“I was a kid of the four P’s: public school, public libraries, public parks and public safety net programs,” says Nicole R. Robinson (BUS ’92, MBA ’00), a proud Chicago South Sider and the CEO of the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago.
From the time that she was a teenager, Robinson had an unflinching curiosity. She would ask herself, Why is it that some people are wildly successful and other people struggle? Why can’t everyone do well and do good?
“I didn’t have the language around equity and philanthropy because those were things I hadn’t been exposed to at that point,” she says.
Needing to stay local for family but wanting to explore beyond her neighborhood, Robinson enrolled at DePaul University to pursue her undergraduate degree. She began as a liberal arts major before switching to finance. Her curiosity was set on fire at DePaul. “I was curious about civic engagement and thinking about business in the broader sense. I didn’t know then all the buzzwords we use today to describe a company that is being successful in capitalism and also making an investment in society, but I kept asking myself: How do I do well and do good?”
From Corporate Finance to Corporate Social Responsibility
After graduating from DePaul, Robinson worked in finance for 10 years while also engaging in her community through social activism. Eventually she moved to Kraft Foods and worked her way through the ranks until she found her niche through an opportunity that had presented itself—in corporate social responsibility. Career pivots were not as common then as they are now, but it was a risk Robinson was willing to take despite all the advice she received to stay in her lane.
“I ended up being promoted three times, succeeded the person who hired me and got the title and compensation everyone said I wouldn’t get,” she reflects. “I got to travel all around the world as part of my job. I got to see and experience things I never imagined I would do as a little Black girl from the South Side of Chicago.”
Robinson eventually moved into nonprofit leadership and became chief partnership and programs officer for the Greater Chicago Food Depository, where she helped guide the organization’s mobilization of services to feed food-insecure Chicagoans during the pandemic. In 2021 she was the unanimous choice of the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago’s board of directors’ search committee to be the organization’s next CEO.
Today Robinson feels like she has come full circle through her leadership role at YWCA, a nonprofit whose mission includes eliminating racism and empowering women. “Both DePaul and the YWCA were born and shaped in Chicago. We have shared values that focus on making society more equitable. At the YWCA we strive to accomplish our mission by building bridges between all stakeholders in our community. We help organizations have conversations about equity, gender, belonging and inclusion and how to create that in workspaces. One of our programs that drives this is called ‘Until Justice Just Is,’ and it’s one way DePaul alumni can collaborate with us so that we can, as DePaul says, ‘do Chicago proud.’”
DePaul and the YWCA have, in fact, collaborated through the Driehaus College of Business Women in Entrepreneurship Institute (WEI) in 2021. The partnership brought WEI’s business accelerator program to a cohort of Chicago-area entrepreneurs who are women of color.
As for that question Robinson has asked herself throughout her career—“How do I do well and do good?”—she finally feels like she’s answered it.
“I realized the answer is not a destination. It’s a way of life, and I’m living it,” she says. “That question was guiding my purpose. It allowed me to figure out how I wanted to use my voice and talents and how I wanted to show up in the world.”
Nicole R. Robinson’s Advice for Women Leaders
From first-generation college student to successful socially responsible leader, Robinson has these tips to share for aspiring women leaders.
Be open to the possibilities. Some people are good planners and have a timeline of where they want to be in one, two and five years. And to some extent that’s good if you know exactly what you want to do. But be open to things you hadn’t previously considered. Be open to other paths that present themselves to you. Trust your intuition.
Lean into your values and your authentic self as you build your career. Know what areas you want to gravitate to. Ask yourself: What impact do you want to make in this world? What industry do you want to influence? Some people will say they want to be a CEO and that’s their goal. But instead of focusing on what position or title you want to have, think about the broader landscape of what you care about and where you want to make a difference, then follow that. Be your authentic self, tap into your passion and unleash your creative genius to guide your career path.
Build a support system of allies. Being a leader can feel isolating. Being a leader and a woman and a person of color can feel even more so. As a leader you need a community of family, friends, peers, mentors and sponsors to support you. Connect with other leaders you can trust and lean on because that will help you thrive not just in your role but on a personal level too. As author and activist bell hooks said, one of the most vital ways we sustain ourselves is by building communities of resistance and resilience, places where we know we are not alone.
By Nadia Alfadel Coloma