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Q&A With Bobbi Silten, President, Gap Foundation

July 19, 2011

(Aaron Hurst is founding president of the Taproot Foundation, a nonprofit organization that makes business talent available to organizations working to improve society. As part of an ongoing series of interviews with the heads of corporate foundations, Hurst recently spoke with Bobbi Silten, president of the Gap Foundation and senior vice president of global responsibility for Gap Inc., about her career, her passion for service, and how her background in business is key to running a successful foundation. A member of the White House Council for Community Solutions, Silten is a driving force behind Reimagining Service, a multi-sector coalition dedicated to exploring the challenges and opportunities of increasing social impact through volunteer engagement. This Q&A& originally appeared in the Huffington Post. To watch our "Flip chat" with Hurst, click here.)

Gap_Bobbi_Silten Aaron Hurst: Each generation seems to have such a different outlook on life and social change. What generation do you identify with and why?

Bobbi Silten: I'm technically a boomer, but I'm on the tail end of the boom, so I haven't felt as connected to this generation. I don't feel like I'm in that life stage, so it's different. I'm very curious about Gen Y and how optimistic they are, how much they are open to sharing their beliefs and possibilities. They're very much a generation that believes in innovation and technology solving a lot of things, and I like that hopefulness. In a lot of ways, they have that same kind of boomer optimism that it's a world of possibility.

AH: Definitely. I ask because one of the things I like about my generation, Gen X, which I see in you is the desire to leverage business for good.

BS: I think about the business side of things: creating a vision and strategy, converting that into an operating plan, setting goals, holding people accountable -- it's the same process. I don't lead any differently than I led in business. I think the biggest difference is when you're on the commercial side, it is inherently competitive. What's funny is that I never thought I was going to be in business. I thought I would run a nonprofit.

AH: What ever happened to that? What changed your mind?

BS: When I finished school, I ended up going into business with the social goal in mind. I wanted to change the way we marketed to women, and that's why I went into advertising. My senior thesis was on mass media's relationship to the onset of anorexia.

AH: One thing led to another, then you were selling khakis, and then...

BS: I almost quit in my late 20s. But it was actually Peter, my husband -- he defends people on death row -- who convinced me to stay in business. He told me businesses can do a lot to change the world, and he said if you can move up and influence business to do that, you can make a big impact. He's a wise, wise man.

AH: You are at the top of your game and at the height of your career. I wonder if most CEOs would ever even consider that someone with your background would want to run a foundation -- that it can attract that kind of talent.

BS: I tell my team all the time that my vision for the work we do is that, one day, it's going to be a deeper part of the business. It's not going to be a department anymore. I want to make sure all of my players keep their business skills sharp because one day they're going to go back [to the business side]. I understand how value gets created on the business side. I often think, How do I help the business leaders understand how this work creates value for everyone, and that this is an investment worth making -- not as a charitable cause, but truly as an investment to raise things for everyone?

I think what has happened to HR in the last thirty years is a great parallel. HR has moved from being a department to really being a way of thinking about talent management and development, and most corporations have experts at the center who are staying on top of the latest ideas and innovations in the field.

AH: How has the work of the Gap Foundation changed in the last few years?

BS: A little over five years ago, we identified our people and their talent as our greatest strengths. Being a company that has a lot of employees, we said we have to leverage this group beyond just their time. While time is valuable, we think that talent is a multiplier. Now, 100 percent of our youth-serving grants all have what's called "link and leverage," which is they're linking to a company asset beyond cash. We also leverage internal talent pro bono to get our work done as a foundation. From strategic planning to surveys to Web site redesign, employees from different areas of the company volunteer to help us meet our goals.

It's been hugely transformative for our foundation to integrate skilled volunteering into our work. We couldn't have the kind of community impact we are having if we only relied on our cash.

AH: How do you know whether the strategy is working?

BS: I had a nonprofit leader call me last week to tell me how much she's grown as a leader because of the Gap Leadership Initiative, a program that helps nonprofit leaders become even more effective by leveraging the talents of our Human Resources team and some of our company's best practices on developing leaders. It's not because of all the money we were giving them. It's a small organization, but she has essentially doubled her revenue in the last four years. She told me, "I have grown so much because of your volunteers and what you've been teaching me as part of the Leadership Initiative." It wasn't about "thank you" for the cash we gave them, which I think is really cool.

AH: What does it take to get CEOs to see the business value of philanthropy?

BS: Part of it is showing them the multiple levels of value it creates. I don't think there's just one door you open that appeals to everyone. Some people are more wired to be more community-minded. I'm a big believer in creating a sustainable cycle, and in order to do that, you have to think about all the stakeholders that are involved in your community investment and what they are getting out of it.

AH: Between Reimagining Service and the White House, you are doing a lot of coalition work. Why have you taken this approach to social change?

BS: Coalition work is important because it fosters diverse thinking. It needs to have its little collisions before it rests in a place where the most important things have surfaced, and it's not just a diluted or a lowest common denominator. With Reimagining Service, the different pieces that have been brought to the table have created a more compelling solution, and it's not a solution where you have to do every piece and part in order for it to work.

AH: Why did you decide to take part in Reimagining Service?

BS: There was an a-ha moment of "Whoa, there's going to be a lot of people volunteering, and are we ready? And are these good intentions going to turn into impact that means something of value to the community?" All of us who are involved in Reimagining Service were in violent agreement that there was a need to address this opportunity.

AH: When I started Taproot and started working in the volunteering and service fields, I was pretty shocked by the amount of territoriality and politics I encountered.

BS: I think that was a reaction to change. The things Taproot has done in the ten years you've been doing this work have been game-changing. I think change is scary, but when you look at [the past], it's those who change and embrace change, as scary as that can be, who ultimately succeed. As Don Fisher [co-founder of Gap Inc.] liked to say, "Change or fail."

-- Aaron Hurst

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