LIZZIE / EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT BUBBLE FOUNDATION / BATON ROUGE, LA
Meet Lizzie. She was a consultant, worked with Teach for America, and is now the Executive Director at the Bubble Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to creating a hands-on nutrition and wellness curriculum in partnership with New York City school cafeterias and classrooms. She works with a strong moral compass, keeping her core values of growth, integrity and community at top of mind. Lizzie shares insights into the hurdles of nutritional education in the US and highlights of driving growth at a non-profit without sacrificing the positive impact on the individuals. She’s a role model, she's got great business tips, and oh yes, she’s blooming.
Tell me about yourself.
I grew up in South Louisiana and am the daughter of a journalist and a teacher. Now, working in education, this is very much a part of who I am today. My father covered politics in Louisiana and really embodied operating with integrity — something that I took with me. I also have a family that is full of wonderful cooks. Being in South Louisiana, I grew up in a tradition of a strong food culture and I mean red beans and rice every Monday and all of these wonderful dishes that I thought that everyone ate across the United States, which I later learned that was not the case [laughs]. That food culture and history was very important to me and sparked much of my interest and appreciation for food today.
I left Louisiana for college, moved to Texas, and then made my way up North, and have been in New York for six years now. I started my career in strategy consulting, working at Deloitte, in Washington D.C. I always knew that I wanted to work in public service in some way. I wanted to use the skills I had in business and strategy and apply them to the public sector.
I ultimately found that [consulting] wasn't enough for me, due mainly to some of the bureaucracy that I saw in working in government along with the challenge of creating change in that environment. I found myself drawn to non-profits and community based organizations where I could see change happen more quickly.
What are your core values?
Values are so foundational to how I live my life and make decisions. I have a list that I made five years ago as part of a leadership retreat with a previous organization, and it's something that I go back to again and again to reevaluate and guide decisions that I make.
The first value that I have is Integrity and I think a lot of that comes from my father being a journalist and hearing him rail on accountability, governance, and certainly the lack of integrity that happens in Louisiana politics sometimes. Growth is another value and that's about my own personal growth and always wanting to be challenged, moving on to the next thing, and seeing myself learning.
The next value for me is Community, and I’d say that’s what really draws me to the work at Bubble and to doing work for community based organizations. It’s the importance of feeling like you belong to a community of people, knowing who those people are, and giving back to them in some way.
When we think about The Bubble Foundation as an organization, a lot of our work is about building a community that champions wellness for the entire school. That means that it's really important that we don't go in and force ourselves and our programs on a school because it's really about working with the administration, working with the teachers, working with the parent community so that it feels like something that's growing within the school and not something that we're tacking on.
Tell me more about The Bubble Foundation and how you linked up with the organization?
Bubble was founded in 2010 working with one school, Haven Academy, in South Bronx with the vision of transforming that school into a healthy place for kids and families. At the core of our vision is the belief that schools can and should be a place not only to teach academics but also to nourish the mind and bodies of our youngest generation.
Our idea was to look at the whole school and how we could transform—from the classroom to the cafeteria—the degree to which the environment was empowering kids to establish healthy habits from the start. We looked at what we could do in the cafeteria to create change. At the same time, we bring food and movement education into the classroom with our programming in hands-on cooking, gardening and movement. We also engage parents and teachers so they can be strong role models and decision makers at home and in school.
The idea, again, was always to build a foundation for a strong, wellness program that the school could maintain long term. Having a garden is great but if it's not used, that's not really benefiting the community. So, every program that we do is really in partnership with the teachers, parents, and the administration itself. Since that first partnership program, we now work in 17 schools across New York City, focused on those communities that are most vulnerable and face lower access to healthy foods, poorer health outcomes, and more exposure to general poverty.
As a result, we’re primarily working in The Bronx, Harlem, and parts of Brooklyn, and what we’ve seen is that this idea of being a spark for schools and building health and wellness into the foundation, into their core D.N.A., really does work and it sticks with schools! Haven Academy, for example, now has a chef who cooks scratch meals for the students every day, four times a day. They have a movement room, a gymnasium, a nurse on site, a continued food education program, a rooftop garden. The school really is an example and a model of what strong school wellness looks like.
What have been some of the biggest obstacles you've encountered so far?
One challenge for me has been operating in a more external role, especially in the fundraising capacity, and asking for financial support. I came from a background that was more internally focused on business strategy and that was my natural habitat.
When you practice asking enough, you get more comfortable doing it. You also get comfortable with the idea that the worst thing that could happen is that someone says no. The other thing that helps me a lot when thinking about fundraising and building financial support, is conceptualizing it more as building relationships and champions for a cause.
Once I am able to view an interaction with someone as more about meeting them and getting to know them, which is something that I really enjoy, it's been really helpful for me to feel more comfortable with that and do it in a way that is authentic to me.
How will you bloom in the next year both professionally and personally?
One of the reflections that I had this past summer as a leader was that I needed to do more reflecting [laughs]! It’s important for me to have time for myself and think about how things are going to be able to operate creatively and drive the strategy for our organization. This year, I want to build up that time for myself to be more reflective and also consider how I’m creating space for my team to reflect. There is a lot of urgency in our work as a non-profit organization and I think that is true for a lot of non-profits as there's a lot at stake when you're trying to change whole outcomes for children! Sometimes we can self-sacrifice for that cause.
What is some of the best advice that you would give young entrepreneurs?
I would say that it's important for any young person going out into the world to know your strengths, know what makes you happy, and know your values. I think it needs to start there, and then as you're pursuing your path you’ll be more self-aware, and that will make you a stronger leader for your team because you will know where you shine and where you have deficits.
The other thing I would say is, for folks looking to step into a new career, I think there's a lot of power in doing small things to make your dreams happen. There's an idea in entrepreneurial community of making little bets for yourself. Let’s say you want to be a writer. What are the small things you can do to get there, that are less intimidating than going from a lawyer to writing for New York Magazine?
So, think about who you're surrounding yourself with, your network, small things that you can do independently before you launch your big venture or your next big thing to really test and see how you feel about it. That way, it will be a gradual thing that happens instead of going from A to B overnight.
Love that answer. I want to get into this topic that you’ve brought up of how to strike the balance of prioritizing the growth of an organization without sacrificing the positive impact that you have on individuals—this idea of depth versus breadth.
I'm not fully sure, but it might be an American thing that we really like to see things get bigger. We think about it in the for-profit sector as growing sales and revenue but interestingly, I think there is equal pressure in the non-profit space to do more. By doing more, that conversation can sometimes take away from thinking about actual impacts and outcomes on individuals and how we're changing lives.
That's something that as an organization, Bubble has had a lot of strategic conversations around staying committed to the impact and quality of our program. Specifically, this year is our year of deepening our impact and that's really what we're thinking about as an organization. How can we ensure that, as we grow, we're not sacrificing that depth of impact? This year, we are launching some new programs to grow our impact within our schools; however, we are working within the same community of schools. This was a decision that was hard when you feel the pressure for expansion and when there's momentum and excitement around it. But, I think our board and our leadership are feeling proud of that decision to really be faithful and committed to our current community of schools—it’s really about growing and deepening impact, not a number game.
We can’t talk about nutrition education and social justice without talking about “access”. Where are we in the fight to improve food scarcity and access?
It is a challenge but it's important for us to involve the parents, family, and community. Bubble has a Family Meal program that teaches about the importance of sitting down for a healthy meal on a regular basis and we have a Parent Workshop series that teaches about cooking and shopping on a budget and the ways that you can work within what's available to live and eat healthfully. I’d say that the thing we have found to be as effective, if not more so, is how our students can advocate for healthy choices at home. Our students come home, recipes in hand, asking that they make hummus, or that their parent buy greens at the store.
We believe in empowering others and giving the message that food is within their control. It can be really hard with a food system as it is certainly working against us in terms of food processing and food access challenges; nevertheless, food is a decision that we're making each day. What helps is that every parent wants their kid to be healthy and has the will to make it happen. That's not the challenge; it's about doing as much as we can to provide the tools to make it easier.
When you say that our system needs to change like what types of things that would make the most difference?
I think it's important that people understand that the work that we're doing is treating the symptoms of a much larger problem of inequity. We see this the differences between neighborhoods in New York City. One of the schools with which we work is located in Brownsville, Brooklyn. The life expectancy in Brownsville compared to that of Greenwich Village is ten years less, and that's just a subway ride away! The poverty rate in Brownsville is four times that of Greenwich Village and the obesity rate is four times greater.
Some of the differences are about health and wellness but all of that is really tied in with poverty, racism, housing opportunities, access to transportation, and all of these bigger issues of inequity. I think it's important for any organization that is doing work to address one of the smaller symptoms of a bigger issue is to remain aware and be a voice for the larger problem at hand.
What can we do to do a better job contributing to the discussion?
There are a number of programs that help to address the food gap such as the SNAP program and the WIC program. These are critical programs when thinking about the statistics of poverty and the reality of individuals who are living highly vulnerable situations. We should all be aware of these programs and advocate for them where we feel they are threatened.
What do you want to be remembered for?
When I look back on what so far is a very short career—I realized that sounded so dramatic “When I look back on my career” [both laugh]—and I think about my journey so far, some of my proudest moments have been about seeing my people succeed, seeing them empowered, and seeing them grow. That's much more fulfilling to me than anything that I could ever achieve personally. So being a good people leader and an empowering mentor for my staff and everyone around me including my friends and family, that's important to me. If I have a circle of people who feel like I've been an empowering force for them to do amazing things in their life and in the world, I would be happy with that.