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Q&A With Kerry Sullivan, President, Bank of America Charitable Foundation

August 15, 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 Kerry Sullivan, president of the Bank of America Charitable Foundation, about her passion for improving education, the value of service in schools, and the glass ceiling for women in corporate America. Last month, Bank of America announced a $50 million philanthropic pledge to fund education programs that help at-risk youth successfully graduate and connect them to workforce development opportunities. This Q&A originally appeared in the Huffington Post. Click here to read Aaron's Q&A with Bobbi Silten, president of the Gap Foundation. To watch Regina's "Flip chat" with Hurst, click here.)

KerrySullivan_BofA Aaron Hurst: If you suddenly received a huge sum of money to create your own foundation based on your personal passions, what would you invest in?

Kerry Sullivan: One would be education for the underserved. People need to be educated to find a job with a livable wage, particularly those who are trying to make a living in a democracy. It is the key to personal success, a company's success, and a country's success. The other thing I feel strongly about is basic health and human services, with hunger at its core. It is so essential, especially considering the economic downturn and the whole issue of food insecurity in this country, as well as other developed countries -- let alone developing countries. Looking right now at the drought in Somalia, we as a world player need to respond.

Even though they seem totally different, I see these two issues working together: one is a Band-Aid to provide for immediate and critical needs, while education serves to lift people out of that situation.

AH: That sounds wonderful -- I hope you get the money to start it! What do you feel you are able to take from your everyday life to help you understand the issues and be more insightful and effective in your job?

KS: I have two young girls who grew up volunteering, being engaged, and caring about issues. They understand there is a role for all of us to help individuals and families and communities move forward. I feel fortunate to have that perspective.

In this country, the divide between the haves and the have-nots is growing, and there's a shrinking middle class. I don't think any of us are that far removed from these issues. No one is immune from knowing somebody who is in a tough situation right now, given the protracted downturn. Every community has issues, and even in upscale neighborhoods there are people that are in need. There are millions of children in this country who go to bed hungry. When you analyze the numbers on how food pantries are being accessed right now, they are not used just by people who have been chronically unemployed. It's working poor and the recently laid-off. It's no longer something far afield from who we are as individuals.

AH: Speaking of your daughters, do you think you get exposure to what some of the educational challenges are in this country?

KS: They're fortunate to go to good schools, so I'm not seeing directly why we're falling behind compared to the rest of the world. But I do see we have some issues of equity in education. If we really look at what twenty-first century jobs are going to be, particularly in this country, you're going to need at least two years of postsecondary education. We need to develop a system where kids see hope, a track that will connect them to one of their goals in life. We need to ignite the excitement of learning in children and connect them to the idea that they need education to have a successful career that they are passionate about. I think we have a lot of things to work on, and it is clearly going to take collaboration between educators, nonprofits, and corporations to solve the problem.

Despite the issues we have in our education system, there is good news around what we are teaching children about volunteerism and cultures of service, which is something that didn't exist when I was in school. Particularly right now, there's a keen awareness of service as a noble profession and calling and the fact that everyone has something to give.

AH: I also have a daughter, who is five years old and a brilliant businesswoman. She runs the best lemonade stand in Park Slope. What are the challenges you've had to face as a woman in business, and what have you seen change that may make it easier for my daughter to succeed in corporate America in the future?

KS: I think sometimes women in corporate America think they have to do it all themselves, but that's not how life works. You need to make friends, and you need to connect with them along the way. I'm not a huge networker -- I'm actually probably more of an introvert -- but when I have a passion for something and admire someone for how they conduct themselves in business, I'm not shy about connecting with them. I often think we don't empower ourselves enough to find individuals who are willing to help. Sometimes it's just reaching out and making your needs and interests known. I've done that, and it has been very instrumental in the opportunities I've had. Women do have more control over their careers than they know.

In my journey in banking, I have not seen many roadblocks for women. With any work, you have to find passion for what you do, and if you have that it's easier to figure out your next steps because you're propelled by that passion. I think I've always had a passion for philanthropy, so I've always been able to find my next opportunity. I didn't graduate from college and know right then I wanted to work for a foundation. I did a couple of other things first, but I always made a link to the next opportunity and found my way. Talking to some younger graduates, they think it's a linear path, but it's not. It's okay to meander a bit and learn what your strengths are and develop a passion. You don't have to know what it is when you're going through school. It's always changing and evolving.

AH: You have about three hundred thousand employees at Bank of America. How can you be strategic in adding real value and impact to the community with that many people?

KS: Our challenge, despite our size and scope, is to resonate locally and take on and contribute to issues that matter. We fund across a broad range of interest areas, but right now we care about critical needs like providing international disaster relief, getting people back to work, and preserving neighborhoods. Domestically, those are the things we're focused on.

We are going to connect the dots from what we've done domestically to what we can do in the international space. As we build out, we're rebuilding and re-thinking our global strategy. We certainly are interested in national and global partnerships, but we also fund organizations that are specific to a city or community. We approach it both ways. We feel that despite our size, we make a difference in the communities where our business is. We've got folks on the ground, and the distribution of our philanthropy is local.

AH: You've been involved in Reimagining Service for a while now. Has that involvement caused you to think differently about the service you're doing at Bank of America?

KS: We've been helping people not only to contribute but also to have more impact by taking the skills they have to the community. Reimagining Service has been the catalyst for a lot of those discussions internally. The biggest change this past year has been the heads of large business lines in the company coming forward and saying, "I want my division and people to be engaged around one or two issues." Knowing that volunteerism can make a difference used to just be bottom-up, but now it's bottom-up and top-down. There's a preponderance of people wanting to leverage their skill-sets.

From a foundation standpoint, we tend to give general operating or unrestricted funding to nonprofits we believe in. We've been mindful to ensure that nonprofits feel comfortable and inspired to use some dollars to help build the structure they need to better handle volunteers. Not only are we supporting volunteerism and service through our own employees' actions, but we're committing unrestricted support to nonprofits so that they can work toward being more of a service-oriented organization, if that makes sense for their mission and the benefit they provide to the community. It works hand in hand.

AH: How does philanthropy and service fit within the broader corporate social responsibility strategy at Bank of America?

KS: The premise is simple: when communities are not vibrant and people are not working and the economy isn't moving, we can't grow and prosper as an institution and company. We look at creating opportunity through our philanthropy and volunteerism as essential to moving communities -- and hence our business -- forward. We're always trying to look at the opportunity that has the multiplier effect and reverberates more broadly than just a Band-Aid would. It's part of our business strategy.

-- Aaron Hurst

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