We had the opportunity to chat with VPP board member Gabriela Smith about how her life experiences influenced her interest in youth development and what led her to invest in VPP.
What were some early influences for you? Things, ideas and/or people you encountered that made you the person you are today?
My parents, as well as learning about my family history. Since I was very young, my parents told me that regardless of societal expectations or limitations, I needed to have not only a college education, but also a graduate degree. I grew up in the suburbs of Buenos Aires at a time when girls were not encouraged to pursue that type of education. I had no idea how I was going to do it, but knew I would.
Looking back, any thoughts on why you were drawn to philanthropy and service as they relate to children and youth?
There was so much uncertainty and conflict growing up in Argentina in the ’70s. The country was suffering from rampant hyperinflation, and the economy and political systems were in chaos. As a little girl, that was my reality. My parents did everything they could to shelter us and give us a happy upbringing. In time, I understood the challenges and complexities of living in the third world, the depth of the problems, the struggles of the people, and, in particular, the yearning of families trying to rise above poverty. Even as a teenager, I knew the key was to help children and help the next generation do better.
Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do when you were in college? How does this compare to what you are doing now?
When I started college, I wanted to study economics, development and diplomacy. I really wanted to understand how to make things better. At that point my father had entered the Foreign Service and our family moved to Los Angeles, his first diplomatic assignment. I was happy to come to the U.S., but had two problems. I did not speak English and did not know where I was going to continue my studies. I had to learn English very quickly, and after three months I was able to transfer my credits to UCLA. Thanks to scholarships, I was able to get a B.A. there. I continued on at UCLA with a master’s degree in economic development and Latin American studies, also thanks to scholarship support. Then, I worked for Catholic Charities providing emergency aid to the homeless and working with the Hispanic community. I went back to school to get a master’s degree from the Harvard Kennedy School, where I studied public policy, and then I moved on to work at the World Bank. All of this gave me the perspective of working at multiple levels—the grassroots and the community levels, working in a nonprofit, as well as working in an international organization. I learned that each type of organization plays an important role, and they are all needed if we are going to make a difference in the world.
You are a founding investor in VPP. Tell me the story of how you first heard about VPP and made the bold choice to invest at the very beginning. Why did you do it?
We joined VPP in the year 2000. We knew it was a bold idea, but it felt right and we trusted Mario, as well as Jack, Mark and Raul’s vision. Soon afterwards Mario invited me to join the board of directors. This was a bit challenging at the beginning because the youngest of my three kids was only a few months old, and I had been out of the professional world for a long time since I had chosen to be home with them (which I would not have changed for the world!). Without knowing it, Mario was a mentor to me. I felt I could bring a unique perspective to the work of the board, given my experiences in the nonprofit and policy/development worlds, as well as my Hispanic/bicultural perspective and being a woman. I feel a part of the VPP family and have worked closely with Carol, Jack, Eleanor and others on the team during good as well as challenging times.
What difference do you think VPP has made for the philanthropic and youth development communities of the National Capital Region?
VPP has been applying the concept of venture philanthropy since the beginning, cultivating it as well as adjusting it to a changing environment. They also understand that you cannot just apply business practices to the nonprofit sector. VPP helped introduce and prove the importance of investing in capacity building. Moreover, VPP helped develop best practices for investing in the social sector, and with this, the importance of outcome measurements and results.
You have launched a number of innovative private-public partnerships in education, as well as nationwide initiatives to improve outreach and services to the Hispanic and immigrant communities. Why do you think it’s important to forge public and private partnerships?
Private-public partnerships build bridges of collaboration to a level not possible by one side alone. A great example is the Center for Transformative Learning and Teaching (CTTL) and the Teach for America (TFA) partnership. The CTTL (launched at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School) is a leading innovator in the field of mind, brain and education science; its mission is to help all teachers maximize their effectiveness and students to achieve their highest potential. Through the CTTL-TFA partnership we are helping bring cutting-edge professional development to teachers in the public sector. The CTTL has introduced the principles of neuroeducation to teachers from over 200 public and private schools in sixteen states and five countries. All this helps fuel its sustainability and growth and furthers its social purpose.
Why is education and outreach to Hispanic and immigrant groups in general important to you?
I have done extensive work with the Hispanic and immigrant communities, and I understand their challenges and deep desire to give their children an education and a better future. There are many organizations making great efforts to help provide educational and job training opportunities, but the need far outweighs our current ability to address it. We need to build this capacity and make consistent, innovative, collaborative efforts to create and cultivate effective opportunities for these communities to prosper. The United States is a country of immigrants. As we look back, we see the enormous contributions immigrants make as they are able to integrate and become part of fabric that is the United States. We know that historically no major immigration wave has come without problems, and this is no exception. But beyond the disagreements over immigration policies, the fact of the matter is that over 17 percent of the U.S. population is of Hispanic ancestry, and by the year 2060 it is expected to grow to 30 percent. These will be our future service providers and career professionals, our future leaders, scientists and inventors, and this is the generation that we need to help educate NOW.
Why should people who may not see or feel a connection to any of those issues care about them?
Helping Hispanics with effective opportunities to prosper has gone from being the right thing to do to being what we must do for the economic health and security of the United States. If you have a moment, read this article from the Stanford Social Innovation Journal: “Latinos: The Future of US Economic Security.” The Crimsonbridge Foundation is focusing on high-engagement projects and innovative initiatives to help reach out to these communities in a culturally respectful way and cultivate transformative educational opportunities for them to prosper and give back to their communities.
You sit on a number of higher education boards and councils. I can tell higher education is important to you. As higher education becomes more and more expensive, how can public and private partnerships be leveraged so more young people get into college and then succeed once they are there?
My work with higher education boards and councils has focused on increasing access and providing scholarships, inspired by the fact that it was thanks to scholarships that I was able to have my own education. Additionally, I believe that we need programs to help these scholars not only to go through the college experience, but to thrive. Scholarships get them to college. To fully help them succeed, we need programs to help their experience through college. A great example of this is the Georgetown Scholarship Program, which is leading the sector in these efforts.
You enjoy photography. Washington, D.C., is a picturesque city. Is there a location where people gather or landmark that you never grow tired of shooting?
Yes, definitely the cherry blossoms by the Tidal Basin.