When Tamara Lewis was growing up in Jamaica, there were only two versions of what future "career success" might look like. She could become a doctor, or she could become a lawyer. She started college as a pre-med student ....and proceeded to change her major 14 times. She later was accepted into law school ....and ended up dropping out early in her first semester. The moral of this story? She was driven by what she "should" be doing versus following her passions, and she didn't find career fulfillment until she did just that.
Tamara ultimately learned that she was drawn to non-profit work and organizations, and she currently serves as the Vice President of Talent & Culture at The Conrad Hilton Foundation. Her advice to everyone is to DO WHAT YOU LOVE, and career success will follow.
Her story is inspirational and a perfect listen before students go back to school.
Tamara has held senior leadership roles with both national and global organizations in her 20 plus years in human resources.
In her current role, Tamara leads the Hilton Foundation’s efforts to create an inspiring and engaging atmosphere for its employees with a particular focus on establishing the strategic framework for the organization’s first global diversity and inclusion program. Additionally, Tamara serves on the board of Social Accountability International, a global non-governmental organization advancing human rights at work and Los Robles Regional Medical Center.
Prior to joining the Hilton Foundation Tamara lead human resource teams at Gentiva Health Services and directed global human resources and talent management for CARE, the global relief organization based in Atlanta. At CARE, Tamara she was responsible for directing the organization’s long-term vision, strategy and operational initiatives in the area of global compensation, recruitment, talent management, leadership succession and inclusion.
Tamara holds a master’s in business administration from Dowling College and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Hunter College.
Feeling burned out at work? It doesn’t have to be that way
LA Times December 1, 2020
Beth Davies, host: Some people have skills that fit well in both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations yet choose to work in the nonprofit sector. Many people don't understand this choice. The pay is often less and there are no stock options. So, what drives this decision?
Welcome to Career Curves, where we talked to people who have interesting careers and explore how they got, where they are.
I'm your host, Beth Davies. Our guest on this episode, Tamara Lewis, is currently Vice President of Talent and Culture at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. She spent her career in nonprofit organizations, including DeKalb Medical, a not-for-profit health system, and CARE, a leading humanitarian organization.
She's here to share what she sees as the joys and challenges of working in nonprofits and why she has elected to focus her work in this sector.
So, I am thrilled to have you here. Welcome Tamara.
Tamara Lewis, guest: Thanks for having me, Beth. I'm really excited to be here and honored that you tapped on my shoulder to participate.
Beth: I think you've got a great story to tell. To get us started, I'd like to understand what you're doing now. So, what do you do as VP of Talent and Culture at the Hilton Foundation?
Tamara: There's the before COVID and then the after COVID response. After COVID, it's pretty similar to what you'll find in any other HR department or any other VP of HR doing, which is ensuring safety and the health of our employees. And now pivoting to bringing people back to the office. This has really advanced a conversation to be more flexible, especially for organizations such as ours.
But day-to-day, pre-COVID, I spent a lot of time building staff capacity. We have a huge focus at the Foundation right now. We're growing, which is a pretty cool place to be in an organizational life cycle. Not many of us get a chance to be at a mature organization that's having this growth spurt. So, it really feels for us, internally, like a mature organization with a startup energy.
We are doubling in size, so lots of focus on recruitment. Also, we're expanding our programs and our footprint, so developing talent so we can work in new areas.
So, it's a lot about the people and building capacity. Giving people what they need in order to go out and do really good work in the world.
Beth: You just mentioned that you're doing a lot of recruiting. When you're looking for people in this nonprofit, foundation space, what for you distinguishes somebody who is going to thrive in this space from somebody who maybe has good intentions, but ultimately is not really made for this space.
Tamara: That's a great question. I would say, even if they haven't had experience working in this space, people who are very aware of themselves as a person and their ability to help others, and that their existence is not within a vacuum. And we do tend to ask questions like that, especially for potential candidates and employees who are looking to move from the for-profit to the non-profit space. It's more than just, "I just feel like I want to do good in the world."
There's a level of, "I feel like I can and I HAVE TO do good in the world and what I bring to the table, my technical expertise, I know it sometimes may or may not be directly impacting, but it will add to the broth or add to the mix in order to enable that." So, there's a very deep-seated desire to be a part of doing something that will help another human being.
Beth: Now let's go back in time and find out how you personally got into this space, starting with your childhood. Tell me about your family and where you grew up.
Tamara: You'll notice when I do this that there's not much of a connection, but I grew up in Jamaica and in Jamaica, we don't have as many careers and professions. We're a small island, lots of farming, lots of hospitality. And so, the careers or the professions that everyone looks up to is being a lawyer or a doctor. It's very limited in how we see. So of course, I wanted to be a doctor at the time.
Beth: Were there any other messages that you were getting from your parents, your family, the culture within Jamaica, about what a career could be and should be for you and what you should be in your life?
Tamara: There wasn't a whole lot of focus on the idea that your career should make you happy. It felt like it was more of a job. It was a way to provide for your family. So, you take these certain paths or these certain professions because that's a way to secure for your family, to provide stability and so on and so forth. So, it was less about what makes you happy or what's fulfilling and more about, "This is what's going to take care of you in the future and your family."
Beth: Almost a more practical approach than we sometimes see in the US.
Tamara: Very, very practical. Yes.
Beth: How did all of this play into your thinking through high school and then into college?
Tamara: I relocated to New York of all places, so from Jamaica to New York. Dead of winter. You can imagine not only the culture shock, but the environment. Having that in the back of my mind -- that success means you're a lawyer or you're a doctor -- that was what my intention was.
So, I finished up high school -- I had two years of high school left -- and I went to undergrad. My initial major, which I changed 14 times while I was in my first year of undergrad, was pre-med because I was going to be a doctor.
Beth: Tell me about some of those major changes. What were some of the thoughts that you had from pre-med to where you ended up landing as a major?
Tamara: Yeah, so I ended up at the complete opposite end, which was political science, but it was very much that I hated sciences at that level. Biology in high school is cute, right? It's an introduction. It's cute. Biology and chemistry and physics in college are a very different ball game. This is for the people who are serious about it and if anything, I know that I was not serious about it.
So, I don't know if you remember, but back then in the library, there was this occupational handbook. It was about maybe five or six inches thick, and it was huge. Bigger than the standard 8x11 sheet of paper. And it had all the careers listed. It had the career, it had the major, and the average salary. So, at that time you equate lawyer, doctor, lots of money. This was my thinking back then. And so, I would go through and look down the lists, and then I would go and change my major. No idea. Try a class. But that was my pattern back then.
Beth: I love what you're saying though, that classes are a way that we can learn about ourselves and be able to say, "Does this class interest me? Do I get into the flow? Or is this painful and a slog while my other classmates are having a breeze of it."
What about internships or other type of college work experiences? I know sometimes people learn about themselves through these. Did you have any experiences during college on that side that helped you understand what you wanted to do?
Tamara: Unfortunately, I didn't have too many of those. I was a mother at the time as well and that doesn't allow you too much free time. So, it's really about going to school, being a mother, and actually having a job. I used school and my classes as the way that I could at least be more familiar or kind of dig deeper into a particular area that I was interested in.
Beth: So, what was your plan as college was coming to an end?
Tamara: I graduated with my BA in political science because my plan was to go to law school. So, I took the LSAT and I got into two law schools, Rutgers and Fordham, and I went to Fordham for all of three weeks. The day that you have the opportunity to drop all your classes and not be financially responsible for anything was my last day of school. I was clear that that was not what was for me.
But at the time I had a job working at Tiger Information Systems. And Tiger Information Systems was a small boutique staffing firm in the Wall Street area. It provided the desktop publishers -- that's what they were called back then -- but the ones who did all the fancy pitch books for many of the investment banks downtown, which as we know, we're open 24/7, and probably still are.
And that was my first experience with recruiting. It was from a staffing agency side, but that whole idea of an employer has a need and we get to go out and find someone who fits that bill. So, you get a good feeling that you found someone a job or filled a need for an employer.
Beth: Once you discovered you liked recruiting, was there anything that you did to learn about the broader field of HR to see if that also interested you?
Tamara: I started talking to the HR folks at one of the banks that we staffed for, that I had a really good relationship with. The recruiter, the generalist at the time, the benefits person. I had a really good relationship working with them and just learning more about what it is that they actually do. The why and the how. And what does a day look like?
And I thought, I really like what I'm doing. I like what I'm hearing. There's something to this. It feels right. It feels good. It feels easy.
think that's that moment where I was pointed in that direction or I decided to pivot, and that was my new direction and it felt right. It felt good.
Beth: It's exciting to hear this because the first part of your story, when you're talking about school, was as if you were finding the opposite. Trying all these different places and nothing quite feeling like it fits and suddenly, "Wait, I think I might like this one." And I, of course, can see you because we're on Zoom and your whole face is lit up right now as we're talking about finding this home for yourself.
You ended up about two years after graduating from undergrad, going to grad school, and you went back to get your MBA. Why did you decide to do an MBA, especially now that you're starting to think about Human Resources, which may or may not have a direct connection, but you'll help us understand?
Tamara: Yeah, two reasons. I think that the initial driver was coming from a third world, families tend to put up a lot of weight on education. So, it was having an advanced degree. It sounds superficial, but it's one of the drivers. People want to be seen as being successful for the most part, especially in their family's eyes. So that was one of the drivers.
But in talking with some of these folks and different HR professionals as I was learning more over the years, many of them who had advanced and grew into not just the transactional work, but more of the strategy and the strategic building programs and having a seat at the table, those folks encouraged to me to go back and get whether it be something in Industrial Psychology or an MBA so you could speak the business-speak or make connections between the talent and the people. Then it enables business outcomes.
So, to me, I thought that would be a good next step. It kind of satisfied both things. I could dig deeper and I could make my mom and dad happy.
Beth: Make them proud. Certainly.
At this point, were you thinking that you were going to work in the for-profit sector, because it sounds like the temp agency you were at was for-profit? And now you go to get your MBA. I would assume that there is a strong bent in business school towards for-profit. So, at this point, is that where you were thinking you were going to go?
Tamara: Actually, I decided that I wanted to be in the nonprofit space. I met someone in school who was working for a nonprofit. We were in a group project together and the way he described what he did was almost as if it was not only his dream job, but he was living his purpose in life because he was super passionate about that particular organization's cause. And I'm like, "I want that. That is super cool because we all get into ruts with work and you stumble it. But if you could be grounded in that type of feeling, I want to do that."
So, I started looking for a job and the #1 criteria, some like my mom would say was to make less money, but it was actually to feel good about what I'm doing and feel like I'm adding or helping someone. That was really the connection for me.
Beth: When you were making the decision to go non-profit was there a anybody trying to say to you, "Tamara, you have a child. This isn't the responsible way to go. And now you've got this MBA, you're making the wrong decision," and how did you reconcile this drive and this purpose that you were discovering with this practical message that perhaps others were imposing on you?
Tamara: Not so much. My family is a lot of health care. My mom's a nurse, my grandmother's a nurse. My aunt was a doctor. I think the message that I was hearing was more of, "You know you're going to make less, right? You know your earning potential will be...As long as you know that and you're considering that, then have that it."
So, it was a moment of "No, I want to feel good. I want to help. I want to do something good," and that was a driver.
Beth: And I think it's probably important to acknowledge as well that working in the not-for-profit space doesn't mean you don't earn a salary or that you're not earning an income.
Tamara: We earn salaries. We earn incomes and we have fantastic benefits. And the feeling of being surrounded... and I don't want to give the impression that this doesn't exist in other places but there is an intentional choice that each and every individual that's in this sector makes to do this.
People do sometimes come in and out. The ones who decide really quickly that this is probably not for me, most of the time it's not because of money to be quite frank. The folks who I've found who exit or return back to the for-profit space, it's really because of internal drive, like it's probably not what I want to do right now.
Beth: After getting your MBA, what was the first job that you landed?
Tamara: That was with the Center for Developmental Disabilities out on Long Island.
Beth: Tell me the story of how you landed this job.
Tamara: I think it was sheer luck to be quite frank. I was told about the opportunity. Another person at school heard us talking about this, and we've been talking about it for some while, and she says, "Well, actually, my neighbor is the VP of HR at this nonprofit and they're looking for a recruiter and I know you used to recruit, and you recruit." And so, I applied for the job, I was introduced, and it just clicked.
I remember the first question that she asked me besides, “Tell me about yourself," everyone says, "Tell me about yourself" or whatever.
And she says "This is a tough place to be" because it was actually within the school and it pulls at your heart strings. So, she said to me, "This is going to be a tough place to be." She did say, "We won't be paying you a whole lot of money, but it is, for her, it's one of the most rewarding things she's ever done in her life."
But she asked me if I'm ready for this. That was her question, "Are you ready for this?" And I said to her, "I think I am."
And she says, "Okay."
And the next thing we did, so two questions in, next thing we did was walk around the school and I got a chance to see the classes, and she asked me if I wanted to stay in one.
And so, the interview actually took me an entire day, that initial interview. I remember walking back to her office with her secretary and she said, "So do you think you like it?"
And I said, "Absolutely. This is where I want to be" and I got an offer before I walked out the door and I accepted before I walked out the door, not even thinking of anything. Not even thinking of the fact that this was in the middle of Long Island and I had to take, if anyone knows the Long Island Expressway, but I had to take the Long Island Expressway to and from work and there was significant amount of traffic.
So yeah, it was an interesting day.
Beth: Was she right that it was going to be a really challenging and difficult place to work? What was it like?
Tamara: She was beyond right. I think it's human nature to identify and want to help people that you feel are in need or need support.
It's one thing to be in a building where you're kind of separate from it and you know... kind of like what we do at foundations, we're a little bit removed from the actual work. However, being there, it makes you work harder so therefore you're a little bit more tired. You're a little bit more overworked.
You're walking down the hall and you see one of the kids go into the bathroom and you want to help, so you are helping, and it takes you away from what you're actually doing. The reality is you see what's happening and you want to help more.
Beth: So, you've got this opportunity launching your essentially HR career at the Center for Developmental Disabilities. How did you build your HR career from there?
Tamara: So, at that point I knew that that's where I wanted to be. I was super clear about that. I wasn't crystal clear about doing what because I was recruiting, and where and how.
Some family changes took me to Georgia. Still definitely knew I wanted to remain in the nonprofit space. I went to DeKalb Medical and I actually really loved the hospital setting. It's very hectic from time to time. I supported the emergency room and that was the place where I expanded from just focusing on recruitment to employee relations and compensation and benefits. I was more of a generalist there and I loved it.
I loved not only bringing people in, but also working with people throughout that whole entire employee life cycle. So, I knew that was the way to go then.
Beth: So, tell me about the transition from DeKalb Medical Center to CARE. How did this opportunity come your way and what was the opportunity that caught your interest?
Tamara: At this point in my career, I was very intrigued by this whole international or global HR. Then I learned about this whole INGO space, and we had one right in our backyard in Atlanta at the time. And shortly thereafter, CARE actually posted a job for a recruitment manager. So, bingo!
I didn't have the international experience, which was the bulk of the job, but I had this solid recruitment. I think it was a combination of where the organization was, because there was a lot of lobbying that had to happen on my own behalf. They were in a place where they themselves were growing. They'd had a significant turnover in that particular role because of the complexity. And I somehow convinced the COO, he asked me a very direct question, "Why would I ever give this job to you? You have absolutely no international recruitment experience and this is managing a team and globally recruiting for 56 countries?"
And I said, "Because of what you just said. Obviously doing the same thing, which is bringing in people with the exact experience that you want has caused you lots of turnover. Maybe it's time to shake it up and bring in someone with fresh eyes." And second time I got the job the same day.
Beth: Good for you! I love what you just said of turning it around and saying to him clearly what you're doing hasn't been working. So, take the chance on me.
You were at CARE for over six years. How did your role evolve and change over those six years?
Tamara: This was my most dynamic working opportunity ever and is what brought me to where I am today. I started as the recruitment manager there and I grew into the director of talent management. I went from just recruitment and overseeing the recruitment function to overseeing our HR business partners globally. Also, talent development, so learning and development. Recruitment. And starting up a shared service center there.
So, I left with a very expanded scope at CARE over hose 6+ years.
Beth: Is there anything that you remember doing or relationships that you remember forging that helped to create this expanded role for you?
Tamara: I've always been really curious and interested in ensuring that whatever we're doing -- and when I say "we" it's HR, recruiting, whatever the "it" is, any support function -- is really connected to the business.
I had a boss who's been a big mentor for me. He brought me to some of the board meetings. He had me participate in the HR board committee meeting. He put me in situations or gave me the opportunity to be a part of situations outside of my scope and scale, which was intentionally focused on having HR, not just recruitment but HR, at the table in key business discussions.
I do think that is one of the reasons I was really -- and still am, it's been a passion of mine -- able to show directly the connection between support services, like HR or recruiting and direct business outcomes. What are we trying to accomplish as a business this year? What are our strategic goals? Okay. Can our people actually deliver on it? What are the skills that they need for that? So that one-to-one correlation between people and business outcomes.
Beth: So, this is clearly where having gotten your MBA comes back in and adds value to what you're doing and in your role?
Beth: After six years, you ultimately decided to leave CARE. I'm going to guess that that had to be a hard decision. What was it that drew you away from CARE after six years?
Tamara: Because of my expanded role, I was probably traveling internationally about 60-70% of the time and that was really taxing on having a young family. And without compromise, I will say, this opportunity at the Hilton Foundation, which was a growth opportunity for me, was presented around the time that I was thinking through what's next for me, because this isn't sustainable.
Beth: Sometimes people struggle to leave an organization that they love because there's people there that they care about like this boss and mentor you were talking about, and they are afraid of disappointing them, of hurting them, and just that whole I'm leaving conversation. Do you remember how you approached the giving notice conversation?
Tamara: My boss at the time actually retired shortly before I came to this realization and maybe that's one of the things that helped to propel it. So, it wasn't as hard leaving him as a mentor or making that decision and giving my notice as it would have been had he still been there.
Beth: So, the position at the Hilton Foundation is a much bigger role than the one you've been in before. You are now in charge of all of HR. How did you convince this recruiter, and then ultimately the organization, that you were the right person for the job?
Tamara: They were looking for someone because they were in a place where they knew they had to re-imagine and they were going to be growing. So, my international background was of interest to them because they did both international and domestic programming. My recruiting background was of interest to them because they were going to recruit a whole lot in the upcoming years. And then, the combination of the talent management and the other pieces.
What I did have to convince them is that I was ready to lead on these pieces, and why I was ready to lead, and why am I interested in this particular role, which was easy at the time. They were in an interesting place of growth and that excited me. The challenges that come with being a very mature organization, almost set in your ways, with "We got to do things differently. We're going to have to scale or we're going to have to..." And then that mix of the two, that was really exciting. And that passion for that role came out in my interview.
Beth: As you've been moving through your career, how important has title been for you? You're sitting here with your first VP title, and I know oftentimes I'll hear in the for-profit space that people are very driven by title. And I'm just kind of curious for you if that was similar in the not-for-profit sector.
Tamara: I know for a fact that it was attractive for me, but it wasn't the reason I went after the role. I went after the role and I was interested in it because of what was needed at the Foundation at the time, the conversation that I had with the CEO who was fairly new himself, and just hearing what the Foundation needed and what their struggles were. It was the challenge that actually outweighed the title for me.
Beth: So now you really have spent your whole career in nonprofits and I know we have a lot of listeners who are interested in this space. Is there a certain type of person that you think is best suited to this work and any thoughts on who should avoid this sector?
Tamara: Working in the nonprofit space, my experience is, it’s very consensus driven and we always look for opportunities to collaborate. So that may slow down processes. It may slow down decision-making. You want to bring people along. And so, if you're a person who likes to make a decision and just run with it, this is probably not the best place for you.
Beth: What advice would you have for someone who wants to get into a nonprofit in terms of good starting roles. What advice and recommendations to you have?
Tamara: We hire all the same people that are in other sectors. HR people. Finance people. Operations people. Our accounting practices may be different, but we need accountants.
So, pick a cause that you're really interested in, find organizations and nonprofits that work in that space and sector, and bring the skills that you have there.
Beth: Is there one piece of advice that you would give to somebody else who is a parent and working in big jobs like you've been working? Is there one piece of advice that you'd give them for managing both of these roles?
Tamara: Yes. Because you tend to be passionate about both aspects -- the work that you're doing and, of course, your family -- you just really need to be sure that you're being intentional about separating the two if and where you can, because the two can bleed into each other if you allow that.
Beth: I have just four more questions for you. I call this the lightning round. So, my first question is what would you say is the smartest career move you made, whether intentionally or accidentally?
Tamara: To work in a nonprofit.
Beth: Being on that project team with that one person in grad school that had you say, "That's it. I want that."
Tamara: That's what I want to do. That's how I want to feel. Yes.
Beth: I love it. If you could have one do-over, what would it be and why?
Tamara: I'm not sure I have a do-over. Everything I've done, regardless of the outcome, brought me to where I am now.
Beth: If you could go back in time and meet up with the young Tamara and give yourself one piece of career advice, what would it be?
Tamara: Do what you love. It gets you through those days. All of us have it, no matter what we're doing, where you get in a rut, and it's connecting and being in a space or doing the things that you love doing or remembering the why you're doing it is what's going to pick you up and keep you going.
Beth: And then my last question, how do you define success for yourself?
Tamara: Feeling fulfilled personally, as a human being, even while meeting all your responsibilities. Being a mother. Being the bill payer. Being the VP. Whatever the "it" is, all those things that you have to do to provide, you're still feeling fulfilled.
So having that balance of the two, for me, that's success.
Beth: It's a fabulous definition. I really appreciate it.
Tamara, it has been wonderful hearing your story and I know that there are many people interested in the nonprofit sector who are going to walk away with a different understanding or a fuller understanding now.
And so, I just really appreciate you sharing all that you've shared. It has been wonderful getting to know you.
Tamara: Thank you so much for having me, Beth. I really appreciate it, and I hope this is insightful for some of your listeners out there.