If you listen to your heart, it will eventually lead you to what you love. But balance your heart with your head! Learn everything you can and push yourself to develop concrete expertise. Don’t be afraid to pursue tangents. Just soak up all the life experiences and knowledge you can. You never know where you’ll end up needing that experience!
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amy Fass.
When the opportunity arose to lead Shoes That Fit — a Claremont-based, national nonprofit that has been delivering shoes to children in need for over 27 years — Fass knew the organization well and was proud to take on the challenge. Before becoming Executive Director in 2014, she had been a consultant for Shoes That Fit since 2008. Shoes That Fit was named California Nonprofit of the Year by the California State Assembly in 2017. Earlier this year, The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation selected her for a scholarship to Stanford’s Executive Program in Nonprofit Management, which she will attend later this year.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I have lived in a number of places, and seeing life from different angles has had an impact on who I am.
I was born in Washington DC and grew up on the west side of Baltimore, both of which were becoming increasingly rough cities in the 70s. In 7th grade, I transferred to a private school on the other side of town; I remember the fastest route to the school was through a neighborhood you may have seen on “The Wire.” It was so different from my experience of Baltimore; we were far from rich, but the gaps between my life and life only miles from where I lived troubled me.
I also spent large parts of my summers visiting relatives in rural Iowa. My family and I were the “city slickers.” That perception increased when we moved to Dallas my sophomore year of high school; the change from Baltimore was a huge culture shock! I came to California for college and have lived overseas. Learning to see the world through other people’s eyes, and knowing what it feels like to be perceived as an outsider, is a big part of who I am.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I was a history major and love reading about how people find love and meaning in their lives. One of the books that has made a significant impact on me is a novel, “A Fine Balance.” It’s the story of a young widowed Indian woman who is trying to escape her family’s expectations and ends up sharing her home with two men of a much lower caste. It is one of the most beautiful stories of the power of friendship and survival in an often brutal world. I find it inspiring.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
My favorite quote comes from my days in Dallas: “God can’t move a parked car.” I tend to be analytical and can see most issues from different angles. Indecision can be paralyzing, so sometimes you just have to start moving and trust that you will figure it out as you go! I think of that saying often.
One of the hardest personal decisions I made was leaving a job at a place I loved to broaden my skillset. I knew I was leaving a prestigious college and taking on a long commute in a completely different environment without the experience to be a “star.” I had a lot to learn and the first few months were rough; I was sure I’d made a mistake. But I learned so much and was introduced to a completely different way of working. I don’t think I’d be where I am today without taking that calculated risk.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?
“Shoes That Fit” is a very direct and concrete response to an intransigent problem of child poverty in the United States. We provide brand new athletic shoes to children in schools across the country so they can learn, play and thrive. We also give people a chance to make a difference, helping children in their own backyards. Last year, we helped over 127,000 children.
Shoes are one of the most expensive items for low-income families to provide; but shoes are essential to attend school. Children who wear shoes that belong to a relative — or that smell and are falling apart — face embarrassment and shame. It affects attendance and behavioral issues. And shoes are really fundamental to a child’s sense of self-worth. Just remember how you feel when you get new shoes!
Giving a child a pair of good shoes is a simple, concrete thing that we can all do to make a difference in a child’s life today.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. We just don’t get up and do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
I had less of an “aha” moment than a “Wow, this is something I can do!” moment. I never planned to run a nonprofit. I took a few years off work after my daughter was born and had planned to return to higher education. But I started doing development and strategic planning consulting while I was at home, and Shoes That Fit was one of the organizations I worked with.
I was surprised by the enormous impact a pair of shoes can have on child’s sense of self-worth. Knowing that someone believes in you makes a huge impact on a developing psyche. And the impact that the teachers and schools reported was powerful, including increased self-esteem, attendance, interactions with classmates, and fewer behavioral problems — all after receiving new shoes!
I have always believed that children are our future. I also believe that most people want to make a difference in the world. Shoes That Fit drew those two forces together, and I saw enormous opportunity for the organization to grow and for me to use the often disparate skills and experiences I’d been given to make difference. I’ve never looked back!
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
There are two stories etched in my mind. The first is of a little boy who had a terrible truancy problem. His parents would take him to school but he would disappear before going in. The principal found him hiding in the bushes one day –he was wearing his sister’s pink plastic shoes. He had been being teased and bullied, and he hated school. The school called us to help. The principal later told us that after getting those shoes, that boy didn’t miss another day of school that year!
The second story is from one of the first school deliveries I attended. I love seeing the joy of kids jumping up and down and running around in their new shoes — they are so happy! But there was one little girl just hugging her box, which she wouldn’t open to look at the shoes. I went over to ask if she’d like help trying them on and shook her head and said “I’ve never had a new box like this.” I still tear up when I think of her.
Are there three things that the community can do to help you in your great work?
Yes! Three things that people can do are:
- Donate! The need is overwhelming, especially now with the economic downturn. Any amount helps!
- Adopt a school! Ask your employer, church/synagogue, or group of friends to help the kids who are most in need or help the entire school!
- Be an Ambassador! Follow us on social media and help us spread the word.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I think leadership is the combination of being able to inspire people to do something they think is beyond their grasp and the ability to support them so they can succeed. I really believe that most people want to make a difference in the world, but we simply don’t know where to begin. Leaders inspire people to believe they CAN make a difference, and then empower them to actually do it–whether it’s staff, volunteers, donors, Board members, or the general public.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Here are 5 things I wish someone had told me when I started as a CEO:
- Running a nonprofit is like being a parent — it’s the most demanding job of your life, nothing completely prepares you for it, and it will give you both sleepless nights and amazing joy.
- You will feel like you are in a little boat on a big ocean. The highs are HIGH and the lows are LOW. Eventually, you’ll begin to build a bigger boat.
- You need PEOPLE. Being a CEO can be lonely and you need people you who will listen to you. You also need a Board that supports you and a strong staff. If the people you work with feel supported and valued, you will thrive.
- You are running a business. While your heart brought you to the mission, you are now the Head of HR, Finance, Program, and Development, and the general Chief Problem Officer. You’ll learn more than you can imagine!
- You will never be caught up. And that’s ok.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
How about three short things?
- Know what you love.
- Become an expert at something. And never stop learning.
- If you listen to your heart, it will eventually lead you to what you love. But balance your heart with your head! Learn everything you can and push yourself to develop concrete expertise. Don’t be afraid to pursue tangents. Just soak up all the life experiences and knowledge you can. You never know where you’ll end up needing that experience!
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Michelle Obama. I so respect the way she has been true to herself, committed to the well-being of her family, and found ways to speak her own truth. I love her commitment to kids — and girls, especially — and would love to learn from her and tap her wisdom on ways to reach more children! (I wouldn’t mind if she brought Barack along…)
How can our readers follow you online?
Follow my blog at www.shoesthatfit.org/news and on LinkedIn (@AmyFass). You can follow me and Shoes That Fit on Facebook and Instagram as well!
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!