By ALISON HICKS '82
In spring 1984, during her second semester of law school, Willa Seldon '82 went to see a play with friends at the Yale Rep, and in a late-night bull session afterwards found herself blurting, seemingly out of nowhere, "I want to go to business school."
While many might back off from such a resolution in the cold light of morning, Seldon recognized a desire that had been brewing and acted on it, setting to work on her applications-to Harvard and Yale. She was chosen by and chose Harvard, but was determined not to give up on her JD. Her approach to the problem was typically entrepreneurial: she put together a curriculum that would allow her to finish both degrees in four years, wrote up a contract, got it signed by her Yale dean, and went off to Harvard for two years, returning to Yale in her fourth year, MBA in hand, to complete her law degree.
The resolve and drive to create her own path on her own terms has served Seldon well in a career that has spanned the heady worlds of high-tech start-ups, business development and venture capital. She is now bringing her well-honed business sense to the challenge of strengthening and sustaining non-profit organizations, as Executive Director of the Tides Center in San Francisco.
While a student at S. R. Butler High School in Huntsville, AL, Seldon's high aspirations led her to Bryn Mawr. "It was hard for me to imagine what long-term career I would have. I knew that I had to work with smart and ethical people no matter what I chose to do," she reflects. She came to the College sight unseen, her family not having the money for a northeast college tour. She was attracted not only by the College's stellar intellectual reputation, but by its size: her high school class of 300 seemed huge to her, and she was determined that her college be no larger.
Bryn Mawr ventures
Seldon's top priority at Bryn Mawr was doing well in her studies, but in addition to being on the badminton team "for a nanosecond," she served as head of the Honor Board and as a senior interning for President Mary Patterson McPherson, Ph.D. '69, set up a series of discussions of world issues. Meanwhile Lynn Gordon '83, still one of Seldon's closest friends, piqued Seldon's interest with her entrepreneurial ideas. One venture they attempted was offering a breakfast in bed service to other students. "We only did it one Saturday because we realized for the money we would make, it was far too much work. We had fun, though, and saw people in some very compromised positions," Seldon jokes.
Upon graduation, Seldon received a Thomas Watson Fellowship, which took her to Africa for a year to interview African professional women. "The women I met inspired me," she says, and the experience not only confirmed her desire for a professional career, but also whetted her appetite for international work.
Though she increasingly suspected that career would involve business in some manner, Seldon stuck to her initial plan of attending law school, believing that legal training would open doors to either world. Her view changed once she made the leap from law to business school, a transition she found "terrifically challenging," and she settled on the business side. Though she has never practiced law, she feels her legal training enhances her leadership and negotiation skills.
After obtaining her degrees and a short stint as an associate in mergers and acquisitions at Saloman Brothers in New York, Seldon headed west, into a field, corporate development, tailor-made for an intelligent young woman with strong analytical abilities, comfortable with challenge and ready for excitement.
The late '80's and '90's were an exhilarating time for corporate development. The collapse of Communist rule in the former Soviet Union, world-wide deregulation of telecommunications, the rise of the Internet, the development and implementation of new technologies-all these created a ripe if volatile market for companies looking to expand their reach and market share through strategic acquisitions. Seldon was in the right place at the right time to ride the wave.
From director of corporate development for Williams-Sonoma, the California-based specialty direct-mail and retail company, she was hired by AirTouch Communications of San Francisco, a multi-billion dollar wireless communications company, to advance their international corporate development at just the moment when European countries were beginning to allow private firms to compete with state-owned companies. The challenges Seldon confronted included commenting on regulation of this new and changing landscape, negotiating interconnection rates charged by state-owned entities, and forming partnerships to pursue the creation of new wireless companies.
The business plan that Seldon crafted for AirTouch had to meet not only the company's financial objectives, but also the European governments' goals. "We were held to the plan we put in place," she explains. "So getting the scope of the wireless network and expected staffing needs right was critical. This meant making many assumptions about pricing and how the market would develop over time."
In Belgium, she negotiated the first equity partnership between a European state-owned telecommunications company and a private firm. In Portugal, she negotiated one of the first acquisitions of majority ownership of a European telecommunications concern by a non-European entity.
Flush from those successes, she was asked to lend her skills to AirTouch's domestic corporate development. In that capacity, she negotiated the $6 billion acquisition of U.S. West's wireless businesses, and also became acquainted with the art of evaluating and investing in technology start-ups, which led her to another red-hot business field of the '90's: venture capital.
Business and philanthropy
While her career was appropriately focused on profit and the bottom line, Seldon had been active in the non-profit sector all along, taking an interest in organizations supporting women and girls and seeking to strengthen communities. She was an early member and Board President of the San Francisco Women's Foundation; served as the founding Board President of GirlSource, an organization dedicated to empowering low-income young women; served on the board of the YMCA of San Francisco; and is a member of the Bryn Mawr College Board of Trustees. Gradually she found herself blending the worlds of business and philanthropy, bringing her business skills and experience to bear on the non-profit world.
In her Presbyterian church, for example, she explains, she initiated a quiet revolution by instituting the process of "360-degree performance reviews" for leaders-including the pastor-in which feedback is solicited from congregants, external constituents, and board members. Despite this dramatic departure from tradition, the process was "welcomed and appreciated as supportive and motivating," she reports.
About this time, Seldon's business partner Christine Cordaro approached her with a proposal to raise a fund to invest in women entrepreneurs in technology and healthcare/biotechnology. Research showed that women were receiving about 2 percent of venture capital dollars, despite performance comparable to their male counterparts. The opportunity to use her skills in investigating and pursuing new investments to make a difference in the lives of women entrepreneurs was irresistible. As was putting her sales skills to the test in the absence of a major corporate backer. Seldon and Cordaro's firm Viridian Capital, later re-named Milepost Ventures, successfully raised $30 million to invest in technology and biotechnology. Today the fund is nearly fully invested.
Picking which prospects to back has taught Seldon "a great deal about what it takes to build a successful company and a valuable board and management team." On the personal side, the experience confirmed her interest in the nitty-gritty of developing organizations: "In my work life, I enjoy building organizations from the inside more than advising them."
Then came another turning point, resulting in what Seldon terms "a radical decision" to leave the high flying world of capital for a position as Executive Director of the Tides Center. The Tides Center is part of the Tides Family of Organizations, a group of non-profits linked by a commitment to positive social change, innovation and environmental sustainability headquartered in San Francisco's Presidio. Tides Center provides financial, human resources and payroll services to more than 250 charitable projects nationwide, including Union Square Awards in New York City, Children's Partnership in Los Angeles, and the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco.
In December 2002, Seldon and her partner adopted a daughter. "I discovered very quickly that my DNA did not include being a stay at home Mom. I love spending time with my daughter, but I have a great passion for work as well. As a result of having Sonia, I did reflect more deeply on the type of work I wanted to do. I decided that if I did not choose to spend the majority of my time with her, I certainly wanted to spend my time doing something she would be proud of. This led me to focus on businesses and non-profits that were making positive contributions to the world."
Tides is a unique organization that plays a strategic role in the evolving philanthropic world, where institutional and individual donors alike are increasingly focused on maximizing every investment dollar. By assuming some of the more routine infrastructure functions for charitable projects and programs, Tides can realize economies of scale and provide these services more efficiently and cheaply than can the organizations on their own. Tides' "back office" services free up an organization's leaders to focus on delivering programs, and allow social entrepreneurs to incubate new ideas. Tides also supports foundations' investments by offering support for strategic program initiatives or joint ventures. Like a business, Tides Center is self-supporting; rather than raising funds to cover operating expenses, it must earn revenue and manage expenses to balance its budget.
Seldon's charge as Executive Director-to set strategic direction, lead staff and ensure the organization is fulfilling its purpose-is the very stuff of building an organization from the inside. A $950,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation coupled with another grant from The David and Lucile Packard Foundation have enabled Tides to hire national consulting firms Booz, Allen, Hamilton and Mercer Consulting to analyze strengths, areas for improvement and suggest opportunities to broaden offerings that will culminate in a long-range plan to better serve the needs of the non-profit sector.
A growing role
Seldon sees a growing role for Tides and Tides-like organizations in the future. "We believe we have a huge opportunity to impact the development of new and emerging organizations focused on creating a healthy, just and vibrant world. Tools and services that create efficiency in the non-profit sector will be relied upon more heavily and will become standards expected by foundations and donors. Funders have not typically wanted to fund infrastructure investment. The good news is that some funders are beginning to understand that non-profits cannot be effective without strong infrastructure and there is great value in investing once and having the same infrastructure used by many organizations.
"Part of the role Tides expects to play is ensuring that there are multiple providers of services for non-profit organizations. Our role in some cases will be helping to set appropriate standards and assisting organizations in purchasing the right services to meet their needs."
Like many organizations, whether for- or non-profit, Seldon sees Tides' greatest challenge as internal: "to align our people, strategy, and operations. This means defining our long-term strategy and creating meaningful and achievable goals to accomplish it, putting the right people in the right positions, and lining up our operating activities in service of our people, strategy and goals."
Her experience has shown Seldon that non-profits can benefit from tools and strategies from the business world. "Businesses have typically enjoyed far more resources, to, for example, develop staff, explore a variety of marketing practices, identify means of achieving efficient operations, and evaluate performance. These are all skills that are greatly needed in the non-profit sector."
Does the non-profit world have anything valuable to offer business? "The non-profit world runs on the energy, commitment and goodwill of an enormous cast of volunteers-staff, board, and other participants. I include staff because they work in non-profits because of their passion for the work of the organization. They can walk out the door and find a job that pays more money in many cases. As a non-profit manager, you learn a lot about motivating people, incorporating values in your work, and leveraging every resource because resources are tight. Non-profits also typically share their knowledge and resources more generously with each other than do businesses. These are lessons that can be shared to enable businesses to collaborate to accomplish shared goals."
Seldon seems to have mastered the curriculum. In the business world and at Tides alike, she claims, "I have had tremendous opportunities to work with terrific people, who are passionate about building successful organizations that have great integrity. I'm still doing this today."
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