Badass Q and A With: Jessica Bynoe


Each week, we are profiling a badass woman to share her experiences and wisdom with our readers. This week, we’re excited to showcase Jessica Bynoe, the Executive Director of Variety the Children’s Charity of New York, a foundation dedicated to supporting programs that transform the lives of children through the arts. At Variety New York, Ms. Bynoe has created a unique philanthropic model which supports small, diverse grassroots organizations with a combination of funding and intense capacity building. During her tenure at Variety New York she has elevated the work of over 50 grantees and ensured arts access to over 75,000 children. Ms. Bynoe is internationally recognized for her expertise in youth development, civic engagement, and strategic philanthropy and has conducted over 100 workshops and presentations on these topics. She is the author of celebrated white papers Confronting the Glass Ceiling of Youth Engagement and The Art of Adding Value: Variety New York’s High Touch, High Impact Philanthropic Strategy. Additionally, Ms. Bynoe, holds numerous volunteer roles for NYU. She is a Past President of the NYU College Alumni Association and is currently Vice-President of the NYU Alumni Association Board.

What is your idea of success?

Living a balanced life that makes you happy. I think you are successful if you feel fulfilled in your profession, have healthy personal relationships, have time to cultivate personal interests, and feel centered emotionally and mentally. For me, I am proud to have a career that I love, amazing relationships with my parents, boyfriend and friends, time to work on my hobby of cooking, and (most days) feel centered. At times, striving for success can feel like you are trying to be superwoman, but no one said success is an easy road. Of course there is stress along the way, but the important part of success is finding ways to productively deal with that stress through an awesome support network, or some personal reflection.

What is your morning routine? How do you set yourself up for the day?

To be honest, I’m not a morning person. I think it’s important to be honest by embracing and recognizing what part of the day is most productive for you. In the morning, I like to check in on the news, make sure I scan all my email to see if there is something urgent, drink my coffee, and review my progress on the current to-do list. I rarely schedule meetings before 10AM because I know that is not my sweet spot. Of course, there are things you can’t control, so, on days I have an early meeting, I get a good night sleep and wake up extra early so I have time to adjust, still follow my morning routine, and by the time I walk into the meeting I feel like it’s after 10AM.

How do you stay organized throughout the day?

My job requires shifting gears many times a day, so it is important to have a few tricks to stay focused on the medium to long term work so you don’t get bogged down in the smaller daily tasks. I keep a weekly list of high priority items on my desk and check them off, or add details and updates to them as the week progresses. It feels really good when you can physically check things off or cross them out and know they have been accomplished. Often, there are items on the list for more than one week, and they get copied to the next, but even that is helpful. If an item is on that list for more than three or four weeks, it becomes a personal goal to get it off the list, even if there is no hard deadline.

What has been your greatest achievement thus far?

In my current role at Variety New York, I have had an opportunity to work with over 50 grassroots organizations transforming the lives of children throughout the arts. Over the five years I have been Executive Director our team has grown the impact of the organization from supporting 8,000 youth to over 20,000 youth a year. In addition to the increased impact, I am extremely proud of the culture I have built at the organization. Often, grantmaking organizations can have a hierarchical relationship with the organizations they give money to. I made it a high priority to treat our grantees as equal partners by respecting and learning from their expertise. That culture is vital to the success and credibility of Variety New York as a grantmaker. These values have created an environment where all of our grantees feel safe and valued. In a city like New York, it is often the small gritty organizations doing the most impactful work getting the least resources and recognition. Offering them a space where they are valued and supported is one of the greatest services I can provide my city and the remarkable people working to make it better every day. 

What has been your biggest failure (and how did you overcome it)?

I am not sure I have ever confronted a real failure in my life. There are plenty of places I can improve, there are goals I have set that I haven’t quite hit, and projects I wish were more successful, but nothing I would deem a failure. I learn from things that don’t go well. If I were confronted with a major failure I would work hard to assess the situation, find key lessons from it and try not to repeat the conditions that led to that failure.

What do you feel is the biggest mistake people make when starting a business?

Thinking they don’t need anyone else’s input. This is true in the nonprofit sector as well. It is amazing how many people think they can just create a new organization without involving the community or investigating other similar organizations. Rarely is something a truly unique, brand new idea. We are stronger and better thinkers, when we reach out and work together.

How do you define a great leader?

This is a tough question because it really varies by situation. I believe in the ability to have different leadership styles at your disposal and the person who can figure out how and when to wield each style appropriately can be a wonderful leader. Sometimes, a leader needs to make quick decisions and get a team to execute exactly as instructed, other times a leader needs to facilitate a meaningful process where all stakeholder voices are heard, valued and incorporated into a decision. Undergirding all of those styles, it really boils down to awareness and empathy. If a leader cannot have honest awareness of themselves and the people around them, coupled with an ability to genuinely see other people’s perspectives, they will not be successful at discerning which style is necessary at which times and are likely to cause dissonance and ill will.

What qualities do you believe make someone a great team member?

The ability to recognize and embrace the fact that everyone else on the team is an expert is a remarkable quality. It is important for us to always remember that everyone has something to offer and no one person has all the right answers. When a person sits in a team with that attitude they are no longer trying to figure out how to make themselves the star or, conversely, how to blend in and do nothing. By recognizing, and more importantly encouraging, everyone’s potential for brilliance and contribution, a team member can create a culture of equality, collaboration and success.

What is the trait you most admire in others?

I have a dear friend who is a master at making every single person feel valued, even if she has doubts and reservations about that person. I have to admit I don’t have the patience that I should for everyone and sometimes I have an awful poker face. When I watch my friend engage with others in this way I really admire her. She builds confidence in others, tames bad behavior and artfully dispels conflict. It is no wonder she is a badass woman in her own right!

What is your biggest professional pet peeve?

Professionally and personally, being late is a huge pet peeve. I live by the idea if you are on time, you are late. When people are not on time, they are sending a message that their time is more valuable than yours. Whether you are the boss or the intern, you need to respect the people you work with and you should always be on time (read that as 5 minutes early).

What is your best negotiating tactic?

When I was in graduate school I took several negotiation classes. In one class we had a role playing assignment. We each received a sheet with instructions on our motivations in a negotiation and needed to act out a conflict where two companies needed to buy all the oranges from a certain purveyor. If you were willing to be honest in the negotiation and put your proverbial cards on the table, you quickly found out that you were not competing with your partner at all because one party needed the orange peels and one needed the juice. Those teams who did not use honesty ended up in a bidding war that no one won. This idea stuck with me and as a result I always negotiate with honesty. It is risky as you need to be vulnerable by showing what you need, but often that honesty and vulnerability is equally matched from the other side and the agreement you ultimately reach is increasingly beneficial for both parties. 

What’s your best networking secret?

I borrow a lot of my best practices from my friends, so here is another tip from another friend of mine who is a master networker: always be the connector. For instance, at a networking event or cocktail party try to be the person that is listening to others’ needs and then connecting them with people in the room who can help them. As a result of this action, you make people feel more comfortable around you because you aren’t working an angle and you end up being helpful to them so they are grateful for your awareness and support. In turn, people are likely to want to stay in touch with you and you never know how that connection can be of use in the future. 

What advice would you go back and give your younger self?

When I started in the non-profit sector, I was the youngest one on my team. I was a senior in college and worked full time on a large national initiative to support young leaders in eight different communities. I would often travel to these sites and meet with local organizational leaders, city officials, decision makers, etc. Even though the mission of the work was about young people as valuable leaders, I was often embarrassed about being so young. I would try not to disclose my age or, if I did, loosely say something like “my early 20s.” When I look back at that now, I want to say “OWN IT!” Damn right I was 21 or 22 and taking on a leadership role in a 5 million dollar project. I wish I was more confident in seeing that as an asset and something to be proud of rather than something to be insecure about. 

What is the best way to go for the goal?

Whenever you have a goal, the best thing you can do is keep it at the top of your mind. Sometimes this means it will wake you up in the middle of the night feeling anxious about it, but it also means it will be the first thing you are thinking about during creative daydreaming and “shower thinking.” I have even had steps to a goal sort themselves out in a dream I was having. When you are really focused on achieving a goal, big or small, you will find yourself working towards it both consciously and subconsciously. It helps you be more creative and productive in your steps towards success.

What are you most proud of in your life?

I’m most proud of graduating from NYU for both undergraduate and graduate school. I am a first generation college graduate so it was a huge deal for my family for me to go to school. My parents worked extremely hard to make sure I had more opportunities than they did and I am grateful for that. One of the best ways I was able to show my gratitude was to succeed at the collegiate level. It was at college that I knew I wanted to go into the non-profit sector, where I met people that would help me get my first job, where I met people who would become life-long friends and where I had experiences that shaped the rest of my life. I am proud of not only graduating, but using every experience from school towards my success today.

What is the fastest way to turn you off in an interview? How does someone impress you on an interview?

Biggest turn off is not being prepared and focused. I have conducted interviews with people who clearly had not even reviewed the website and made it seem like the interview was an imposition on their time. I could not get off the phone fast enough. 

To impress me, a person comes not only prepared, but already thinking about their specific contributions to the organization. Someone ready with good questions and suggestions of things they might change or would like to try should they get the job shows they put in extra time to prepare. People like those tend to really want the position and are likely to be more passionate about the work. 

Where do you get most of your information?

I get most of my news and trade information online. For news I read the NY Times and Huffington Post. For trade information I read Youth Today, Education Week, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Harvard Business Review, and Nonprofit Quarterly.

What apps could you not live without?

I am not a big tech person (I literally switched from blackberry to iPhone this year), but I have a new found love of Instagram. Mostly because this is where I get to express my creative side. As a home cook extraordinaire, I love posting my latest creations as well as seeing what the chefs and restaurants I admire are producing. You can follow me @jessicabynoe or use my hashtags: #itssoeasy and #damesdinner!

What is the best lesson you learned from your worst boss?

My worst boss taught me the importance of organizational culture and that it does not work to manage by fear. Seeing team members try to outlast each other at their desks at night and express fear that they may lose their jobs at any moment did not make for a happy and productive workplace. I am proud to grow a culture of respect, candor, and balance at Variety New York and I would not have such a strong commitment to this if I did not have the alternate experience.

What do think are the three most essential lessons you have learned in business thus far?

  • 1 | Make yourself indispensable! This means ensuring your work is of the highest quality possible, you go above and beyond the original assignment and you are always willing to do more.
  • 2 | Achieve work-life balance! I have been close to burn out and it is not good. You begin to resent your job and the work you love. Insist on work-life balance. It will make you ultimately more productive and foster an ongoing love with your work.
  • 3 | It is ok to be vulnerable! This is a hard one that I am still learning, but it means you do not always have to have all the answers and it is ok to tell people (including your boss). Recognizing and defining a tough situation is better than seeing things through rose-colored glasses. It will help you find and build allies, address problems head on, and set realistic expectations.

What is your professional motto?

Find what you are great at and equally love and follow it as hard as you can!

Who is your business crush?

I have to say I have never thought about this, but if I had to name one I would say I really respect Warren Buffet in terms of his understanding that personal wealth is good, but not to a point of crazy excess. I applaud him for his commitment to give the majority of his wealth to charity. I also appreciate that he is smart about the kind of charitable contributions he makes. He does not seem interested in band-aid solutions, but rather long term sustained change.

How do you define happiness?

I define happiness very similar to success. It is about fulfillment, balance, and being centered.

Multitasking or single-tasking? Why?

I am definitely a multitasker. There has been more than one occasion when I have been cooking dinner, on a call for volunteer work at NYU, checking work email, and watching jeopardy (and answering the questions out loud before my boyfriend can) all at the same time. You never know if that jeopardy question will give you inspiration in an email you are answering.

What does innovative mean to you?

Not being afraid of failure. I recently saw an interview where Neil deGrasse Tyson (who by the way is my “nerd” crush) was discussing the recent failed rocket launch by SpaceX. He said the failure was rich in learnings experiences. He more importantly explained, “if you are on the frontier, then stuff goes wrong and that is the evidence that you are on the frontier… If you are an entity that never makes mistakes you are not on the frontier.”  This is how I like to think of innovation. In order to be new and different there are going to be mistakes and we cannot be afraid of them as long as we learn and adjust.

Who is the most badass woman you know and why?

I definitely do not have only one! I feel fortunate to have surrounded myself with badass women. Of course my mom is as badass as it gets, with her tell it like it is, get things done attitude. Before she became a stay at home mom, she was a kick butt secretary in the real estate industry. At that time she could choose not to put a call through from Donald Trump. I often talk about her being a great caretaker and supporter of me, but she is also a fierce role model for taking charge as a professional woman.

I also have great badass women mentors from a woman who was one of the first female executives at IBM, to a leader in the philanthropic sector who also raised two badass young women. And, of course my friends. I make a conscious effort to gather my girlfriends together a few times a year at a dinner party I call the Dames Dinner. Around the table there are: women working as lawyers or teachers, on Hillary’s campaign, in film production and distribution, and in the nonprofit sector trying to make our communities stronger. These women are also moms, daughters, wives, partners, business owners, volunteers, leaders, fashionistas, and fierce friends. That’s badass and I am proud I cannot name just one of them as “the most badass.”

What makes you badass?

My life is a mixture of Jefferson Smith (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), Julia Child, and Carrie Bradshaw. I strive to make the world a more just and equitable place. I love cooking and eating great food, and I adore my city and all the wonderful parts of my life in this city—my family, relationship, friends, activities, culture, fashion, apartment, etc. At times these three parts of me sound like they don’t match, but they do and they do so successfully, and I am so fulfilled because if it. By embracing and loving and cultivating all parts of myself, even if they don’t always make sense to others, I am as badass as it gets!


Categories: Badass Profiles, Career & Finance


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