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Elise Cutini: “Change your mind, Change the World”

Change your mind, Change the World. Change the narrative of how we are different and who can be blamed for it to one of how we are all similar and how can we embrace our differences and begin the conversation from that lens. Our world has become so divided and our tolerance and acceptance of […]

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Change your mind, Change the World. Change the narrative of how we are different and who can be blamed for it to one of how we are all similar and how can we embrace our differences and begin the conversation from that lens. Our world has become so divided and our tolerance and acceptance of differences has diminished. If I could inspire a movement, it would be to foster civility, inspire curiosity and instill acceptance. We would ask questions to learn and understand not judge and respond. I would like to create a culture of acceptance, collaboration and respect.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Elise Cutini. Elise Cutini has served as the CEO of Pivotal, a non-profit supporting the educational and career needs of foster youth, since 2007. Before working in the nonprofit sector, She co-founded ITC Associates, Inc., a management consulting firm in Silicon Valley.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

If you said to me 15 years ago, ‘Elise, you are going to end up running a non-profit supporting the education and employment of foster youth,’ I would have called you crazy.

The truth is it was quite by chance, or maybe it was fate. My husband and I had just had one of those “serious” conversations about having four teenage daughters in high school with both of us working full time in demanding careers. Life was telling us that something needed to change. At the time I was working as a Management Consultant in Silicon Valley. We made the decision that I would stop working outside of the home and focus on supporting our girls and managing our home.

Within a few short months, a former client of mine asked if I would consider joining the board as they were looking to “bring in some new blood.” Without much consideration or deliberation, I said yes! I had never entertained the idea of serving on a non-profit board, but when approached it seemed like a very natural and exciting next step. From that first meeting, I was hooked. I knew very little about the Foster Care system. As a matter of fact, all I knew was that kids needed to be placed in alternative homes because for some reason, things were not working out in their home.

I had NO idea what that meant, why it wasn’t working out for them and the impact that this had on the health and happiness of that young person. The ironic part is that I am the daughter of someone who has lived this experience. My mother lived in foster homes from the ages of 13 -18 and of course, as most kids, I had no true understanding of my mom’s lived experience between those years. So, I accepted the offer to become a member of the board and within 2 years, I was asked to “step in and help out,” eventually becoming the Executive Director of the agency. More than 12 years later, here I am and what a journey it has been…

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Here at Pivotal, one of our foundational values is bringing the voice of our youth into everything we do. When COVID-19 hit, like everyone else, we were in disbelief. It became apparent almost immediately to me, the board, and our staff that this was not a time to pull our legs into our shells and hunker down, but instead it was a time for us to step up and out to support and serve our youth in creative, new, and relevant ways. Like most companies, we had to move our services to a virtual setting. But more importantly, what did our youth need? What was happening in their lives, how were they feeling, what were they thinking?

We learned that with the SIP, most of our working youth, no longer had their jobs and were now faced with the challenge of paying rent and buying food. Within seven days of the shelter in place order, the Pivotal team conceptualized, developed and launched a campaign for the emergency assistance fund.

They surveyed our youth, appealed to our donors and community members, built internal processes and began distributing money directly into the hands of our young people.

We distributed funds for rent, food, basic essentials and granted requests from every student who needed it. With schools moving to a virtual setting, many of our students did not have computers or wi-fi connectivity. We distributed 120 laptops to ensure they could stay connected and continue their schoolwork in the last quarter of the year. The community response was like nothing I have seen in my last 12 years. We had 100 donors contribute 350,000 dollars!

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?

It didn’t feel funny at the time, but it is in retrospect, it was. I must have been just about 30 and was in a meeting with a client. The meeting was comprised of the CEO, VP of Marketing, VP of Operations and HR. The meeting went fairly well, started and ended on time, reached our objective and I asked for feedback on how we might improve for our next meeting. No one responded with any ideas and I felt like that was a sign of success. Everyone was leaving the room and the new VP of Marketing (a recent MBA graduate from Harvard) came back into the room and asked if I had a minute. We sat down and he said do you mind if I give you a little feedback? I nodded and he said “you are really good at what you do, you are smart and process information quickly, maybe too quickly, but try to be more comfortable with silence and don’t feel like you have to fill the empty space in a conversation. It is good to give people time and afford them the space to reflect and contribute.” He said, next time pause and when it becomes super uncomfortable, count to 10 and then speak. That has stuck with me to this day. He was right, speak less and listen more. Being a leader does not mean having all of the answers.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

We help young people in foster care get the education and career support they need to create the life they want for themselves. Through no fault of their own, foster youth find themselves facing barriers most young people never have to overcome. Nationally, only 3% earn a bachelor’s degree and 50% drop out of high school. When they’re constantly moving homes and changing schools, it’s tough for them to focus on education and gain work experience. With so much instability, it’s no surprise that their dreams and future take a back seat. Being in foster care shouldn’t prevent them from determining the life they want. We’re here to help by offering individualized support over many years, including coaching, tutoring, scholarships, paid internships and more.

  • 75% of Pivotal scholars graduate from high school vs. 50% general foster youth population
  • 75% of Pivotal graduates enroll in post-secondary education
  • Pivotal scholarship recipients are 10X more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than their foster youth peers
  • Pivotal alumni want to pay it forward. 85% of alumni survey respondents said they would like to mentor current foster youth in Pivotal’s programming
  • 91% of Pivotal’s 2019 summer interns successfully completed their internship
  • 95% of Pivotal’s collegiate scholars received coaching support in career exploration and declared a major as a result of their career interests

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause? Need a story from development

Incredible is how I describe Pivotal scholar, Monse. Inspired is how I felt after I heard her story.

Monse is very educational-oriented, a lover of learning and school. A first-generation college student, she is making her dreams a reality by attending her first semester at UC Santa Barbara this fall!

Her love of learning was passed down from her mom who always placed great value on education. Although Monse’s mom encouraged her kids to pursue higher education, the realities of making ends meet in the Bay Area made it tough. Her brother dropped out of high school his senior year, her sister graduated but started working immediately after, and her mom was trying to pursue a cosmetology degree while providing for her family. “Seeing my whole family struggle made me think I don’t want to be struggling. Education and what you’re learning in the classroom is the base to everything else you want to do. I knew I couldn’t let things distract me and had to stay focused on school,” Monse reflected.

When Monse was 15 years-old her mother died suddenly. It was her sophomore year during the holidays; she didn’t have family to turn to and entered the foster care system. Over the next three years, she moved schools and housing placements many times.

Monse’s social worker connected her to Pivotal. Our staff quickly saw her drive and potential, as she attended a middle college program where she could complete 11th and 12th grade while completing college credits. After high school, she earned a Pivotal Scholarship to attend Skyline College. “Monse had the pieces already,” said Dominic Barragan, San Mateo County’s Emerging Scholars Manager. “All we had to do was help her put them together.”

With the support and guidance, she received from Pivotal, along with other programs such as The Independent Living Program (ILP), Monse was able to build confidence, make education her #1 priority, and set her sights on attending a four-year university. “With Pivotal, there was no judgment and I didn’t feel like I was being labeled as a victim,” explained Monse. “Even when I first met the staff, they didn’t have preconceived ideas about me as a foster youth. My coach always checked up on me and understood what was going on in my life and that I needed to take care of myself first,” said Monse.

Today, Monse’s incredible resilience and determination have led her to a leading university where she plans to study communications with a possible business angle. “I’m confident in myself and I know I can get good grades and do what I put my mind to,” she said with a smile.

With only 3% of foster youth in the U.S. earning a bachelor’s degree, Monse is on her way to beating those odds. Her words of wisdom for her foster youth peers? “Don’t feel like you have to hurry, but don’t pause. It took a while to make education my #1 priority. The only competition I had was myself. Also, don’t pause just because it gets hard.”

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve? Awareness, equitable access to opportunity,

If I only get to pick three things, I would pick awareness, understanding and involvement.

Become aware of what it means for a young person to be in the foster care system. Learn about the impacts of trauma when we take kids away from their families. Know that this is due to no fault of the young person and sometimes through no fault of their families. Mental health, poverty and substance abuse are at the foundation of this need.

Understand that these kids are trying to survive, that they are resilient, creative, smart and deserve the opportunity to thrive in their life.

Get involved by donating, changing policies and advocating for change in the system. Sponsor a scholarship, host an internship or participate in an informational interview.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is about developing and helping others towards the achievement of a goal or mission. It requires humility, perseverance despite difficulty or discouragement, empathy for what others are experiencing and equanimity to remain calm and balanced in the midst of chaos.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Hire people unlike you. Know your strengths and hire to your weaknesses. I have learned that the more diverse a team is the more creative the solutions will be and gaining buy-in becomes easier.
  2. Be the first to admit your mistakes. Leading with humility and vulnerability allows others to take risks and fosters an environment of acceptance and creativity.
  3. Ask more questions. It is easy to assume you have a good grasp of a situation or problem only to find out that you didn’t ask a vitally important question. I have learned that the simple question of “what did you hear me say” or “tell me what your next steps will be” can save so much time and rework in the long run.
  4. Check your ego at the door. As a leader, giving credit is more important than taking credit. At the end of the day, buy-in and successful implementation of a business solution or idea can only happen when your staff or your client has contributed their thoughts and sees their ideas and fingerprints on a solution. If they own it, they will want to see it succeed.
  5. It is ok to be your authentic self. Spending my career as a woman in Silicon Valley high tech during the 80’s and 90’s, we were coached to act more like a man. Be strong, be smarter, be assertive and be decisive. While I admire and aspire to all of those qualities, it has taken me a couple of decades to realize that being my authentic, female self brings a more inclusive truth to the work.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Change your mind, Change the World. Change the narrative of how we are different and who can be blamed for it to one of how we are all similar and how can we embrace our differences and begin the conversation from that lens. Our world has become so divided and our tolerance and acceptance of differences has diminished. If I could inspire a movement, it would be to foster civility, inspire curiosity and instill acceptance. We would ask questions to learn and understand not judge and respond. I would like to create a culture of acceptance, collaboration and respect.

Can you please give us your favorite ”Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

At the risk of sounding over simplistic, I believe that every human on this planet wants the same thing…to be recognized as relevant.

I grew up globally more than locally. My father worked for IBM (I’ve Been Moved) and that took me and my family to places like Hong Kong and England. Living in Asia taught me how to see the world through a very different lens, how to embrace the beauty of a different culture. There I learned about food, about adventure, that people could live on a boat their entire life and not know how to swim. That eating was a ritual enjoyed by sharing, not only food but stories that were punctuated by the next exotic dish. I learned that I did not look or talk like anyone else, but I was instantly and always treated with warmth and acceptance regardless of the color of my skin, my hair or my eyes or my words. It instilled in me an understanding that the world was a big, beautiful, complicated place and that the United States of America was not at the center of it.

England — Taught me about tradition, monarchy and class distinction. Here I learned that I may look like everyone, but I was indeed not treated like I was welcome or belonged. I learned that everything mattered, what your zip code was, how your accent sounded, what school you went to all defined whether you belonged or not. Here, I learned about discrimination and I learned about being made to feel less by something I had no control of, including where I was born. I learned to hide my culture, change my voice and restrict my enthusiasm for life and meeting new people. This is where I discovered how to become a chameleon to fit in.

This has influenced my life as a leader, as a wife, and mother. Everyone has their lived experience, and everyone has their story. I know it is an old cliché and I am showing my age, but we all need to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

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. 🙂

I think I would like to have tea with the Dalai Lama. He just emanates peace and joy. We need more of that in our lives.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

LinkedIn: Elise Cutini (https://www.linkedin.com/in/elise-cutini-31032614/)

Facebook: @Pivotalnow (https://www.facebook.com/pivotalnow)

Twitter: @ThisIsPivotal (https://twitter.com/ThisIsPivotal)

Instagram: @Pivotal.now (https://www.instagram.com/pivotal.now/?hl=en)

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