“Being a parent — no matter where you live, how old you are, or how much money you have — is really hard.”
Words of Wisdom with Laura Zumdahl, President & CEO of New Moms
I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Zumdahl, President & CEO of New Moms, a Chicago-based organization celebrating its 35th anniversary that interrupts the cycle of poverty for young mothers and their children. Laura has been the CEO of New Moms since 2013, and has overseen a period of growth in which the organization has doubled in size. Laura is a highly regarded leader in Chicago’s nonprofit community with nearly two decades of experience in leadership roles focused on capacity building, legal aid, higher education, and child welfare. She has a Ph.D in Leadership from Cardinal Stritch University and sits on the boards of the Chicago Jobs Council and Trinity Christian College.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory?”
I knew early on that I wanted a career where I could find a way to put my passion for fighting injustice and poverty to work. It took me a while to figure out that the nonprofit sector was the place to do that and, even more importantly, that there was opportunity in the sector for people committed to leadership and ensuring nonprofits are effective. I’m thrilled that I get to wake up every day and put my skills, interests, and passion to work ensuring that young moms and their children who are experiencing homelessness and poverty get the supports they need to transform their lives.
Can you tell me about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
We just launched a new construction project on a building that will contain 18 homes for homeless families and provide us with additional space to expand our programs. Bricks and mortar projects are intense for nonprofits, but there is something profoundly important about having a home — it leads to both stability and feelings of dignity and worth. I want all families to have that.
We also continue to grow our job training program for pregnant and parenting young women. As part of our program, we provide paid transitional jobs at our social enterprise, Bright Endeavors, a soy candle company in Chicago. Bright Endeavors is rapidly growing as a premier candle company nationally, and in turn we are able to provide quality job training through a sustainable business model that allows us to continue to support young moms. We are, quite literally, lighting the way for young moms with our candles.
So tell me a bit more about your organization.
New Moms started 35 years ago with humble beginnings, when our founder responded to a real need in her Chicago neighborhood by providing diapers and formula out of the trunk of her car to homeless young moms she saw in her community. Fast forward three and a half decades, and we are the only organization in the United States with a comprehensive model for surrounding young moms and their children with the resources they need to transform their lives. We provide housing, job training, and family support programs to encourage and support everyone to have a home, a job, and a strong family.
Can you tell me a story about a person that you helped?
We meet young women who are still adolescents and being formed in very particular ways, while also parenting a new little person! When they come into any of our programs — housing, job training, or family supports — we see them grow in confidence in who they are as women, and in their sense of responsibility to provide their children with everything they need to be healthy, happy, and successful.
I recently met Natasha, who was homeless when we welcomed her into our housing program. Natasha is 20-years-old with a baby girl, who is now about 12-months-old. She had done the incredible work of keeping her daughter safe and healthy while they were homeless. When Natasha entered the program, she was unsure of herself and what she needed to do to keep making a better life for her daughter — but that was her goal. Living in her own apartment was a vote of confidence in her ability to be a mature parent.
Natasha worked with our team and found a day care that she felt confident bringing her daughter to every day, and then joined our job training program. She had not had a job before, so building job skills while learning how to manage a budget and carry the responsibilities of work and home was a transformative experience. Today, Natasha has a job in the community and has built good relationships with other moms in our programs. She regularly participates in the workshops and supports that we offer and has expressed the value she sees in staying healthy and keeping a good job. Her next goal is to move into her own stable home after New Moms.
It’s not a flashy story, but Natasha is shaping the story of what her family can look like, and it’s two generations that have a new life trajectory!
This obviously is not easy work. What drives you?
Being a parent — no matter where you live, how old you are, or how much money you have — is really hard. I believe that everyone should have the stability of a home and a job, and the skills to build a strong family. Some young moms have not had a life that offered those opportunities, and so that is what we can provide. They do the hard work, but we are there to empower them and cheer them on. Just because you are a young mom, doesn’t mean you can’t be a great mom. And when we meet a young mom, we are witnessing an incredible interruption of generational poverty and beginning an important process of impacting the lives to two generations of young people at the same time! That truly is what drives me.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
I have had phenomenal teachers and mentors in my life who have helped me by coaching, supporting, and challenging me during my career. But the most important person is my own mom. She has spent her life showing what hospitality and love can do for others, and I take that with me when I come to work at New Moms every day. We need savvy business practices to run strong organizations (for-profit or nonprofit), but we also have to remember that everything we do involves people. You don’t have to have physical resources to show the type of love for others that changes their lives, and that is what we are trying to do for those we serve.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why.
- Leading a nonprofit may actually be harder than leading a for-profit. I wasn’t looking for an easy job, but the complexities of multiple stakeholders (service participants, board, funders, etc.) means everything requires an additional lens of consideration and effort. Everyone wants to tell you how to do your job and since you have to be accountable to multiple stakeholder groups — that can be tricky to navigate at times. I have people frequently ask me for advice about transitioning into the nonprofit sector because they want to ‘take a break from the intensity of the for-profit world’ or ‘do something less stressful’. I try to gently coach them to consider other options…leading a nonprofit will be anything but that!
- Candles will become the only gift you give. When you lead an organization, you are the chief fundraiser and cheerleader, and you don’t get to take a break from that. In my case, my nonprofit also operates a candle company, Bright Endeavors, as a social enterprise that is part of our job training model. So, I have become our biggest fan and am always sharing information and stories about Bright Endeavors everywhere I go! I suspect my friends and family are tired of getting candles as gifts for every holiday, but that will always be my go-to gift for everyone.
- As a nonprofit you have to constantly be on your A-game. At a nonprofit you are doing work that is changing the world, so you have to constantly be giving it your all. You don’t get to phone it in some days. Instead, you have to keep taking it to the next level. The people that benefit from your services or organization deserve the best, and so you have to hold yourself to a higher standard.
- Do something. It can be easy to get caught up in trying to make things perfect — in our lives and in our organizations — before we launch things. A huge lesson I’ve learned has been to just do something, even if it is small, to get started. The rest will flow from there.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously. You need to be able to laugh at yourself and situations, especially because humor binds us all together. I take the business of changing the world very seriously, but not myself.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
I’d love to have lunch with the researcher and author Brené Brown. I think her work on helping us all understand authenticity and wholeheartedness is what the world really needs right now.