What happens when as a response to bullying, you create a mask to wear so you can face the world? What happens when you realize it is time to tear off that mask to find out what’s underneath?
For Debra Fine, who joined Young Presidents’ Organization in 2004 in Santa Monica, California, it meant letting go of the past and reconciling who she once was, with who she wanted to become.
“When I was a kid I thought I was being bullied because I was weak. I thought if I had strength and a ‘title’ like my father, who I saw as being very successful and respected, I wouldn’t be picked on,” says Fine. “So I worked hard in college, worked my way up the totem pole and felt for certain that once I was a CEO everything was going to be perfect.”
Trying to heal her internal pain with external successes didn’t work. A four-time CEO, angel investor and venture capitalist, Fine worked hard for her success, but it wasn’t until she understood the root cause of her feelings of dissatisfaction with herself, that she was able to start peeling off the mask she had worn for so long. The end result was an outpouring of compassion for others facing challenges, and a desire to help do something about it.
“Ten years ago I started mentoring girls with eating disorders, a malady that plagued me when I was young,” says Fine. “The more I listened to what I was saying to these girls, the more I heard myself, and realized I didn’t need to be a tough, strong CEO at all, that I was actually stronger being vulnerable and letting other people in. That’s when my past really became my past.”
When Fine received a call from the I Have a Dream Foundation – Los Angeles in August 2014, she wasn’t looking for a new position. In 2012, she had decided to stop working in order to spend more time with her 15-year-old twins; then she faced a major setback June 2013, when she was shot by a gunman during a shooting rampage.
“News outlets were calling me asking whether I was pro or anti gun and I told them, ‘this isn’t political to me, although yes, I absolutely have views on gun control, but it’s about getting into communities and getting people help before they fall into despair,’” says Fine. “When IHADLA called and I heard their mission statement, it aligned so perfectly with my beliefs that I signed on as CEO and executive director.”
Since 1997, the I Have a Dream Foundation has been working to end the cycle of poverty in inner cities by sponsoring entire grades at inner-city, Title 1 elementary schools and staying with those students (referred to as “Dreamers”) for more than 10 years. The foundation provides after-school and summer programs, counseling services, arts instruction, mentors and tutors. Upon high school graduation, the foundation provides each Dreamer a last-dollar scholarship for college or career training.
A study on the impact of the I Have a Dream program on the lives of students and found that Dreamers were better able to resist peer pressure and showed higher aspirations and more positive attitudes about school, life and their futures. Dreamers also frequently graduate and enter college at double the rates of other students in the local population, significantly surpassing the overall statewide average for students in their peer group.
“The organization is doing so much good for the kids and the community,” says Fine. “As a fundraiser, it isn’t ‘me’ asking for money, it is simply, ‘this is what the organization does, does that fit in with your legacy?’”
Regional Chair for the YPO’s Helping Disadvantaged Kids, Musicians and Women’s YPO Networks, Fine is also an outspoken Social Engagement Network Ambassador, a walking example of the network’s mission, ‘Where social awakening turns into learning; learning turns into leadership and leadership into building a better world.’
“SEN is fantastic. The blending of not-for-profit with for-profit is exactly the kind of space I’m working toward,” she says. “The ideal is to help the community and others, not just our investors and shareholders.”
If you or someone you know is interested in creating an impactful legacy, IHADLA is preparing to sponsor a new class of third graders next fall in downtown Los Angeles. For more information, contact Debra Fine.