Follow the Leaders
Virginia Council of CEOs members represent a wide range of industries and experiences. Whether the organizations they lead are driven by profit, or mission, or both, the CEO’s job is much the same. No matter their mission, whether it be to sell lots of products or support matters of the heart, they all agree on one point: it’s lonely at the top.
“I can’t turn to my employees with a business problem, or to my husband, because he’s in a completely different profession,” says Louise Bagwell-Robinson. She’s the founder and CEO of Millwood School – a 26-year-old nonprofit she started to fill an education void in her local community.
Bagwell-Robinson became a VACEOs member in 2011 after attending a Quarterly Luncheon as a guest. She admits she was a little hesitant to join the organization at first.
“At first, I had some trepidation about joining, because I didn’t know if I had anything to share, she explains. “I didn’t think I knew a lot about business, and I didn’t think I’d have much to offer, but it turns out I really do know a lot, and now I know even more because I’m running a very large organization.”
Her experience teaching at various schools, including the University of Pittsburgh, fueled her desire to start a non-parochial private school for her kindergartner and, later, for her toddler. As an educator and a mom, she knew exactly what she wanted.
“As a mom who happened to be an educator with lots of experience from coast to coast, I wanted three things,” says Bagwell-Robinson. “One, I wanted a place that would challenge the intellect of every student in the school; secondly, I wanted a place that was safe, both literally and figuratively – meaning, I wanted kids to be free to take an intellectual risk, especially girls in math and science; and lastly – and this was very important to me as a mom – I wanted my girls to be in a place where there was an adult who would know if their heart was hurting.”
Millwood School began in 1989 with 20 students, three construction trailers and a 2.5-acre plot of land in the Brandermill subdivision of Midlothian, Virginia. Four years later, the school moved to a different location, then quickly outgrew it. Fast-forward to 2015, as Millwood celebrates its 27th anniversary. The school currently serves 220 students, employs 45 people and sits on 79 acres. The buildings on the property are valued at approximately $7 million, Bagwell-Robinson manages an annual budget of around $3 million, and in 2014 the Richmond Magazine named Millwood Best in Education.
NONPROFIT OR NOT, WE’RE ALL LIKE-MINDED LEADERS
For Bagwell-Robinson, the most valuable benefit of membership in the VA Council of CEOs is the shared experience. “All businesses, whether for profit or not, deal with pretty much the same issues, like budgets, HR concerns, marketing, benefits, taxes,” she says. “VACEOs is so valuable because it’s almost impossible to know all the things there are to know about starting and operating a business. The Roundtable format is a safe environment where you can share your experiences and learn from other people’s mistakes or successes. It’s an extremely helpful process, and it has helped me through business, personal, and even family issues.”
Jennifer Boyden, CEO of Heart Havens, agrees. “There are many things that happen in the role of a CEO. It’s comforting to be around like-minded people and to be able to grow through that experience.”
Heart Havens offers support services and builds homes and communities for adults with intellectual disabilities. The nonprofit began in 1993 as the result of a parent of a child with intellectual disabilities asking her pastor, “Where will my child live when I am gone?” and has blossomed into a non-denominational 501(c)(3) nonprofit that manages 11 homes across the state. The organization employs approximately 110 today.
“We empower adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities to live and thrive in their community by providing a safe, nurturing environment at home and through the support our staff provides,” says Boyden. “Our ultimate goal is to empower the people we support. We want to give them the life they want to have, to help them develop the skills they need to in order to be successful.”
Although relatively new to VACEOs, Boyden has already benefited from the experience. “I have found that my Roundtable has given me the ability to talk about a challenging decision I’ve had to make,” she explains. “I was able to hear other experiences and process my challenge, so that by the end, I was well on the path to developing a plan for resolution. In broader terms, their support has given me the confidence to be a better leader. This means my staff, in turn, gains strength, as it all comes back to the leader. By fortifying those walls, you build strength in the organization.”
MISSION ACCOMPLISHED, BUT STILL MORE TO DO
What’s next for these two dynamic CEOs? Bagwell-Robinson reports that her goals are to build out all of the 79 acres her school currently occupies and max out her Junior Kindergarten through 12th-grade enrollment to 600 students.
“It’s an exciting time for Millwood School,” she says. “We just graduated our third and largest 12th-grade class. Most of the students are going to prestigious Virginia colleges. One student will be attending Stanford. In the near future, we will launch an entrepreneurship program, which I’m really excited about. My goal is to polish this product, if you will, day after day, to make sure it is the best it can be. I’m very proud of what an army of people has done here, and I want to make sure it continues on forever. I feel I was brought to Virginia to create Millwood School. I absolutely love coming to work. It feels so good to do what I’m meant to be doing.”
Jennifer Boyden of Heart Havens is excited about her plans to integrate technology into the lives of the organization’s residents. Her plans include continued expansion, which she feels she’s ready to tackle with confidence.
“Our goal is to fundraise and then purchase and rehab or build an apartment complex in Charlottesville,” says Boyden. “The facility will be very integrated into the community, and it will have technology in place to help folks live more independently. This new venture will truly allow people to experience their own abilities and will do the same for the people around them. These new endeavors are nerve-wracking, and I’m sure my Roundtable will be there to help me maintain my footing and confidence while we head in this new direction.”
Imagine if you had a network of resources to help you navigate through the complex challenges you face each day as a leader. A group of like-minded people to help guide you through your questions about finances, employee concerns or marketing issues. You do in the Virginia Council of CEOs. Learn more here.