Cause An Affect podcast with Felicia Tripp Folsom, Executive Director of Emerging Leaders
Felicia Tripp Folsom, like her daughter, has been a social justice warrior since she was a little girl. As the daughter of a Korean mom and an African-American dad, Felicia’s parents instilled in her a sense of identity and belonging in both communities growing up in the Seattle Tacoma area. In this podcast, Felicia talks about her intentionality around identity and being strategic about tracking long-term outcomes for underrepresented populations from her time at Reed College to nearly 20 years at the Portland Housing Center and now leading the charge at Emerging Leaders.
Felicia is a long-term data queen and knows that showing (not telling) results leads to funding and growth of key initiatives that deliver systemic changes for thousands of folks who’ve been overlooked or struggled because of their race or gender or identity.
Ryan Buchanan: Hey there, welcome to the Cause An Affect podcast where we talk about the human stories and lives of entrepreneurs and change-makers. This is your host, Ryan Buchanan, and I’m here with my partner in crime, Felicia Tripp Folsom, who is the Executive Director of the Emerging Leaders program and sits on the executive team of The Contingent. Welcome to the show, Felicia.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: Hey, Ryan, glad to be here.
Ryan Buchanan: Awesome. Glad to have you here. So when we met in the interview for Emerging Leaders, it was exactly a year ago in April. I’ve interviewed probably thousands of people in my life, but I was probably the most impressed with you of all of those people, because of how you, I think we gave you some homework of how you might approach where you might take the organization as our fearless leader, but you came back with all of this strategic approach to data and how to structure it in a way to track long term outcomes.
Ryan Buchanan: It was almost like you were three steps ahead of us and I learned so much from you in that. I was just like, well, this is a no brainer, we have to hire you. How did you come up with that as a plan, and is that how you think about any organization that you get involved in? How do you work, Felicia?
Felicia Tripp Folsom: Well, Ryan, yes, it’s actually the way I work. Early in my career, I used to, and I really felt like I wasn’t making real, meaningful impact or change. I really realized in order to make systematic change to help our most vulnerable populations, we need to really think strategically and think long term. Sorry, those are my dogs.
Ryan Buchanan: No, we’re in this whole new world of coronavirus.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: Yes, so I do apologize. Those are my poodles. I had decided that it needed to take more and I’ve been in the nonprofit community space in Portland for two decades, and what I’ve really found it’s especially working here, in order to make real change for the people I serve, I not only have to do the work. I have to explain why the work is being done in the way it’s doing. I have to have a hypothesis, I have to be able to track because it’s not only about outputs, but outcomes.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: What’s the long term outcome that I’m trying to achieve when doing the work, and that’s why all the strategy work is important on the front end. Coming out of affordable housing, I had a real belief that that people should have the access to home ownership. Not everybody should be a homeowner. So I spent a big part of my career in affordable housing, and still to this day really focused on access.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: Because the biggest gap I see in our marginalized and vulnerable communities is their inability to access. Whether it’s housing, health care, education. So what are the points I’m going to have to create or be part of that change, so those communities can understand what they can access, and that access point is really the differential that I see in being able to make long term change.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: That’s why the strategic thinking is coming from this sort of access point, because what I found is when we’re able to help our most marginalized communities access, whether it’s housing, healthcare, education, that’s where the real change occurs. So that’s why when I was in that interview process with you and Su, I didn’t think it was good enough to say, yeah, I can do the job. It was really like, if, if I was hired for this job, this would be my approach. This is what my thinking is. These are the goals that we have to put in place. From these goals, these will be the outputs and the outcomes to really serve our young people of color coming out of Oregon’s colleges and universities.
Ryan Buchanan: One of the, we’re all having distractions today. One of the, my daughter just left the room. So that’s good. One of the things that I’ve always noticed about you Felicia is you have been really clear in any meeting or any when you’re at the podium speaking to audiences around your own identity and the importance of identity, not just from a race and gender standpoint, but how that kind of infuses with our perspective throughout how we approach the world and I know that your daughter who just is graduating from La Salle High School, she is a social justice warrior and really is comfortable in her own skin and knows her own identity. So I thought I’d have a lot to learn and so would our audience around why identity is so important for all of us. Because I feel like you’re so clear on that and you have been throughout your life. So I just wanted to have you expand on that.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: Yeah, Ryan. I think the number one way, I have to thank my parents. Being a mixed race person, my mother is Korean and my dad is African American. They were really cognizant that me establishing a firm identity is going to be tied to who I am as a person, and how I live in the world and they especially felt that bringing a mixed race child into the world, that they had to create a foundation that I was comfortable in as a mixed race person.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: I really thank my parents because I know a lot of other mixed race people that didn’t have parents as supportive as mine. For example, I was born in Korea, and my parents intentionally moved to the states because I thought they would be a better life for me. They could have moved everywhere. They actually did the research and found the cities in America that had the most mixed race people in the country.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: They picked the Northwest in the Seattle-Tacoma area for that reason, and also they had to look at where was a large Korean population because my mother didn’t really speak English and even throughout our whole entire life, she didn’t really try to learn very much of it. It was interesting when I got married and watching my mother and my husband and kind of having to translate between the two of them, growing up in an, especially in the Seattle Tacoma area has a very large Korean population.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: It has a very strong, at the time I was growing up in the 80s, a very strong black middle class. What I meant by that is, I assumed that there was going to be a black mayor because Norm Rice was the mayor. I assumed there could be an Asian governor because Gary Locke was governor. So I grew up in an era where one, people of color were in positions of power, and two, where everybody around me was mixed race. So I didn’t have to choose.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: I also have to point out that I’m of two people of color, which also is different. I’m not mixed with black and white, for example, and my parents both said, okay, you’re going to learn Korean. Okay, you’re going to learn about black culture. You’re going to learn both of these cultures so that when you step into them, you are comfortable at any given time. So my parents were really cognizant of raising me in both communities.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: My dad spoke Korean, so it wasn’t like my dad would step into that community and not speak. I went to Korean school on Saturdays. I also went to both a Korean church and an African American church. I was part of the Black Student Union, but yet my youth group was in Korean. So it was really that sort of nuance that really allowed me to establish my identity.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: Don’t get me wrong, there were bumps along the way where one community would be like, I’m not Korean enough or another community said I’m not black enough, but in the end, growing up in both of those identities, I was able to find my path and really have both communities really accept me. I decided that when I had kids, I would have my kids grow up in diversity and diversity not only racial diversity, but diversity of thinking, which is also really important thing to do I feel as a parent.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: If everybody’s just like you and everybody thinks just like you and is raised just like you, you don’t grow as a person. So I’m always pushing my kids. It was really a struggle in the beginning, especially with my oldest, my daughter, especially grew up in a very white city like Portland and everybody is like, it’s the same like you’re up in the Northwest. No. In the Seattle Tacoma area, we have actually the military, which actually changes it, and we had a lot of companies headquartered in that area. The military alone adds a whole different level of diversity.
Ryan Buchanan: Was it Fort Lewis or something?
Felicia Tripp Folsom: Fort Lewis was there, McChord Air Force Base, which are now combined, the Naval Academy, and it’s a port city. So that really changes it. So very early on, I had decided with both of my kids when they were little, I could really determine their friend group and what I mean by that is really getting them to have a diverse group of friends. To this day, I’m really happy that both of them have a diverse group of friends.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: I think that when you do that with your children, and you don’t shy away from conversations about race or class or gender, it allows children to be really comfortable in it. One of the very first things I did with my daughter is had the bell hooks book, Happy to be Nappy so that she would always be comfortable with her hair as a black woman because I knew that was a part of her identity that would be questioned.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: So I really wanted her to be comfortable in it. With my son, I have those conversations around what public transportation looks like for him as about to be a black man, that there are all these things that yes, your sister can do, but your safety as a black boy growing up in Portland is going to be different for you than it is for your sister and my kids haven’t necessarily gone to the same schools.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: They have very different educational needs. So I treat them each as individuals as well, but you’re very, very right. Identity is an important component of who I am and in our Emerging Leaders work, and want all our young people to feel really comfortable in their identity. There are parts of our identity that are really positive and wonderful. But there are also stereotypes especially as people that come with our identity and how do we break those stereotypes, whether they’re good or bad, and really having especially our young people of color, be comfortable in their identity, because when you go into the working world, the imposter syndrome, no matter how confident you are, will always come up.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: Even for me, it came up early in my career. Am I good enough to do this work? Maybe it is. I got this job because I’m a person of color. No, no, no. So you have to constantly be solidifying your identity, and your roots are so important to who you are as a person.
Ryan Buchanan: Yeah. I think some of the message that we try and get across and I know I’ve heard you get this message across is in the corporate world, dominant culture expects — especially in Portland, it’s white culture — expects professionals of color to adapt to it, and rarely do leaders like myself that look like me begin to adapt to other cultures, whether it be Asian American culture, African American culture and things like that in the workplace.
Ryan Buchanan: It’s just expected to always be conformed to, basically my unspoken norm. So I think there’s this balance that I’ve heard you talk about of , being able to live within that world, but also being really comfortable with what your identity is, and not necessarily code switch at every opportunity. So there’s a tension in how you own your own identity, but also sometimes you could code switching is required for certain corporate cultures and I don’t know. It’s always a balancing act, I would imagine.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: It is. I remember once in my early 20s, and having an immigrant parent, and you are the primary caregiver of that immigrant parent is a very complex world for the young person. My mother didn’t read or write in English, so I’ll take, for example, when she had to have a health care appointment, I had to rearrange my whole entire schedule to take her. She could not go on her own.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: When it came to any kind of doing taxes, I had to do her taxes and my taxes and I remember, people were saying, I feel so bad for you that you have to do all these things for your mother, and for me, I was offended by that. I’m like, why would you feel sorry for me? She’s my mother. Because in Korean culture, you were raised that that is just part of who you are. It’s not a good or a bad. It’s more like, that is what is and it’s interesting, because when I would go to Korea, that would never be a thing that anybody would think would be good or bad.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: It would be like, yeah that’s your job. You’re supposed to take care of your parents. You’re supposed to do all those things and it was always an interesting balance of, especially as a person color and having an immigrant parent of that balance of making sure I’m taking care of my family and at the same time being able to perform my job duties in the workplace. One example where imposter syndrome even came up for me was when my mother had breast cancer.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: Nobody knew except for one person, you would have never known and that’s really the side of me that was trying to overcompensate because I would have to take her to her chemo appointments and all that. I didn’t want anybody to feel bad for me or think that I was doing less than what I was doing. It wasn’t until my mother was through with that people learned that I was doing my job and taking care of my mother at the same time, people were actually stunned.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: What I should have done which I would change is, let people know because there’s nothing wrong with that. I think one thing I have worked really hard in, Ryan, is showing vulnerability in the workplace. I’m not very good at it. I think it’s really important for this younger generation to not feel like they have to carry everything on their shoulders, and that life is messy and perfection is not what we should attain in the workplace.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: That’s something that really took me years to get to because when you come from an immigrant parent, and my dad grew up in a very, very poor part of Philadelphia, success was all about where you went to school, what kind of job you had, all of those things. There was that pressure of not failing, especially when you were the hope for your family, because I am a first generation college student myself.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: So that pressure kept has you create a wall so that you’re not vulnerable because you have this pressure and I don’t want the next generation of first generation college students and professionals to fill that. I think that vulnerability is an important part of who you are and how you come into the workplace.
Ryan Buchanan: Yeah. What’s fascinating to me about this conversation around identity is a lot of the most of the examples that you’re using is family like the family is so foundational. So, I’m going to transition here. I actually, recently did two podcasts interviews, one with my mom who’s an entrepreneur and my dad, who also is and we kind of delved into that through a different lens, if you will.
Ryan Buchanan: I want to go back to the beginning, back to when you were a little girl, you mentioned that you were born in South Korea. Did you move to, when you were really young to the Seattle Tacoma area and I guess, let’s pick up from when you were eight years old, and the types of activities that you were into and if you have siblings, and just tell us about what it was like way, way back then
Felicia Tripp Folsom: So first, I’m an only child of older parents and this is where racism really comes into play. My parents struggled to have me because they were mixed race couple United States, adoption was not an option for them. They were turned down quite a few times because they were mixed race. So I definitely realized I’m not that far out as far as the loving case.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: My parents both had to deal with that as a mixed race couple, but I remember coming from Korea, not really looking Korean or not really looking African American and being in my elementary lunchroom and I came with my, and I to this day, I still eat pretty much a Korean diet. Now, I remember sitting there at lunch and everybody staring at my food of my little bento box with seaweed and rice and in Korean, we have a thing called banchans which are side dishes, and all my little side dishes.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: I remember being made fun of, and I was just like, why are these kids making fun of me? All I could think about was, one, it hurt my feelings, and I went home to tell my mother. At that time my English was okay. It wasn’t the best, because I learned Korean first and then English second. I just remember, “Mom, what do I do?” And my mom was like, “You either can conform to what they think your standards are,” in Korean she told me, “Or you can show them a new way of thinking and a new way of eating.”
Felicia Tripp Folsom: So I said, “What do you want me to do mom?” She was like, “That’s up to you,” and my parents were really those kind of people not telling me I had to do things a certain way, but watching me to see how I would respond. I remember going back and I continued to have my lunch and I would try the peanut butter and jelly sandwich or the chips and I would start sharing my food, but about six months in was into that you students really started to accept my food and be willing to eat it, but that was a real nuance component.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: I come to an American school. It’s complex, in the sense of I realized that brown people like me, were not given a fair shot in the educational system, they would allow one of us to shine. That’s the one thing I really realized when I looked around, and I would talk to kids in the neighborhood, I noticed that a lot of the brown kids or the kids that didn’t speak English were in the remedial classes. A lot of the white kids in the neighborhood went to these elite private schools, or were in the honors classes or whatever.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: I noticed that all throughout my whole entire educational career, and I had decided that if I ever had say, I would be on the side to change that. So that’s one reason I think education is so, so important, because in especially in the US, your education can really determine where you’re going to go long term. So, I really realized, and I tell people to sit in an ESL class, and you can really see the difference.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: To this day homonyms, made and maid, I still don’t understand them, but it really showed me that if I am going to succeed, I need to be in those classes over there, and there were the honors classes across the hall. I needed to get out of these ESL classes and go over there, otherwise, that I had figured out really early on in my educational career, but a lot of people don’t figure that out and it shouldn’t be that way, is one of the things I’ve really learned. I think the world works the same way.
Ryan Buchanan: I know in a lot of previous podcast interviews I’ve done with folks, their parents really advocated for them to when they were kind of put in the remedial classes, either mom or dad would step in. Did that happen with you?
Felicia Tripp Folsom: Well, ESL, yes. Especially with my father. My mother didn’t read or write English and to this day, I find her utterly, just amazing. So my dad died when I was 15. So my mother had to figure out how to take this kid in a country which she didn’t really identify with, nor did she really speak the language well, nor could she even read in it, and keep her promise to her husband of getting me to college. I just remember my mom, I was a sophomore and just sitting in the dark, talking to herself in Korean, how am I going to make this happen?
Felicia Tripp Folsom: I remember just a week later, she just went into this different mode. I don’t know but my principal pulled me aside one day and said, “Well, I talked to your mother,” and I was like, that must have been interesting. You don’t speak Korean and she doesn’t speak English, and she said, “Your mother asked me what the grading system is,” because my dad took care of all of my educational needs in the US and that was their agreement. All she knew was that the letter A was all she needed me to get, and why that story is important is I ran track.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: We were going to districts and my track coach said, “I hear that your mom’s not going to let you do the 4 x 100 relay.” I was like, yeah, and he’s like, “She really isn’t going to let you do that because you have a minus after the A?” I go, “Yes.” He goes, “Does she realize that doesn’t make any kind of sense?” I tried to explain to him and it really was so confusing to him that an A minus, I had to pull an A minus to an A this class in order to run and I was explain to my mom doesn’t really understand this educational system.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: I said, “All she knew from the principal was that I had to get a certain letter, and that there couldn’t be any minuses behind this letter.” So for her, she was like you want to run then you got to pull this grade up, and it was really hard to explain to my teammates, I’m sorry, I can’t run because I have an A minus but it really paid off. My mom staying on me, and she guilted me into college. I want to be really, really clear. I did not want to go to college.
Ryan Buchanan: Why not? … Because you’re good at school.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: Because I was pretty burnt out, and I really thought that working would be the best option. I didn’t see people like me graduating from college and being successful. What I saw with a lot of people like me, were people were starting University of Washington or starting Seattle Community College but not finishing, and then leaving with all this debt. I was like, that’s not going to be me, and thank God for a great guidance college counselor, who helped me get an amazing package to read, where I didn’t have to worry about being in debt.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: If I had to do it over again, I would still have gone to college. I’m happy that my mom guilted me to go into college, and what I mean by guilt is I call it Asian guilt, talking about all the sacrifices she made for me to come to this country. She pulled out all the stops and I was like, fine, I’ll go.
Ryan Buchanan: Sometimes guilt works.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: Yes. Yes, it does.
Ryan Buchanan: So Reed College, I think is most famously known as the place where Steve Jobs went and took a calligraphy class and dropped out but it’s where like, super, super smart people who, it tends to be pretty liberal, like extremely liberal, but had you even ever heard of Reed when you were in Seattle Tacoma area?
Felicia Tripp Folsom: No. So I took the PSATs as a junior, and I did really well and all of a sudden, these colleges I had never heard of would send email. At first, my mother doesn’t read or write English, and I had to tell my mom a sentence in English, which is like “Felicia no home.” That’s what we got. The part that she didn’t really understand was how to use our voicemail system. So occasionally she would pick it up and college people would call and she would say, “Felicia no home” and just hang up.
Felicia Tripp Folsom:
She would not wait for the response because she didn’t see the point in it because she wouldn’t understand what they said anyway. To this day, I wonder, I wonder who she did that too, but that was how I found out about Reed. They let me come down and they encouraged me to visit. They have these flying programs, but because I live so close, they brought me down by train and people said, well, what made you go to Reed and for me, I was like, if I’m going to go to college, the academic challenge was something that I was like, well, I do want that.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: I’d like the fact that you had to write a thesis. I liked the size of it, because it was really super small. But most importantly, the most important thing was I really wanted to go out of state, be close enough to take care of my mother. So my whole entire freshman year, I went home every single weekend to take care of my mother. So that to me was the deciding factor, was close enough to home but yet far enough away from me to have a different experience.
Ryan Buchanan: Were all of your other peers partying on the weekends? I mean, were you one of the few people who left on the weekends?
Felicia Tripp Folsom: Yes, I was. The reason I lasted through my freshman year of Reed was because of my mentors and my advisor. I had never been around that much. Well. My freshman roommate came from a lot of money. My sophomore roommate came from a lot of money and when I mean by money, I mean, like one of my friends her grandfather founded Union Pacific Railroad. So I had never seen that that level of what I call wealth that you hadn’t earned, that you were just born into.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: I was amazed at how many Reedies were born into money, like going to these private high schools that cost as much as Reed before they even got to Reed. Boarding schools, it was very common for me to hear, yeah I went to this boarding school or I went to that boarding school. It wasn’t just private school, but elite boarding schools like Andover and Choate.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: I mean, just, jeez, I was like, wow. I definitely saw the level of academic caliber that those schools produced as well. So you could really see the educational inequality and I was amazed at how many of them didn’t understand the level of wealth they had. I’ll give you an example. On my floor freshman year, there was a girl that just didn’t feel like doing laundry, so she would buy herself new clothes.
Ryan Buchanan: Every month?
Felicia Tripp Folsom: Yeah. She would just buy clothes and then she would give away the other clothes, and I just thought it was, we had to do this backpacking trip for a Reed for one of our orientation. For the middle class kids and for the low income kids, we would go to the Goodwill or whatever to get stuff. The rich kids would just go to REI and just buy it outright, even though they were only going to use it once, whether it was a tent or a sleeping bag or just that level.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: The level of wealth on campus was unbelievable, but the thing I really admired that it didn’t matter based off of income or race, whatever, was, you’re right, the intellectual rigor of students, that the students there really wanted to learn and the students that really didn’t, dropped out. Reed has a very, when I was going there, had extremely high dropout rate.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: I started my freshman year with close to 400 and I ended my senior year with less than 200. That’s a 50% dropout rate, and back then Reed was really proud of that, I felt like. You guys are the few that made it through and blah, blah, blah, and you have these degrees and I was thinking, I know it’s not like that now. They really work on retention now, but back then, that was a big deal to graduate. Now, they really spend a lot more trying to keep students there. Because I didn’t think that was a great number at all.
Ryan Buchanan: Yeah. You started getting involved in the community in college. You were in the Black Student Union and the Asian Student Union and there is a multicultural center that you were helping to run and is that where it all started? Where this very, almost like a social entrepreneur mindset started in college?
Felicia Tripp Folsom: No, it started back home. Because family members owned grocery stores, dry cleaners, restaurants including my own family. So it started way back then. In order to be successful in life, you had to defend your own. These Koreans came to this country with nothing, and build. That’s where I really learned hard work does pay off are you’re going to have a lot of challenges along the way. The only way that you are going to be able to get through it is by putting skin in the game. So I learned early on how to do that.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: The other thing is if you want change to occur, you can’t sit back and complain about it. Clear example I can give you is a lot of Koreans couldn’t get bank loans, they just couldn’t get them. So the people in the Korean community would come together and pull their money together to help businesses open. So they didn’t say, oh, I can’t get a bank loan, we’re done. They would find other ways to make those things happen.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: When I came to Reed, I realized there wasn’t a lot of focal point and providing supports for communities of color. So I said, I could just sit there and complain about it, or I could work with the president. There was two things I had decided when I’d left Reed that I wanted to do. One, I really wanted there to be a multicultural center, affinity groups, which I helped start those things.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: I also wanted Reed to really hold itself accountable by hiring tenured faculty of color. So I really worked on that as well with President Coppola, who I thought was pretty amazing president. So those were my legacies that I really felt like that I was able to help contribute to, because I wanted the next generation to have a better experience than I did, and that’s something I passed on to my children that if you see something that isn’t right, just don’t sit back there and not do anything and complain about it.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: What can you do to help with those changes? Whether you experienced the positive changes yourself or not, change can help. I think all those people that, the women that helped me get a right to vote as a woman, the civil rights movement that allowed me to be in classrooms with other people. Those were things those people did not necessarily for themselves, but for the next generation. So that’s the legacy I really wanted to leave at my alma mater.
Ryan Buchanan: Yeah. Well, you had some amazing successes there on that front. I always ask this question, but in that formative timeframe of maybe even going all the way back to from 15 years old to right after college, there’s often a pretty formational life moment that happens, whether it’s a huge obstacle or something that creates a lot of independence, was you mentioned that your father passed said when you were 15, but what would be kind of one of those major life moments that you felt like was a big obstacle that you had to overcome?
Felicia Tripp Folsom: I think losing my father because I had to learn how to do taxes. I had to learn how to run our household. I had to learn how to keep my grades up and work for my mother. I think another big thing that I think is really, really important is mentorship. I had a wonderful team around me in high school to help me graduate from high school, and I had a wonderful support system around me for college.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: I had this wonderful advisor named Ray Kierstead and he has since passed and he was my advisor at Reed and he cared so personally for my well-being, and he really put a lot of what I call his personal skin in the game when it came to my academics. The other person that was really instrumental in my formation was a man named Richard Dent, and he was the head of financial aid for Reed. He really pushed on me, you have a golden opportunity here. What are the support networks you need that I can make sure that you graduate? He was really clear with me. He was like, young people of color in this university, yeah, we can get them to start but we can get very few of them to graduate.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: So what is it that you are going to need? Then last when I actually graduated, I had one of my most wonderful mentors was this man named Ernie Bonyhadi. Ernie Bonyhadi was also a partner at Stoel Rives and all throughout my time at Reed, he had me worked there. He also checked in on me, he also made sure that I understood, what I call the white world. Because even though I went to Reed and even though I grew up in the northwest where there were lots of white people, I actually didn’t spend a lot of time with white people.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: So he really helped me understand that. Another great mentor was this man named Bill Naito and those two, really, during my time, actually, at Reed, were instrumental in my formative years, getting me to really understand what my life is going to look like in the working world, and having this Jewish man and this Japanese man who both graduated from Reed, give me the stark harsh reality, but at the same time telling me how they had made changes, in the business world, but to really understand what dominant culture was, I think, really helped form and shape me to be able to one to understand the world I’m working in, but also at the same time how to help make the changes in it and I am forever grateful, especially to those two people.
Ryan Buchanan: Those are some powerhouse names you mentioned, and mentors.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: I couldn’t have had that if I didn’t go to Reed. So access, and that’s the reason I spent so much time back to original thing is access. I would have never had access to Ernie Bonyhadi or Bill Naito if I didn’t go to Reed. Because how else am I going to meet them and that’s why I tell everybody life is about choices and the choices you make lead to certain outcome.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: Because I chose to go to Reed, I have a very different life than if I went to University of Washington. The access to the trustees, the access to having this easy advisor is possible because I went to school of 1,200 kids or 1,300 whatever the number is, you know what I mean? So I want people to know, I can say it’s all on me, but part of it’s actually luck. That’s one reason I like Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s book on her autobiography. She is so rad.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: I don’t know if you’ve ever read it, but she really talks about why she is a Supreme Court judge is certain life opportunities happen to her, and then she talks about her cousin who was smarter than her and all these things, but those life opportunities weren’t placed in front of the cousin. So I think that nuance of where you interconnect with opportunity in your life is really important as well.
Ryan Buchanan: That’s cool. It’s a cool thought process. So you graduated from Reed and that almost is like you became an executive director right away. It seems like you were at Emergence Foundation and then you went on to be at Portland Housing Center for 19 years. So I kind of want to understand how you got into leadership at such a young age. Usually it takes a while to build up to that.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: I was really blessed to be in a fellowship program at Portland State called Leadership Fellows, and it was funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. There are quite a few of my fellow nonprofit leaders that were in there with me — Melinda Castillo to Adrian Livingston to just to name a few, and Amina Anderson, who is the founder of the Black United Fund. There was quite a few people that were part of what, we had a cohort model and I forget how many cohorts were there total, but Suzanne Feeney who was a professor at Portland State University said, “If we really want to have more nonprofit leaders of color, then we need to create this program where one we build them as leaders, and we provide them cohorts and supports and build them their own networks.”
Felicia Tripp Folsom: I was in there for two years. Everybody do that for two years and you really learned a lot. So it was connected to philanthropy, it was connected to higher ed, it was connected to nonprofit leadership, and the way it works is that the first cohort were all executive directors of the major nonprofits in town. I think, who else was in? Then after that, they would nominate what they call middle management, because it’s part of it was having that founding group and then middle management was next.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: Then from there, those were the people that would be groomed to go into executive leadership, and what’s been really interesting is the program is no longer in existence. There is a sort of version of it through Coalitions of Communities of Color but it’s amazing at how many of us today are executive directors from that original program. So that’s what I would say, of why I was able to rise in leadership was being part of the cohort model, and having Portland State invest in me and having David and Lucile Packard Foundation invest in me.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: Being part of leadership fellows, you have a group of colleagues for the rest of your life that you can call on. That experience is very, very unique experience with you, and we were all for the most part in our early 20s. So it’s almost like, even my husband was part of it. I met my husband through it. It really has shaped a lot of young people of color who now are longer young, but it’s really interesting.
Ryan Buchanan: That’s cool. So I think it’s really rare to find someone in this day and age to be leading a nonprofit for 19 years. Can you talk a little bit about your time at the Portland Housing Center and what kept you in it for that long and then you ultimately came over to lead the Emerging Leaders and be an executive leader at The Contingent after that but how did you stay loyal for so long? That’s just really rare and in the nonprofit world, and really the whole business world.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: Well, in my early careers, before even Emergence Foundation, I would try something and it’d be like, okay, after a year or two, okay, I’m done. After Emergence Foundation, I had decided that I needed to go deeper into an issue area. I decided that wherever God led me in that issue area I would stay for as long as He called me there. So I said, God, I either want to be in education, healthcare or housing.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: Being at the housing center, under the leadership of Peg Malloy, who was our founder, the reason I lasted 19 years is that her mentorship was very valuable. She gave me the opportunities to grow as a professional leader. She also had a real heart, and she still does to this day of grooming leaders of color. That’s really important to her and providing access points for leaders of color.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: She also allowed me to really grow in my DEI (Diversity Equity and Inclusion) work. Any professional opportunity I wanted, the Board of Directors and Peg will allow me to do, but most importantly, I stayed in it long term because housing is such a complex issue that very few people of color are in leadership but the majority of people served are not. So what I mean by that is most of our homelessness, or affordable housing issues, all of those, people of color are overrepresented.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: If you look at executive leadership, and you look at management of the nonprofit’s or you look in government or banks, they’re hardly any people of color at the top. Very, very few, and people ask me, well, why did I leave the housing center to go work for Emerging Leaders and for The Contingent. It’s because for the last five years of my career, I complained about it. I said, we don’t have enough people of color. I’m tired of always being the only one at this table meeting after meeting.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: What I told you earlier, Ryan, about, I have to practice what I preach. I realized that no longer in affordable housing, could I create that systems change. I needed to go outside and I needed to build the talent and the pipeline to address these issue areas around education, health care, housing, and the only way I could do it was through a program like Emerging Leaders is that one of the things that we have a saying, which I assume comes from you or Ben, is that by 2040, we want the leadership to reflect what it looks like in our city.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: We’re not going to be able to do it, if we don’t work on it and that’s the main reason I came over to Emerging Leaders. If I want leaders of color in housing, if I want leaders of color in banking, if I want leaders of color heading up creative agencies, it’s not magically going to happen and higher ed is actually not built for that, by itself, it needs a partner and a collaborator. So I felt like it was a God moment when you and Su and Ben really approached me about this.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: I was like, God, I hear you, I’m going to make this move, and I think that’s really important because I really thought I was going to retire out of affordable housing because I hadn’t heard that voice that told me was moving. I was so fulfilled, Ryan in being able to touch healthcare and education through my board service, through my consulting work and all those other ways that I was able to still be able to do the other work.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: Once this opportunity was placed in front of me, I was just like, okay, I hear you and that’s why I was so strategic in my thinking with you and Sue because I’ve been literally working on this for five years within just a specific industry and the question was like, that question is saying, well, the talent isn’t there, and you are one to really counter that. Yes, the talent is there, you just don’t make the effort to find it. So Emerging Leaders it takes it one step further. Here is a talent for you to access. So there’s no excuse for you. So I think that being able to change leadership at the top can only happen …
Ryan Buchanan: It got a little blurred out, the sound in the last part of that, do you want to…
Felicia Tripp Folsom: So I was saying that for nonprofits, and government is that we have to feed the pipeline intentionally and that’s what Emerging Leaders does and that’s why I left. We can feed the pipeline intentionally with young leaders of color. That was me when I was in my 20s. If I didn’t have the mentorship and the guidance by amazing people along the way, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: I thank Peg Malloy pretty regularly because she was really instrumental in my mentorship in housing. People didn’t see all of the wonderful guidance and mentorship and pushing me as a leader that she did and forever I will be grateful to her, and also to all of our board members. Just with you and Sue I’m really grateful to you guys as well for the same reason, and I’m grateful to you especially for having the courage to create Emerging Leaders. It takes a lot and I feel like it’s a blessing.
Ryan Buchanan: I know a lot of where our core focus has been and will continue to be but we’re expanding on that is, young people in college and coming right out of college and really strengthening this alumni network in who have participated in the Emerging Leaders internship piece, or the mentoring piece and so on. As we look towards 2040, and we look at really supporting these pathways to leadership for professionals of color from college to the C suite, what do you see on the horizon next for Emerging Leaders?
Felicia Tripp Folsom: Next is, we’ve really honed in on this internship model that I think is really successful, and we’re now hitting our next evolution, which is, year five is really focusing on our young people that are currently working in their roles and developing them as leaders. Our mission is going to expand, which it had before I joined, around how do we work with our Emerging Leaders alumni network, our current leaders out there working.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: Because when I think back in my own career, some of the most isolating times, for me was when I entered leadership. It felt so isolating and alone And as a person of color not always having that sounding board, not having that support network, at times, I want to make sure that as our young leaders are entering their next stages, being promoted, that we are building their network, but the other most important thing that we need to do is close the racial wealth gap.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: Our young people will be successful when one, they are debt free. Two, they have savings and three, they start building wealth. That means buying homes, having six months reserves, doing all those things, and the pandemic is really showing how people of color especially have no safety net. So what I really see are working is, I realized Emerging Leaders is the safety net for a lot of our young people.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: So let’s make that safety net strong by helping develop them into personal professional development, but also on their personal development. How many of our young people are accessing their 401Ks? How many of our young people have adequate health care? How many of our young people know when to ask for a raise? How many of our young people know when is it time to leave my current company and take the promotion over there? Those are the challenges that face us moving forward.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: Because in order to make systematic change, we have to work with our young people coming out of high school into our colleges and universities, all of them, and really pretty much staying with them from 17 to about 35. So really expanding our scope, to be able to really groom the next generation to really take over for us, for our leaders.
Ryan Buchanan: So my last question is this notion that a defining life moment that happened earlier in our lives is it makes it so that it’s not a surprise to us that we are, as entrepreneurs and for you in this successful place running a program like Emerging Leaders and an executive on The Contingent which does even more work in the community, that is having this really, really positive impact that something earlier happened in your life that it’s not a surprise to where you are now.
Ryan Buchanan: So I don’t know if your answer is expanding on what you talked about earlier, with Reed or with something that happened in your family or something like that, but I always like to ask this question because there’s always something that, a struggle or something that was like really amazing with independence or that kind of comes to light with this question. So I was just wondering if you could expand on it.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: I think what really solidified it, that I knew I was going to do great things in life, that I wasn’t just going to sit by idle was I remember in high school, was it high school or middle school or something like that. We had to do a field trip. At that time, we were meeting with leaders of color, politicians like Norm Rice, Governor Locke who wasn’t governor at that time, but I remember listening to them and hearing their stories and they said, shatter expectations, that nobody’s going to give you anything.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: They talked about the hard road, but that if you didn’t believe in yourself, then nobody else was. They made us look at each other and they said, “We intentionally picked you young people in this room to meet with and have this because we think you have that potential. We think you have the potential to lead, we think you have the potential to make a difference. It is your choice, whether you choose to do it or not.”
Felicia Tripp Folsom: It was just amazing, was through this program called PUSH Excel, which was at that time, our version of what I call SEI or something like that, and just having to see that and then looking around at my peers and going, wow, they think that of us, really? Really put this light bulb in my head of like yeah, they’re like we can do these things and it is possible and I’m really a firm believer that those moments in life that adults don’t think are going to be a big deal can be so meaningful for young people. When adults tell young people one, you matter, two, you’re special, three, you have potential, four, you can accomplish great things, that’s a game changer.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: That’s one reason I had decided that if I ever became successful, I wouldn’t forget that and that I would always mentor and make the next generation realize that too. So that’s why, I know you were on the board of Friends of Children. That’s one reason I love Friends of Children for that exact reason. That’s what they do, one on one with young people and I think it’s really important. So that I call my Friends of the Children moment. That was my Friends of the Children moment, when adults said, it was almost like they were saying you have an obligation to yourself and to your community to be something. Don’t waste it. You know?
Ryan Buchanan: Powerful, super powerful. Thanks so much for sharing and I knew I’d learn a bunch from you today and it happened. So I so appreciate you being on the show. Thank you, Felicia.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: Oh, thank you. Thank you, Ryan for having these podcast interviews. I really, really appreciate it and I appreciate being able to do what I call this change making work with you because that’s what, it’s long and it doesn’t have an ending and just like me, you choose to be in it to make a difference. You don’t have to, but you choose to and so for that I’m eternally grateful to you and to everybody else in this cause that affect family.
Ryan Buchanan: Well, hopefully all of our listeners will feel the love and learn one or two new things about, you shared a bunch of really cool perspective. So, thanks again and have an awesome day.
Felicia Tripp Folsom: You too.
Ryan Buchanan: All right. Cheers.
The interviewer + author, Ryan Buchanan, is a social and for-profit entrepreneur who co-founded a pathway to leadership program for professionals of color called Emerging Leaders as well as founder + CEO of a data-driven, digital marketing agency, Thesis.