… Principles: it’s important to know what your values are. This will help you decide where you are willing to be flexible and where you need to stay the course. My co-founder’s guiding principle of “serving the least served of the underserved” has helped Ready to Succeed stay committed to changing the script for foster youth and low-income first-generation college students.
For someone who wants to set aside money to establish a Philanthropic Foundation or Fund, what does it take to make sure your resources are being impactful and truly effective? In this interview series, called “How To Create Philanthropy That Leaves a Lasting Legacy” we are visiting with founders of Philanthropic Foundations, Charitable Organizations, and Non-Profit Organizations, to talk about the steps they took to create sustainable success.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Romi Lassally, (Pronunciation: Raw-me; rhymes with mommy) Founder, Co-Executive Director.
Romi is a former media executive turned serial entrepreneur and business development consultant. Before entering the career education sector, Romi worked in digital media as the founder of an online content company for women, True Media, and as the founding features editor for the Huffington Post. Romi is a graduate of UCLA and lives in Pacific Palisades with her husband and has three adult children. [email protected]
Thank you for making time to visit with us about a ‘top of mind’ topic. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?
When I was a student at UCLA, I spent a lot of time in the career center. I was always anxious about what was going to happen next…after college…what my career path would be. Statistically, the ratio of advisors to students is 1:9,000. This is extremely limiting.
This statistic struck me, not only for myself and students in my position, but mostly for the students who didn’t have the extra support at home. They need more than one advisor; they require a community concurrent with their college experience. This robust career mentorship and support needs to be offered to students while they’re still in college.
Later in life, my teenage daughter had a “take your child to work day.” It was then that I noticed that there were so many additional opportunities for these children to see and experience, outside of their familial circles, that could offer a broader view or lens on life.
I’d say my “pivotal point” was when I had my first career position offered to me at Fox Studios. After simply walking across the studio lot, I had a chance meeting and was offered a job. In hindsight I realized that foster and system-affected youth are less likely to receive these unique “chances”. This combined with the crescendo of learnings from my own college experience was a breakthrough moment for me.
Not everyone has access to these opportunities. We realized that this was a problem that we could solve. RTS was launched in response to a severe, unmet need among former foster youth in Los Angeles County (home to the nation’s largest foster care system).
Despite 93% of youth in foster care expressing a desire to attend college, only 3% obtain a bachelor’s degree by age 26, compared to 50% of their non-foster peers (John Burton Advocates for Youth, 2017).
We don’t want to leave our foster youth’s future to chance. That 3% outcome is a result of chance, compared to the 90% of our foster youth students who have graduated 4-year colleges. Our foster youth have flipped the script when it comes to graduation rates. Our organization doesn’t leave their outcomes to luck. Instead, we offer these high-potential young adults with the resources, relationships, and opportunities they need to succeed.
You are a successful leader. Which three-character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? We would love to hear a few stories or examples.
Curiosity, humility, and hard work. Each are core examples of why I am where I am today. Curiosity led me to identify a problem that wasn’t being addressed; humility allows me to be willing to ask for help. I’ve learned countless times that when I am quick to admit that I don’t know something, my peers, friends, and network are even quicker to jump in and help. You must remain humble in this field of work. Everyone is learning, unlearning, and relearning.
Lastly, I’d say that tenacity and hard work are also instrumental. I like to amplify other people’s goals and work hard at making it happen. It starts in my heart; I like to play matchmaker to ensure that I am connecting the right scholar to the right job. Relationships are critical to success, especially for those whose past relationships have been inconsistent at best. We make the right introductions so that scholars can build their networks and gain social capital. I truly believe that connection is greater than the sum of its parts.
What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?
- How much I enjoy seeing people grow into their roles. Seeing the iterative process take place.
- How important it is to be self-aware, to keep ego out of the equation. It is ok if I am failing or learning something for the first time. It is all part of the process.
- Self-compassion. I am an over-achiever by nature, but self-compassion is something I’ve been working on. We teach our scholars that having faith in themselves makes them stronger, to become the person they are meant to be.
When we can be accepting and compassionate with ourselves, we avoid the temptation to self-criticize.
Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?
We are changing the trajectory of individual lives. For us, it is important to ensure that former foster youth and first-generation scholars who make it to college receive the support they need to graduation and transition to stable employment and self-sufficiency.
While many of their more resourced peers may have the option to land back at home and / or receive financial and social support to find their footing as they transition to life after college, the youth RTS serves do not. Without this support they would once again be vulnerable to the negative outcomes that are unfortunately too common for this population. RTS addresses a series of core needs unique to our student population:
- Lack of career exploration / career readiness resources.
- Lack of social capital.
- Lack of access to internships and other career building work experiences.
- Lack of social and emotional support.
- Lack of financial and other basic need support.
At least 50% of transition age foster youth who enroll in a four-year college will drop out of college by the end of their first year, often leaving with debt, few connections, and few prospects for self-sustaining employment. Moreover, within four years of aging out of foster care, these transition age youth experience the worst outcomes of any population of young Americans. This human and moral tragedy is shocking, and the costs to American society are severe. According to a 2017 report by the Opportunity Youth Network, every year a youth fails to achieve self-sufficiency, society incurs $15,867.20 in lost tax revenue and increased health care and criminal justice expenditures and welfare costs. According to The White House Council for Community Solutions’ recent study “The Economic Value of Disconnected Youth” estimated the costs of youth disconnection from education and work to be $93 billion per year in lost taxes and social spending, with total costs of $4.7 trillion over those young people’s lifetimes.
Ready to Succeed’s intensive, integrated mentorship, professional development, and financial assistance approach is proven to help college-going foster youth complete college and establish themselves in the workforce. The Scholarship Program allows young people to sustain their engagement with our proven program. This integrated approach ultimately results in youth persisting in and graduating from college and securing career track jobs.
What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?
Young people at this stage are so hopeful. They consistently amaze and inspire me. They have had to work so much harder than others to get where they are — failure is not an option. RTS opens doors to internships and entry-level job opportunities at some of the most sought-after and prestigious workplaces, while offering a variety of career-honing services such as career exploration, career development, and career training so that our scholars are competitive in the workforce. It brings me so much joy to play a role and to witness their success.
Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefitted from your initiatives?
One of my very first students, a trans male, had so many challenges. He came from a very dark upbringing and suffered varying degrees of the foster trifecta: trauma, abuse, neglect. These are often factors that never make the statistics.
He bounced from home to home, and I can honestly say that RTS saved his life. He was terrified of graduating, and “what would happen next.” We provided him with therapy, mentors, financial support — and now he is getting his Master’s degree! In fact, he invited me to attend his graduation and I could not feel more honored to do so.
We all want to help and to live a life of purpose. What are three actions anyone could take to help address the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?
- Don’t underestimate your power to be that “one” caring individual. Opening your network can change a life. It can make a huge difference in the life of a student. At RTS we support the student via training and career development fundamentals so that when “opportunity strikes” they are ready for the job.
- Volunteer. As an RTS volunteer you’ll serve as a guide to talented and motivated college students and help them navigate their career journey from internship to early career. You can be part adviser, part mentor, part supportive friend and most importantly, you can craft the volunteer experience that works for you — around your own interests, skills, and your own schedule.
- Donate. You can do so here. Contributions make a huge impact. In addition to that, you become a part of our passionate group of individuals and foundations investing in the next generation of leaders, influencers, and change-makers.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful & Effective Nonprofit That Leaves A Lasting Legacy?” Please share a story or example for each.
We look at these as the five “P’s” to our success:
- Problem recognition: identifying a problem, that no one else is solving.
- Passion: this has been an instrumental part of our success.
- Partner: you don’t want to do this alone. It was with my Co-Founder, Pat McCabe that we observed that no organization existed to close gaps in career knowledge, access, and resources faced by former foster youth in Los Angeles. From here RTS was born in 2016.
- Plan: you must have a solid strategic growth plan in place. Driven by the rapid growth we experienced in 2020, we formed a committee to assess growth strategies and build a roadmap for the next several years, with emphasis on remaining resilient to environmental shifts including ongoing pandemic effects. It was this strategic growth plan that helped us grow from 3 to 300 scholars in just 6 years.
- Principles: it’s important to know what your values are. This will help you decide where you are willing to be flexible and where you need to stay the course. My co-founder’s guiding principle of “serving the least served of the underserved” has helped Ready to Succeed stay committed to changing the script for foster youth and low-income first-generation college students.
How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?
It has made me more connected than ever to the human element of what we do. Interactions have become more meaningful. Just showing up for these youth right now at a time of lost wages and food insecurity makes a huge difference.
We ramped up our outreach to Guardian Scholars programs — which provide academic support to former foster youth in college — and the response was overwhelming. As students are preparing to launch their careers during one of the most uncertain economic periods in recent history, interest in our programming has really taken off.
How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?
I remind myself that life is messy. We do our best, we learn from our mistakes, but we cannot control everything. These journeys belong to our scholars. We are as involved as we can be (we cry, we have our moments) but ultimately, they will always have other things going on that we may not know about. We learn and get back up again.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non-profit? He, she, or they might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I have to say, I’ve been genuinely impressed by how MacKenzie Scott (Jeff Bezo’s ex-wife) has been donating billions to innovative organizations and causes that support the needs of underrepresented people. I think to-date she has donated approximately $12 billion to over 1,000 different organizations from Planned Parenthood to Ukraine aid to Habitat for Humanity and more.
You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?
Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.