Jessica Leigh Smith, guest blogger, interviews Lara Holliday

Jessica Leigh Smith is a freelance writer, project manager, and creative person and is today a guest blogger for Bergen Street Strategy.

Lara is the founder of Bergen Street Strategy and the Bergen Street Salon. Lara was shirking the task of writing her own bio, so Jessica generously offered to make the process more fun by conducting the following interview.

Lara Holliday

Lara Holliday

Jessica: So I’m going to say a few words that I know are relevant to your work, and I want you to rapid association tell me why and how they’re important to you. Ready? Community.

Lara: Ah – Supporting my kids. Learning more about the world. Making my life better.

J: Mentoring.

L: Taking care of the next generation. Supporting women.

J: Collaboration.

L: Doing better work. Having more sources of information and more checks and reviews of my own work.

J: Why did you found Bergen Street Strategy?

L: I wanted to partner with leaders of nonprofit organizations to maximize the impact of their work – to make great organizations even better.

Depending on the needs of the organization, I might focus on forging closer relationships between marketing and fundraising practices, or improving engagement efforts with boards of directors and funders, or revisiting organizational structures.

J: What’s some of the most exciting work you’ve done?

L: Wow that’s a tough one — I have been so lucky to have had so many interesting clients and fascinating projects.

I get especially excited when I help an organization through a transition. The William T. Grant Foundation is one example — where a new leader wanted to pivot the focus of the organization to issues surrounding inequity in our society. They called us in to help them reposition their organization and their communications around this new focus.

I also have been so honored to work with some brilliant people who are leading the conversation in a field that holds great importance to me. Jim Liebman, law professor at Columbia Law School, asked me to come in to help him think through a fundraising strategy to grow the Center for Public Research and Leadership. They use an experiential learning process to give graduate students exceptional training to build a pipeline for leadership in the K-12 public education space. It’s a fantastic program and an innovative concept, and it has been really exciting for me to be a part of seeing it grow.

J: I know you’ve also worked with many others – Teach for America, iMentor, the New York City Department of Education, New York Restoration Project, The Whitney Museum of American Art… (Editor’s note: lots more!)

L: Yes, there’s more I could talk about — my experience in communications and fundraising is pretty wide-ranging and has included both for-profit creative and strategic agencies as well as the public and nonprofit sectors.

One of my goals for my clients is to get them to make organizational and personal values a central organizing function of their decision-making and strategic planning.

J: What are your goals when doing this work?

L: One of my goals for my clients is to get them to make organizational and personal values a central organizing function of their decision-making and strategic planning. That means helping leaders to identify, clarify, and communicate the values that drive their work and provide meaningful engagement.

J: Is this what you planned to do as a child?

L: Um, no. I wanted to be a farmer and a tap dancer. Oh, and a park ranger. Life led me on a different path.

Having said that, now that I look back on this I realize I’ve been doing it for quite some time. Probably my first fundraising work was when I was a little girl — we had a lemonade stand to raise money for the ASPCA. We had a whole marketing campaign and everything: our motto was: “Buy a cup, save a pup!”

The neighborhood kids and I ran this stand all summer for a number of years and learned some important lessons, including the value of location and how to speak persuasively about our cause. We set up right outside a well-known lunch club that was frequented by elected officials and lobbyists. Try saying no to a couple of kids raising money for animals when you’re lobbying a senator.

J: Yeah, there’s no way to say no there! So then what? How did you get to where you are today?

L: Before forming Bergen Street Strategy, I worked as Director of The Fund for Public Schools, where I oversaw outreach and public awareness efforts, fundraising events, press relations, and donor and Board of Directors communications. By supporting new initiatives under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, my work at The Fund helped bridge the gap between education reform policy and public awareness and engagement.

I continued to aid The Fund as a consultant during the Bloomberg administration and frequently acted as liaison with the New York City Department of Education, City Hall, other city agencies, and major funders.

Prior to working at The Fund for Public Schools, I worked for several New York-based communications firms and served as Account Director at Dragon Rouge LLC, where I helped launch and grow the company’s North American operation. I developed strategic marketing partnerships with leading national and global brands, acted as a liaison for strategic, creative, technical, and senior management groups, and cultivated new business accounts with esteemed corporations.

The best aspect of working with Lara Holliday and Bergen Street Strategy is how they analyzed our organization’s complex set of challenges, opportunities and points of view – a potential cloud of endless debate – and delivered to us a clear, concise, elegant and jargon-free set of recommendations for a marketing strategy and visual identity. They have a wonderful way of working with people and bringing out each one’s creativity and expertise.

Susan Brenna

Former Chief Communications Officer, ExpandED Schools

I take very seriously the responsibility to mentor younger women and to pass along the skills I have gained over the course of my career.

I became interested in public education while volunteering as a mentor at Grand Street Settlement in the late 90s. Some of the children I was mentoring were falling through every crack in the system — their schools were failing them, social services was failing them, and some of them were living in homeless shelters.

I established The Mentoring Tree Foundation to provide access to a boarding school education for the students I was mentoring who needed a good education and a safe place to live. Based on the success of this venture, the Foundation expanded to assist more at-risk youth by providing resources and supports to help them graduate high school and go on to college. It was my experience managing The Mentoring Tree Foundation that helped me establish a firmer foothold in the fundraising world and ignited my ardent engagement with philanthropy in education.

J: That engagement is clear when you look at the organizations you work with – can you speak to a few of those?

L: Yes, I co-chaired the Board of Directors at Brooklyn Friends School, served on the Boards of Oakwood Friends School and Mary McDowell Center for Learning, and volunteered at Grand Street Settlement.

J: I know we’ve talked about mentoring quite a bit. Can you speak a little bit to the benefits or importance of a mentor relationship?

L: I take very seriously the responsibility to mentor younger women and to pass along the skills I have gained over the course of my career. This is a guiding tenet of my business practices and staffing strategy, and it was also the inspiration behind Bergen Street Salon, which I founded in 2012.

The Salon is a set of curated discussions for women that gives them an opportunity to engage in a way that they wouldn’t in their everyday work and personal lives. So I bring in a really fabulous speaker and facilitate a conversation with that person around some really interesting and sometimes slightly off-the-wall topics, like quantum physics and the multiverse theory or the benefits of passion over perfection.

J: Amazing. Ok, a few more rapid-fire questions. What are one or two of your all-time favorite books?

L: Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française and Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

J: Brooklyn is such a huge part of your work. Why Brooklyn?

L: It’s home. Home for me, my husband and daughters, and our rambunctious mutt, Rowdy. Best place on Earth, center of the universe. Big amalgam of awesome people. I grew up in Washington, DC, on Capitol Hill, which very much has the feel of downtown Brooklyn.

J: What’s your superpower?

L: It used to be parallel parking, until I bought an SUV and there was an incident with a tree. Other than that, I really enjoy meeting new people. I kind of think that’s a super power, and it’s a strange one, but I really like meeting new people.

J: Kryptonite?

L: Cockroaches.

J: Anything else you want to add?

L: This was way more fun than writing my bio. Thank you!

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