Yvette Campbell: President & CEO of the Harlem School of the Arts

Yvette L. Campbell has served as President & CEO of the Harlem School of the Arts (HSA) since January 2011.  Under her leadership, HSA has raised nearly $10 million and increased enrollment by 30%. During her short tenure, with the support of a newly engaged and highly competent board of directors, the School has eliminated its inherited debt, rebuilt and increased its endowment, and is again one of this nation’s most valued arts institutions.  Ms. Campbell has been featured in the New York Times, Essence and was named one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business in 2011. 

I had the privilege of interviewing Ms. Campbell recently to discuss her remarkable work at HSA and pick her brain for advice for my daughter.


What brought you to the Harlem School of the Arts?

I was recruited. I had created the Ailey Extension at Alvin AileyIt's an adult program that had never been thought of and was sort of out of the box and was an interesting endeavor for them. So, I created it from scratch, envisioned it, hired the teachers, and made it happen. I managed it and passed it on to the next director.

But because of that experience, I was called to see if I could help Harlem School of the Arts think outside the box and also follow their strategic plan they had created with the help of lots of experts like Michael Kaiser and Mary Schmidt Campbell. Major people in the arts administration field were strongly supportive of the Harlem School of the Arts turnaround and it needed a strong leader who didn't think like everyone else. And that's sort of me, I guess, because I don't think like everyone else. I was also at the point in my career where I was a director of a program within an organization and the next step was to, I guess, be an executive director of a not-for-profit. I'm really excited to have the opportunity to serve the community of Harlem and to have had such success after three and a half years.

What are you most proud of during your tenure as President & CEO of the Harlem School of the Arts?

I am most proud of the fact that I did not run from the job when I found out how deep the hole was. Our debt was debilitating. We actually were servicing $400,000 in debt just in mortgage and a tax lien and other issues. So, I am most proud of restoring the endowment with the help of the board, increasing that endowment to (over) 3.6 million and eliminating all of that debt that was accrued before my time and before this current board's time. That's something amazing. The other thing I'm most proud of is sort of changing people's perception of Harlem School of the Arts. Making them rediscover it for themselves. That's my latest thing.

What skills and characteristics are needed to be successful in your position?

So, you have to be a good manager, and you also have to be visionary and balance the two. For my role as the leader of Harlem School of the Arts, I can't run off the cliff with my own visions and no one's following me or implementing them. But, I am a problem solver, so I think you need to be a really good problem solver and think, not just outside of the box, but in a way that serves your organization for the future. If your goal is to save an institution or have money for future programs, then you start asking for future money and programs from the people that support your school. You want to make sure you are always thinking about the future, the long term plan, and do your steps today take you to that plan. We can all get caught up in the day to day. So, I think the skills and characteristics that you really need to be successful is always be feeding those future goals and see how many steps you're taking toward them each day. Because life is chaos, and it will take over. 

What advice would you offer to someone who wants to pursue a career in non-profits?

Be prepared to ask people for money. If you're not prepared to do that, don't do it! Be prepared to tell people your vision. You have to be a great salesperson. If you're not that kind of person, if you're more the guy who likes to work with the numbers, then it's hard to communicate your position. I don't care if you're the comptroller. I don't care if you're the accountant. I don't care if you're the person who answers the phones. Every single person who works in a not-for-profit is selling the vision of the organization in every minute. No matter who they are. You could be the security guy. And you never know who is going to walk in 

You have to be personable and say, "Welcome to Harlem School of the Arts." You never know. The guy or the lady who walked in could give us money. A not-for-profit is all about serving its mission. It's not just raising money. It's creating a family of believers, supporters, students, and alumni. That serves an instutition the longest.

What do you enjoy most about what you do?

When I figure out a very complicated problem. Right now, I'm working on the FY '15/FY '16 budget. So figuring out a problem like reducing the budget by about 10%. That's a complicated puzzle. But, I enjoy it once it's done, and we've done a great job. The other thing I enjoy most about my job is coming up with a plan to ask people to support something that I really believe in and their saying yes. That's a really good day.

What are some of the day to day challenges you face?

I would say that you don't have time to explain everything to everyone. So, it's a little like being the President of the United States where you don't have time to explain everything to everyone because you have a thousand things to do. But, you have to, because then they won't follow you. So, there's the constant challenge leading and being followed and hoping people understand their part they have to play in the journey you're on. 

You are also a parent. Any advice for someone beginning parenthood?

What I realized is that you want to make sure that everything you're doing going forward is for the child you're bringing into the world. Here's the issue. You don't realize the baby is a person as soon as they come. They have a personality. They have a certain way of thinking, and you don't know what it is yet. They dominate your life, and it changes your life for the good but, you are now not just thinking for yourself. Which is why I think we were meant to bring children into the world. It stops us from being solely focused on ourselves. And what I would suggest for new parents is to realize you need to really think carefully about the partner you choose because you'll be with them the rest of your child's life. Not the rest of your life, but your child's life. It's a wonderful thing to do together and it's a journey to have with somebody you really care about. But, it's not a light decision.

The great thing is you have a young mind to shape. I love talking to my daughters about things I've learned and knowing that they're not going to hear me until they have the dilemma that I faced. It will come back and ring in their ears at some point. But, I keep saying the things that I learned. Treat people the way you want to be treated. That's one of my messages, and they haven't heard it yet. But, they will.

The last thing is that as a parent you have to see it from their perspective sometimes. So, I'll give you this example. You know how a child will want to be picked up. Sometimes, we think of that as a bad thing. Sometimes, they are in a crowd of people who are five feet tall. And they are two feet tall. They don't want to be behind butts and legs, and it scares them. And we don't realize that because we're not seeing it from two feet tall. Somebody said that to me. "Of course I pick my child up, because how scary must it be to be walking at butt height." As long as you're not catering to some weird whim. I realized one day that I had to pick up my daughter because we were in a crowded store. How is she seeing the world at this moment? She's feeling totally unsafe and unprotected. So, sometimes it's just seeing things from their perspective.

What is one motto that has served you well in your life and career? Why? 

Be fearless. Unfortunately sometimes you might have to report to the board that you have a deficit. Be fearless. It's o.k. No one's going to die.


Thanks to Yvette Campbell for taking time from her very busy schedule to help with this project.

If you live in NYC and have children, the Harlem School of the Arts is a fantastic place, with a wide array of classes to choose from for an equally wide array of ages. Camilla takes dance there and absolutely loves the class and her teacher. You might even witness an impromptu performance by one of the truly talented students the school serves. In addition, it is a place worthy of your financial support. Click here to view the HSA annual report, which gives you some insight into the fantastic work Ms. Campbell has done during her tenure at HSA and just how impressive the school is. 

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You can also follow Ms. Campbell on Twitter