Esra Ozer is President of Alcoa Foundation, one of the largest corporate foundations in the United States. She is also a big supporter of City Year New York. She is a former Chair of our Associate Board and volunteers with us each October, as part of the Alcoa Worldwide Month of Service.
This year, Alcoa is a City Year New York Flagship Sponsor, sponsoring the teams serving at PS 154 and PS 48 in the South Bronx. We asked Esra a few questions about her role at Alcoa and her commitment to City Year New York. Below are her responses.
City Year New York: Thank you for being a longtime supporter of City Year and promoting equal educational resources and opportunities for all. What about our organization has gotten you personally invested and if you had to choose from one of our City Year Values that resonates the most with you, what would it be?
Esra Ozer: Of the City Year Values, the one that resonates most with me is that of Excellence. The very manner in which it is defined by City Year – that “change can only be achieved through disciplined, rigorous, and tireless attention to detail” and that “excellence is both an inspiring vision and a daily practice” suggests that this value is embedded in every aspect of City Year culture and practice. This is particularly evident in the exceptional Corps Members who serve in New York City schools. It is rare in any setting (private or public sector) for employees to be rigorously and continuously trained and to have such a laser sharp focus on continuous improvement. Yet at City Year New York, it is a daily practice, and feedback from multiple sources is an engine that helps drive this. When the stakes are high, as they are in poorly performing New York City schools, rigor like this demonstrates to the students that City Year New York will never give up on them. And when a student observes high performance and a standard of excellence from his or her mentors and role models, it becomes a powerful value to aspire to.
CYNY: At City Year, we believe in inclusivity: that embracing differences as strengths magnify our capacity to achieve shared goals. Is there a time in your career path when you have proven or demonstrated this value and the impact diversity can have on positive social change?
Esra: I view diversity and inclusivity as mutually reinforcing – but ultimately they are different concepts. As New Yorkers, we live in the most pluralistic, diverse society in the world, but are we genuinely open to hearing the opinions of all? We work in companies that proudly tout diversity statistics, but think about your own team meetings: do you regularly seek the input of those with different backgrounds, or is it far easier and more comfortable to remain insular? That distinction is summed up in the wise phrase, “diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” As a grantmaker for one of the largest corporate foundations in the United States, I begin by applying the principle of inclusivity to my own team, and that helps us inform and shape all of our non-profit investments – and to expect more from the investment and our partnerships. It is the unique composition of my team - their varied professional experience, gender and perspective among other things – that drives us to look at our programming through a diverse set of lenses.
CYNY: Alongside the everyday work City Year corps members do in schools, we provide leadership development training, networking, and Life After City Year opportunities that prepare the corps for professional work settings after their year of service. What is your advice for corps members that want to go into a field like yours?
Esra: Read voraciously (including actual books), and write (not just with your thumbs). I started my career in corporate communications just at the dawn of the Internet, so mercifully all of my education and professional training were rooted in “old school” fundamentals, namely writing. Writing – effective communications - is really the basis of any successful career. And for anyone who wishes to enter the realm of corporate social responsibility (which in many companies is embedded in the communications function), I encourage them to engage in a sustained service activity – volunteer with an organization that embodies your personal passion and you will see the difference you can make. City Year Corps members have a head start with that one!
CYNY: A major mission of our organization is mentorship: both corps members mentoring students, and like you have been involved in, corporate sponsors and community partners mentoring corps members in professional development. What has been the role of mentorship, giving and receiving, in your life and how has that impacted your career?
Esra: Every successful relationship – whether it’s with your family, friends or colleagues – is a two-way street, which means that you give a little, and you get a little. I have been fortunate to have a mentor for most of my career, and I also work with a valued professional coach. Part of giving back – paying forward all of their investment in me - has meant that I in turn have mentored many individuals over the years. Having someone in your corner – dispensing advice, dealing a fair share of tough love, and spending time just listening – it’s a powerful gift.