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Banking on KC - Valerie Nicholson-Watson, CEO of Harvesters

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host, Kelly Scanlon. As we continue talking with Kansas City women leaders during Women's History Month, we're happy to welcome Valerie Nicholson-Watson, the CEO of Harvesters, where she's helping to change the lives of families and seniors who are served by The Community Food Network. Welcome, Valerie.

Valerie Nicholson-Watson:

Thank you, Kelly. Thank you for having me.

Kelly Scanlon:

You've held several positions within Harvesters. You've been a board member. You've been the Director of Community Services. And now for about a decade, you've been the CEO. How did holding all those different positions within the same organization widen your or perspective or your vision, even of what Harvesters could achieve?

Valerie Nicholson-Watson:

I think for the most part, it helped me to better understand exactly where the founders of Harvesters were coming from. And it really instilled in me a sense of responsibility to take what they created, never lose sight of the spirit that went into the founding of this organization, but to continuously build upon what they started. And so you think about seeing a community where there is hunger or food insecurity, and also knowing that perfectly good food aside from maybe some marketing mishaps or some overproduction, perfectly good food is going to waste. And you focus in on let's stop that food from going to waste, and let's get it into the hands of people who can use it. And so standing up those relationships with manufacturers and retail and starting an actual network that is capable of distributing the food throughout 26 counties in Northwest Missouri and Northeast Kansas was so important.

Valerie Nicholson-Watson:

But then as time goes on, I think it was the responsibility of those of us who followed the founders to take what they started and apply the lessons learned and the knowledge that we've obtained since they started. So it's not just getting good food to where it's needed most. Now it is yes, getting good food to where it's needed most and making sure that it has nutritional value, making sure that we have variety, making sure that it is culturally appropriate. And so I think that is what having those different positions throughout the organization helped me to realize. And it really just instilled in me that if our founders were still here, what would their expectations be? And I think myself and my predecessors have lived up to those expectations because they would expect us to take this organization to the next level of effectiveness and of efficiency. And that's what we continually do, always keeping the people that we serve at the forefront.

Kelly Scanlon:

You'd mentioned the geographic areas served, but tell us a little bit about how old the organization is, the amount of food that you're now distributing, and a little bit about that network that you mentioned, how it works.

 

Valerie Nicholson-Watson:

Harvesters was founded in 1979 and pretty much at the start of this whole food bank phenomena that we have in this country. We serve 26 counties, 16 in Kansas and 10 in Missouri, headquartered in Missouri. We also have a satellite distribution center in Topeka, Kansas. And I think one of the unique things about Harvesters in addition to serving two states, we also serve urban, rural and suburban areas and each has their unique challenges. And so that's probably one of the most challenging things about the work that we do because every community is different and communities need or want different things. And so really trying to know who you are serving and to be respectful. It's not if you're hungry, you'll accept anything. It's not that kind of attitude because you want to always allow people to maintain their dignity and you want to be respectful of people. We're not the great saviors. We want to work with people. People know what they need. And so we want to work with the people that we serve so that we can best serve them. And so that's what we're always striving for.

Kelly Scanlon:

What drew you to the issue of hunger relief, Valerie?

Valerie Nicholson-Watson:

That is such an interesting question. So back at the turn of the century, so it was actually 1999, I was really at a point in my career and even in my life where I felt like I really wasn't making the kind of impact that I wanted to make as it relates to my career. I mean, things were going well. And as a part of the job that I held then, I managed a regional foundation. And through that foundation, I got to know and interact with a lot of different nonprofits and just kind of fell in love with the idea of what they do. And around that same time, I saw an ad for Harvesters and I was familiar with Harvesters. My kids had volunteered at Harvesters.

Valerie Nicholson-Watson:

And it's kind of uncanny because the story of my life has been, I see an ad for a position. And when I read it, I say to myself, I could not have written this better for me. It spoke to me. And so I applied for that position and wound up getting the job. And that was my first job at Harvesters and it really was the director of community services. And the easiest way to explain it was that it was everything except running the warehouse, HR and fund development. So it was volunteers, it was the programming, it was the marketing, it was the media, it was the agency services. So it's really the nuts and bolts of the outward facing aspects of the operations.

Kelly Scanlon:

You've been a leader in the non-profit community really throughout your adult life. You've been involved in so many different kinds of non-for-profit work and community work. Tell us about some of that and some of the other ways that you've exercised your leadership to help solve community issues and to create opportunity for others.

Valerie Nicholson-Watson:

That's an interesting question. And it's really one that I have to give a lot of thought to, believe it or not, because a lot of things that I do are just intrinsic to my nature and I do them. And so I don't think about them per se. I think I've always been a bit of a mentor. If you are on my staff, and you're reporting to me, much of what I do is mentor. Trying to develop people and empower people in their positions to give them confidence. There's a saying that I like, let your faith be stronger than your fear. And so it's really just trying to help people accomplish that. I volunteered at schools as a tutor, I served on the DuBois Learning Center Board. Again, it's tutoring children. I think education is so important. And we know that if children struggle in school, they're more likely not to finish school or to seek higher education. And for me, education was key, but it was about the only thing I was good at.

Valerie Nicholson-Watson:

I wasn't athletic, I didn't sing. And reading in particular, and I think that reading is just so important. So much of what I've done really has centered around how can we make sure that our children can read and that they enjoy reading? Working at the Niles Home For Children was such an honor for me because it was such a historical organization in the Black community. And I've always been very community focused. And I am that way because of the community that raised me. I come from a community in St. Louis where the people who lived in that community became lifelong friends and really more like family and those bonds exist to this day. And so when you grow up like that, you have a sense of community. And so you just try to do what it takes. You do things because you can, and you do positive things because you can, you do what you know.

Valerie Nicholson-Watson:

So in terms of volunteering at school, I'm a member of the Links Incorporated. So we do a lot of volunteer work throughout the community and through several different facets. One of the things that I really enjoyed doing through that organization and really was interrupted because of COVID, but providing self-esteem and menstrual health classes to elementary school girls. I am the mother of sons and the grandmother of grandsons. And so just even having the opportunity to stay connected to young girls and to show them that, to get the things in life they want, they have to have the knowledge and the strength to understand when things are not in their best interests and make those decisions that are in their best interests.

Valerie Nicholson-Watson:

And so a lot of my volunteer work has really always had that at its core. Stand up, be yourself, understand that the decisions you make are important, not that you'll never make bad decisions. We all do. I love mentoring. I love mentoring young CEOs because they are so fresh and they certainly are committed to what they want to do. But so much of the job, particularly these are primarily young people who had nonprofits. It's a new world for them. Reporting to a board, having total responsibility for an organization. It can be overwhelming. It can consume you. And so having been there, having been overwhelmed, having been consumed, it's like how do you minimize that?

Kelly Scanlon:

It strikes me as you're talking Valerie, that you not only mentor, but you model. You're a role model. You model behavior that people can point to. I mean, just the comment that you just made about being overwhelmed with the new responsibilities of leading a nonprofit for some of the people you mentor. It's not only what you say to them and counsel them on, but then they look at you and they see that you've done it. So you're actually modeling it too.

Valerie Nicholson-Watson:

At once upon a time, it was all new to me.

 

Kelly Scanlon:

But it didn't stop you.

Valerie Nicholson-Watson:

It did not stop me. Sometimes it almost broke me, but it did not stop me. And I think that every challenge that I was able to overcome only prepared me for bigger challenges. And so I've always seen every step I take as a development opportunity. And that's how I approach the folks that I mentor. We're not going to always get it right. But when you get it wrong, you are likely better at what you do before you made that mistake. It's character building, but it also provides a level of wisdom that you didn't have before the incident.

Kelly Scanlon:

Right. That whole school of hard knocks. It's very powerful. So how do you lead change? What's your approach to that?

Valerie Nicholson-Watson:

I will say that leading change is one of the most satisfying, but at the same time, one of the most difficult things that you really have to do. I think the most important thing is to help people understand why change is necessary. I often say that we could all jump on a horse and ride to work, but I'd prefer to jump in my car. And that's a great example of change. When you have more, when you know more, you put that to use, and it means that you have to change in order to make things happen. And for me, I recognize, and these are the things that I share when I am no longer open to change I'm done. Because it means I've become static in a very dynamic world. And change means that you are better utilizing your knowledge, your wisdom, your resources, your technology in particular, to make things better.

Valerie Nicholson-Watson:

And I can remember being at a training long ago and there's always ... When I do training, I might not remember every single thing that I was taught, but there's always comments that are made that I remember. And one that sticks out to me is the comment that if the people won't change, then change the people. I'll work with you on scale, but when you just refuse to do what is necessary, then you're in the wrong place.

Kelly Scanlon:

Some of our listeners may not know that you also worked as a journalist. You were with the Kansas City Globe, and you were with the Kansas City Call. How has your background in communications and reporting influenced your leadership style?

Valerie Nicholson-Watson:

That is so interesting. So I graduated from [inaudible 00:14:58] with a journalism degree, and again, that fell back to my love of reading and writing. And I never imagined myself being a journalist, but I did want to write. And I moved to Kansas City and was hired by Miss Lucile Bluford at The Kansas City Call. And probably she was one of the most important mentors that I have ever had because I learned so much from her. And I can remember a time when I was doing an interview and she was listening in, and at the end of the interview, she said, "Valerie, you're too timid." And that was kind of eye opening for me because it was a whole new arena that I was operating in. And so I knew that I had to build my courage and my confidence, and she helped me to do that so much. And so she certainly influenced my leadership style because she was very good at constructive criticism. And then helping you to make yourself stronger in that area.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. She's such an icon and helped so many people.

Valerie Nicholson-Watson:

Absolutely. I think we just had a love affair because I loved her so much and she was so good to me. She reminded me of my grandmother, her strength, her wisdom, her dedication. And so that just drew me to her. And then she was just so welcoming to me. I can remember, my early days there she'd taken me around town and just introducing me to people. And her introductions really made people open to me. And I was in my very early 20s in a new city, where really the world was starting to open up to me and she was so important. And then when I moved on to The Globe, The Globe was so progressive and I can remember the editor, he would come up with these ideas. And I would be like, "I don't know about that. That just seemed so farfetched." And then he would make it happen. And that brings me to that Mandela quote. "It always seems impossible until it happens."

Valerie Nicholson-Watson:

But that also made me recognize that sometimes when you hear an idea, you are limited your thinking or in your insight sometimes that you don't get it, but that's your own limitation. It doesn't mean that what you've heard is not a good idea. And so that made me really search for insight, particularly when I didn't understand something or if I didn't get it. And so in my leadership style, I try to provide insight. Insight into why a certain decision was made or why we're doing things a certain way. Not that I'm prepared to explain every decision that I make, but I think there are some decisions that if you provide insight to help people see what you see, then you get greater buy in and they're not sitting on the sidelines saying that's the craziest thing I've ever heard.

Kelly Scanlon:

Sure. And sometimes it's just a matter of, they don't have all the information that you do.

Valerie Nicholson-Watson:

Exactly, exactly. Or the experience. Or the vision. And I think for me at that point, it was all three. Lack of experience, lack of vision, lack of insight and knowledge.

Kelly Scanlon:

For our next generation of female leaders, what message would you leave them about using their in influence in creating impact?

Valerie Nicholson-Watson:

So I think, and this is for female leaders in particular, and especially female leaders of color, because when you are a part of society and you want to fit in, that's great. We all want to fit in so to speak, but we don't want someone else dictating who and what we are. And so just really staying true to your inner self because when you remain true to your inner self, your true intentions, your true spirit is what people see. And so if you want to influence others, they have to have a sense of comfort with you, a sense of trust, you have to be credible in their eyes. And the best way to do that is to be yourself. I think in terms of creating impact, you have to want to be impactful. That is what brought me to nonprofit. I had to work for a living, but I wanted to be a difference maker and a difference maker in the way I knew how, in the way that I had experienced. And that is how can you make life easier, better, more fulfilling for other people.

Valerie Nicholson-Watson:

And I think that the work that I've done has helped me to do that. And so in terms of you using your influence, it's interesting. I am a huge proponent. Huge, huge, huge is my authentic self. You treat people with dignity and respect. There's nothing that's more important, honestly, and with dignity and respect. And I think that you are able to influence people in issues when you do that. You bring your authentic self to the table. Sometimes you have to take your power, so to speak, you can't be timid. A powerful lesson that I learned. You have to take your power. It's not going to be given to you. And when I say that, it means you have to speak up, you have to stand on your principles, you have to collaborate, but you have to have voice. And you have to make sure that your voice is heard. But you also have to listen because you're likely, never the smartest person in the room. And no one knows everything.

Valerie Nicholson-Watson:

And so it's just a matter of how you approach it, use your influence for good. You want to make things better. And I think that if you just set out as a leader to say, I want to leave everything I touch better than it was when I got there. But you also want to respect the foundation because I've never started a nonprofit. I've never started anything really. I've come into things that already existed. And so I have to respect what others built and I have to take it to the next level. And I don't know because I've never been at the start. But it is hard. It can be difficult, but if you want to really create impact, you have to know what is needed and then provide what is needed. I never think about being a leader or influence or creating impact. I just follow my heart. I follow my intellect. If I'm going to do it, I want to do it right. And the chips follow where they may.

Kelly Scanlon:

Valerie, The Kansas City Globe named you as one of the 100 most influential African Americans in Greater Kansas City. You have received lifetime achievement awards, outstanding community services awards, and just many, many other awards and accolades. So you've received a lot of recognition for what others see as your accomplishments, but what do you personally, as Valerie Nicholson-Watson, what do you see as being your greatest accomplishment?

Valerie Nicholson-Watson:

I think my greatest accomplishment is the fact that I have remained true to my principles. I have remained true to the people who have poured so much into me. This is a really tough and emotional question for me to answer. And I go back again, to that community and that magical house of ours on [Newstead 00:23:37] in St. Louis. It was truly that village. It was that village. And I think about my grandmother's generation. Of course, they're all gone now, but they poured so much into me. I think about my mother's generation and they poured so much into me. Everyone pouring something different, but showing me that I mattered, showing me that I was important to them, and sharing the knowledge and the wisdom that they had. And I never take that for granted.

 

Valerie Nicholson-Watson:

I use that as my model. And I've often said if I can be half the grandmother, my grandmother was to me, I've succeeded in that grandmotherhood thing. And so I think that is my greatest accomplishment. I've stayed true to my foundation. That doesn't mean that I haven't changed. I haven't evolved. I haven't grown. I've done all of that. But at the core is that very principled foundation that I was raised on. And I think that's my greatest accomplishment because I've not contorted myself to be anything else.

Kelly Scanlon:

Valerie, you're going to be retiring in a few months. Hopefully that's going to leave you more of that grandmother time. What are your plans for the future?

Valerie Nicholson-Watson:

Someone told me that you don't retire from something, you retire to something. And to be perfectly honest, I want to write more. I talk about my grandmother, her older sister and their best friend. Those were my best friends growing up. And I always say they are the most extraordinary ordinary people I've ever met. And I just want a chronicle and document them and how they impacted me. And so I want to do some writing. I certainly want to spend more time with my family, but I don't have like a master plan. You know in your heart I love Harvesters, love Harvesters. I think I've done a great job, but you know in your heart when it's time to let someone else take the lead.

Valerie Nicholson-Watson:

And I know it's time to let someone else take the lead. I know that I need some rest. I know that I want to spend more time with my family, most of whom are in St. Louis. My mother's there. She just turned 92 years old, healthy. We had a health scare last year, and that just it impacted me so profoundly that I know I want to make her a priority. And what happens after that? I don't know. I'm not one to be idol for too long.

Kelly Scanlon:

I was going to say, I don't think you'll be letting too much grass grow under your feet. Valerie, we're just so grateful and so honored that you took the time to be with us on this episode of Banking on KC. Thank you so much for all that you have done for our community, not just in serving the community itself, but in raising up the next generation of leaders through the mentoring that you've done. You certainly have made an impact, and we appreciate everything that you have done.

Valerie Nicholson-Watson:

Kelly, thank you for having me. And the one thing I would say is that the work that I've done and the institutions that this community have trusted to me, it has been an honor.

Christee Highbarger:

This is Christee Highbarger, Chief Risk Officer of Country Club bank. Thank you to Valerie Nicholson-Watson for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC, as we highlight local female leaders during Women's History Month. Being community focused is an intrinsic part of who Valerie is, largely she says, because of the community that raised her, that she says poured so much into her. The people who lived in that community who mentored her and empowered her, became her lifelong friends. She has dedicated her career to being a difference maker, someone who makes life easier, better, and more fulfilling for others. Making the community a better place to live is a value deeply ingrained in Country Club Bank's DNA too. We are first and foremost, a family owned community bank invested in the growth and success of the Kansas City community. We are grateful to be working alongside dedicated community leaders like Valerie, and we share her desire to leave everything I touch better than it was before I got there. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you Kansas City. Country Club Bank, member FDIC.

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