By Heream Yang
This January, 100% Owen, the community service and philanthropy club at Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management, partnered with the Turner Family Center for Social Ventures (TFC) to launch the Owen Board Fellows program. The inaugural Board Fellows cohort is composed of full-time MBA students who committed to serving 5-10 hours a month as non-voting board members of a Nashville nonprofit organization. Just a few months into the program, students and nonprofits were confronted with a new challenge as the COVID-19 pandemic caused everything to go virtual. Now that the first cohort is more than halfway through the year-long program, the students look back on the experience so far and talk about what they have learned.
Starting Off by Giving Back
Each student had a different motivation for joining the initial cohort of Board Fellows. For Blaine Davis (MBA‘21), the Board Fellows program meant a chance to give back to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Tennessee (LLS). Davis was diagnosed with T-cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia in August of 2018, shortly after moving to Nashville to attend Owen. Now in complete remission, he is complementing his MBA through working with LLS to ensure more survivor stories like his. Having rallied a team for Light the Night (LLS’ signature annual fundraiser walk) every year since his diagnosis, Davis is now working on the board side to create the most impactful experience possible.
Other students brought their professional passions to their Board Fellows experience. Nora Johnson (MBA‘21) began her Board Fellows experience at Women in Technology of Tennessee (WiTT) by organizing an event to encourage middle-school girls to explore tech careers. “The goal of the event was to engage girls (in tech) early in their lives, to encourage them to pursue what is a very male-dominated field,” Johnson explained. “As a kid, I never really had those events to encourage that direction, and I think it’s important for that message to be out in the community early.”
An aspiring healthcare executive, lifelong volunteer, and former dancer with 14 years of ballet experience under her belt, Junchu Du (MBA‘21) immediately found herself drawn to Nashville Ballet and its commitment to community engagement and public health. As a Board Fellow, she took center stage by joining the task force for Modern Masters, a special program staging the works of world-renowned contemporary choreographers.
Graner Thorne (MBA‘21) confronted perhaps the most unexpected challenges of all. When a series of devastating tornadoes struck Nashville in early March, Thorne’s partner organization, Hands on Nashville, headed up the city’s volunteer efforts. Serving both on the ground as a volunteer and in the boardroom, Thorne was thrown into the thick of the action shortly after attending his first board meeting in February. Little did he know that even bigger changes were awaiting him just a few weeks later.
Pivoting During COVID
On March 12, 2020, Tennessee entered a state of emergency as a once-distant global pandemic morphed into a local catastrophe. The onset of COVID-19 in Nashville left no organization untouched, including the Board Fellows’ nonprofits. Mid-March ushered in a new era of virtual board meetings, shifting organizational priorities, and the cancellation of in-person fundraising events — usually a mainstay of nonprofit programming.
Having participated in Light the Night for several years, Davis experienced firsthand the powerful impact of the community coming together in one place to fight for a cure for blood cancers. However, due to COVID-19, the event shifted to a virtual platform, and Davis strategized how to conduct Light the Night safely and as successfully as previous years. “Given COVID times, the priority has really shifted to how we can make this classically in-person fundraising walk where everybody would go and experience a really powerful, successful event virtually,” he explained.
For Johnson, COVID-19 also resulted in the cancellation of the in-person event she had been planning. However, the WiTT team felt it was essential for the event to be held in-person and decided not to hold a virtual version. “I have since pivoted onto a new project, which is really exciting and could have a much greater impact on the direction of the organization,” Johnson said. “This is an entirely volunteer-run board, so they have very limited resources. All of the administrative minutiae falls on the board. They are considering scaling the organization, so they asked me to do a strategic evaluation about what those options could be. My role is evaluating what is in the best interest of the organization for the next five to ten years.”
The performing arts world was hit particularly hard by COVID, with in-person performances being canceled for the rest of the year and the potential for re-opening still remaining uncertain. At Nashville Ballet, Modern Masters was postponed, and Du shifted her priorities to other initiatives, including short-term and long-term strategic planning and the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion task force.
Thorne has had to reframe his focus once again as Nashville grappled with the implications of a global pandemic while still recovering from the tornadoes. His first board effort consisted of coordinating the Paycheck Protection Program, a loan program that helps small businesses keep their payroll going, in cooperation with the Hands on Nashville CFO. “Our mission switched twice in the course of one month, in between two board meetings,” Thorne recalled.
Reflecting on the First Cohort So Far
For Davis, serving on the LLS board has brought his MBA experience full circle. “I got to see firsthand a lot of the impact LLS and similar organizations have in terms of funding research to hopefully one day cure blood cancers and cancer in general, and giving support to families that can’t afford treatments. Seeing how hard these people work and how much they truly care about the cause has just confirmed how much I want to continue to be involved in the future in any capacity possible,” he said.
For Johnson, the Board Fellows with WiTT experience has been one of valuable mentorship. “I love that it’s an all woman-run board. In terms of mentorship, all of the women on the board have been so generous in their time with me,” she said. “They are really great role models of what a female leader should be, so soaking that up has been rewarding.”
Du says that serving on the Nashville Ballet board — alongside the organization’s Executive Director Lisa Dixon French (EMBA’20) — has provided her with the executive skill set to pursue her healthcare ambitions head-on. “I have definitely grown my decision-making skills and also gained a better understanding of community engagement,” she said. “Promoting health is something that I truly care about, so is ballet – a hobby I have had for over 20 years. Working with Nashville Ballet has been a unique opportunity for me to understand public health from a nonprofit perspective while promoting my passions, and it is going to allow me to make more well-rounded decisions in addition to the business objectives I’ve learned at Owen.”
Meanwhile, serving with Hands on Nashville helped Thorne to find his place in the Nashville community. “The individuals on the board are pillars of the Nashville community, and just getting their perspectives on some of these problems is incredible. Some have been here for a long time, and some were kind of new on the board, just like I was, so finding that community with these types of people in Nashville, especially coming from a different state before this, was definitely worth the price of admission,” he said.
Nashville is just the launching point for the inaugural cohort of the Owen Board Fellows program as they set their sights on kickstarting their careers all across the country. Kaitlyn Wilson (MBA’21), the 100% Owen Vice President for Board Fellows, says she is excited to watch the impact of the Board Fellows program long after students graduate.
“Many of my classmates will disperse to different cities after we graduate this spring. It will be cool to see how they end up plugging into nonprofits in all the places where we land to see the impact we have,” she said. “Hopefully, from this program, people have become comfortable with the concept of serving on a board and working with a nonprofit, and so that can make them more apt to do it after school.”
See the full list of 24 nonprofit partners who have engaged Board Fellows this year and read more about the Owen Board Fellows program here.