I had to see the mountaintop and keep focus on my feet. We were in the “boulder field” above the tree line and getting ready to go across the edge of the summit. I counted out, ”1. 2. 3. Breathe,” at 14,000 feet above sea level. I understood why there’s chanting in the military; maybe I was inspired by this. We were a team, but I had to literally remind myself to breathe and ask them to help me. When we safely arrived at the top, I started to sob. That experience has become a metaphor. Throughout the whole trip, different people led in different ways at different times. I felt sort of like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz with a Tin Man and Toto. I learned more about leadership in those four days on that trip than any book could ever teach me. Whenever I feel scared, I remember that experience.

I also learned about leadership by watching my father, Whitney M. Young, Jr. He was in the midst of the civil rights movement talking about jobs and working with presidents. He was ahead of his time believing that “Black power is green power” — jobs, economics, and public policies. I was watching Queen Sugar recently and was shocked that a character said, “We all have different roles to play, like Malcolm, Martin, and Whitney Young. Some stood around the table and some wanted to be at the table.” I felt so much pride from that recognition. In the 1970s, my mother was a Black woman serving on two corporate boards. Today, I learn leadership through observation in many situations — not a book.

A few thoughts on words…The Bridge Poem by Donna Kate Ruskin — you have to read that. I remember reading Alice Walker’s work around womanism and embracing that. As a woman of color, those writings are profoundly meaningful to me, as well as Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward. I love Roxane Gay and to read things that just make me think. I was stunned by Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankel, a survivor of the Holocaust.

Work in the social sector can be very personal and linked to one’s values. Can you think of a time when your values were in tension during your career and how you reconciled that tension or not?

Absolutely, there are probably a hundred examples, but one comes to mind that Swanee wrote about in her autobiography, Half-Life of a Zealot. In the early 1990s, the Fund was in conversation about providing Norplant, a relatively new, long-acting contraception, to women in substance abuse programs or experiencing homeless. I had a visceral response to having the medication implanted in people’s bodies. The idea took me back to the vulnerability of women and people of color’s sterilization or the Tuskegee Airmen experiment. I became vocal in my concern because what I felt we needed to be talking about was how family planning options could be available, accessible, and affordable for all women to have choice, and the targeting of those populations concerned me. In addition, I was concerned about the issues around the removal of the implant.

Swanee told me that she didn’t understand where I was coming from. There was a deep visceral experience in my body and spirit. As I was speaking, I was thinking I could be fired. There were other people in the room, and I was very clearly disagreeing with the donor who was my boss. Even though Swanee didn’t understand, she told me that we would never list a grant in the annual report with my name as executive director that was in that much conflict with my values and about which I had those feelings.

We developed this deep friendship over the years. There were times we disagreed, but always with profound respect. We were able to hear each other in that moment, and from that moment on. I opened my mouth thinking there was a possibility I would be escorted out the door. This very privileged white woman heard me. She acknowledged that she had power and that she didn’t understand exactly what I was saying, but that she would meet me where I was.

Because I grew up with privilege myself, I have tried to use it wisely. My parents urged that “to whom much is given much is expected.” Privilege is the ability to always be myself. What you see is what you get pretty much all the time.

Summer 2017, Democratic Representative Maxine Waters coined the phrase, “reclaiming my time,” as she thwarted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s attempts to waste her time with nonsense. Can you share an experience in the workplace where you have had to reclaim your time? What was the context? How did you navigate it? What was the outcome?

Time is always a challenge. When I divorced, my twins were 11 years old and my oldest son was 18 years old, and I had public roles. The struggle has always been relative to time to care for myself and family. I’m not sure others have addressed that, but if we are real as passionate Black women, we are constantly bumping up against those edges. Again, at times I think I’ve done a good job and at times a terrible job.

What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?

I suck. There’s a quote for you. (Laughter.) Some things I do, but I do them erratically. There are periods of time in life when I have been better about saying no. Last night I had a spontaneous dinner with a friend and spent two and a half hours eating pizza on my couch in my PJs and catching up. I do yoga and acupuncture intermittently. I am a horrible example here. Horrible.

Maya Angelou said that one goes from surviving to thriving with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style and generosity and kindness. I really try to apply those to the best of my ability; sometimes with more success than others.

What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?

I was in Memphis for the Association of Black Fundraising Executives (ABFE) Conference in April. I met incredible, smart, passionate, committed, and strong younger women with big voices who filled me with admiration, a sense of hope, and the possibility for the future. But there was one thing that concerned me and goes back to my previous answer: they were so on fire that I wanted them “to do as I say and not as I do” and really figure out how to care for themselves. There were times they would have to go stand in a corner just to regroup since people wanted so much from them.

I heard one of them say she was so fortunate that she had an amazing group of women who will check her. I wanted to ask her, “Will they love you? Will they nurture you?” Sometimes I also forget to ask for help for my spirit, soul, or for my personal wellbeing. For me to say, “I need you to help me research or figure out some strategic issue blah blah blah” is easy. To be able to say as I did on that mountain that “I’m scared” or “I’m lonely and I need to hear you beside me”…that’s more difficult. Leadership can be lonely.

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