I had the pleasure to interview Tonya Torosian. Tonya is the Chief Executive Officer of Promises2Kids, a nearly 40-year-old non-profit founded as the Child Abuse Prevention Foundation. Best known for building the Polinsky Children’s Center, Promises2Kids is dedicated to creating a brighter future for foster children. Torosian’s work in child welfare and nonprofit management spans 28 years and three states. She developed programs and policies for child and youth-based organizations in Illinois, Arizona and California. A tireless advocate for children and youth throughout her entire career, Torosian began her career first as a social worker, then as an executive charged with developing strategic alliances and implementing processes, systems, and policies.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Myparents always taught my brother and I that it is important to give back to our community which set the path for me to become a social worker. My first professional job was as a social worker at a foster care agency in inner-city Chicago. I was assigned to work with approximately 35 children, who had been victims of abuse, and as a result were placed in foster care. I thought this was the beginning of healing and hope for them. Unfortunately, I learned that the child welfare system does not meet the children’s needs. It can in no way replicate the duties and feelings of growing up with a supportive family.
I saw so many children who were re-victimized in care, and not receiving the stable and positive support a child needs to be set up for success later in life. The thing that stood out across the board, was that foster children do not have a voice in the system and the majority feel helpless. It pained me to see them feeling lost, hopeless and like they do not matter. I wanted to take away this pain, and so I choose to work to make a change and help foster children in any way I could. This is why I chose to work as an advocate for foster children.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I am always learning and believe that these opportunities help us develop into better leaders. We are 100% philanthropy funded so each year we need to engage individuals in our cause to raise $5M to support our foster youth.
When I began at Promises2Kids, we were rebuilding our base of support and a lot of my work was fundraising and focusing on ensuring we as a company had the community support to operate our programs and services. I was schedule to meet with a gentleman interested in supporting our work. I did my research, met with him to find out the area he was most interested in and gauged the size of gift I thought he would be interested in making. We met, and I asked him for that gift, and he immediately agreed to provide the support. I was so excited and went back to share the news at the office. Over the next few days, I realized his answer came very quickly and without pause, I began to suspect that what I thought was a huge success may have been a bit of a mistake. Perhaps he actually wanted to make a larger impact.
I asked for what I thought he would give, then figured out what that equated to in terms of impact on youth. We missed out on having the opportunity to share our vision with him, and letting him decide what level of gift he wanted to make- determining his own impact.
He missed out on making a broader and more impactful change for our youth.
The next time we met I changed to share the entire vision for the project with him and let him continue his ideas and interest in helping. The result was a much larger gift, but more importantly, a much deeper impact and life-changing result for the youth. The lesson learned, Don’t set goals for others; you may be surprised to see what they want to achieve.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Yes, we were selected as a recipient of a golf tournament for a very large company and they had their event as a themed tournament in another part of the state. I did not want my first interaction with the company leaders to be me being the lone person in full costume, so I packed clothes that I felt could “pass” as the costume. I showed up at the event ½ in and ½ out of the theme, to see every other person there fully committed to it and having a blast. As a result of not committing to the theme, I appeared like I had on clothes from another decade but that was just my typical attire. I had a laugh about it with the team, but I learned my lesson… never be afraid to fully commit to something.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?
I have always wanted to make the most impact I could for the children, and as my career developed, I changed my mindset on how to best make that change. I went from wanting to be the front-line social worker making changes on an individual level to wanting to develop programs, policies and practices that could change the outcomes for foster children. As a CEO, I knew I would have the opportunity to truly give youth that voice missing in child welfare and that I could help shape our response to the needs of these children.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
An executive has to serve as the visionary for the organization. Set the course and engage and inspire others to join you in that vision. This touches all areas of the organization from operations, marketing, development and direct service, but the central point is knowing the community, its needs and being able to see the path for the organization to meet those needs.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
Creativity. I love being able to look at a challenge and find a solution that is creative, out of the box and at times even risky and then being able to inspire the organization to implement the solution.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
The saying “it is lonely at the top” is often true. You are the one making the tough decisions and at times, you are the one standing alone in those decisions. I find that building a circle of other executives across the industry is essential.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I often here the myth that nonprofits are somehow not equitable to running a for-profit business. This for certain is a myth. Promises2Kids and other strong nonprofits, often operate with much smaller staffing models, with less organizational structure/support and achieve very high growth rates. We can only do this by running it efficiently, with a close eye on revenue and expenses. I often say that we are a business whose “product” is its mission. We are therefore the sole purpose of helping to create a brighter future for foster youth. It is central to all we do, but if we do not operate an effective business, focus on both impact and revenue, we will not be able to help our youth.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Your strength, confidence and communications are perceived very differently as a woman than they are as a man in a leadership role. You can be seen as cold or worse as a woman, but a male can be seen as a strong leader.
The other is around parenting. Before I was a parent, I didn’t understand or see this at all. But now that I am, I am constantly having the internal struggle with choosing work or family and not feeling satisfied with, my decision either way. Many women CEOs seem to feel this pressure to be the super mom and the CEO. For women who are parenting, it is perceived that choosing to work late is failing as a mother or that you are choosing your work over your family. Male executives are not perceived as failing at home if they are working late, it is just part of the job. This isn’t to say Male CEOs don’t have the same internal struggle with family and work balance or guilt but the perception of others is different for men than it is for women.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I thought I would be looking at far less time on inward facing tasks but the reality is that this takes a great deal of my time. It is very important the CEO spends time supporting and listening to internal staff and this takes a lot more time that I thought it would take. The team is the most important asset you have- invest there first.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?
I believe you need to be a big thinker, inspirational, willing to take risks, goal orientated and driven to achieve results. If you are not a person willing to dare to dream, I think you would have a harder time as a CEO.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Share your vision for the organization, involve them in the path to achieving the vision and to communicate often and in a variety of ways to ensure others understand and believe in the vision. Communication is the hardest part of leadership. Everyone has different needs and expectations for communication, but the advice is better to risk over-communicating than under communicating.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have had a lot of wonderful mentors along the way. One in particular stands out as someone who was a friend, mentor and coach through my career and facilitated my path to wanting to be a CEO. She was the Executive Director of an organization I worked for seven years and she pushed me to take risks, taught me to trust myself and capabilities and that as long as we are doing things for the right reasons (in my life, that is for foster children), then we should boldly and unapologetically advocate for what they need. I was charged with designing new programs for foster youth and I designed a program to support youth as they aged out of foster care and into adulthood; a program that would really make a huge difference for these youth, but also one that was not funded by government support. So, I asked if I could implement the program if I found the funds. As an agency, we did not seek outside funding as all of our services were provided through County contracts. She encouraged me to try and I secured the funding we needed with a few grant proposals. Later, she asked me if I wanted to start a fundraising department, I was uncertain if I had been lucky in securing the funds or if I had the skills to succeed in fundraising, a new career path for me. She encouraged me to try so I took the risk, and I grew the department past our projections. That led me to having the confidence to try something risky, knowing that you should not let fear of failure keep you from what you want to do. Many years later, when I wanted to take the next risk into becoming a CEO, she also encouraged me to jump right in!
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I do this every day with our mission of creating a brighter future for foster children. Foster children still do not have a voice in the “system” and at Promises2Kids, we have changed that for the youth we serve. We work closely with each of them and know what brought them into the system, this trauma, their challenges, fears and also their dreams. We design our support to help them overcome this past trauma and show them that they are loved, cared for and that they matter. We inspire them to pursue their dreams and take risks, knowing that they have Promises2Kids as their safety and support. We have helped our youth achieve amazing outcomes and last year, in our Guardian Scholars educational support program, we had a 90% success rate with our youth completing their vocational training, community college or university degrees. Nationally, foster youth graduate college at a rate of less than 20%.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Choose a career in something you love; Passion is so important and can give meaning to even the smallest of tasks.
- Take stock of your personal and professional goals every year, have they changed? Is it time to adjust? and are they serving you?
- Turn off work email and phone for “you time” as many nights as you can. This helps you be present for other aspects of your life.
- Remember your team will follow what you do, not what you say. If you are always working, it is hard to tell them it’s OK to have “balance”
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
For me, I want to ensure that every child has a positive connection to someone who makes them feel loved, special and important. It doesn’t take much to make a huge impact. I would like to inspire everyone to find a way to spend time supporting foster children or other children who may not have the opportunity for this type of connection. Ensure the child knows they matter and someone cares about them. This goes a very long way to changing the future of our community.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again….” — W. C. Fields
We are all learning and as hard as it is, failure is part of the cycle of creativity and success. Real change takes time and I hope I can have that kind of impact someday.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Oprah- she, like the foster youth we serve has overcome childhood trauma and realized her ability to succeed and use that success to help others. I am in awe of people who are able inspire others to action. It is one thing to share an important cause with others and they have empathy for that cause. It is another to get those people to act on that change- to volunteer, to give and to work to make real change. She has done that by giving the opportunity to others to share their experiences and then Oprah herself taking action and challenging others to join her in those efforts.
Anyone who can do this is top of my list.