Beth’s Journey From Answering Phones To CEO Of A Major Non-Profit
President & CEO of Make-A-Wish Middle Tennessee
Opportunities aren’t always packaged the way you’d expect.
Beth Torres knows what it’s like to feel burnt out. As a Regional Marketing Manager for Reebok, she liked the creativity and perks behind her job, but was traveling five days a week. “We were getting great perks and I got to see sporting events that people pay big money to see,” she says. “But you get addicted to the perks and if you don't pay attention, you'll lose yourself. I was getting burnt out and I wasn't doing my best work.” She left Reebok and went to work for a minor league ownership group. But after that company let everyone go, Beth felt like it was time for an industry change and that she wanted to do something good for her soul. “I was having dinner with my parents and I said, ‘I think I'm going to work in nonprofit.’ I just thought it would be warm fuzzies,” she tells us. Fast-forward to today, and Beth is currently the President & CEO of Make-A-Wish Middle Tennessee. In the full interview below, Torres tells us more about her journey from her first job answering the phones as a customer service rep to her current position, and why she thinks opportunity happens when you least expect it.
Be present and enjoy the journey.
Early in my career I constantly worried about the next job and the next thing instead of being present and seeing what I could learn at that moment. The best thing in my career came when I wasn’t looking for it; it found me.
No one gets anywhere without support.
My parents are probably my biggest supporters because they are always honest with me. I also have a really tight circle of friends, who are supportive, honest, and in it with me – they make a difference. I try to surround myself with people that I admire, that I want to be, that I look up to.
Resilience helps you get over the hardest moments.
Resilience gets you through tough situations, and also helps you get others through them too. Allow yourself to feel the sadness and disappointment, without letting it take over.
Leaders earn respect by walking the walk and talking the talk.
You have to make sure that what you say and what you do are consistent. That’s what people are looking for. So much of the tone is set by the managers.
Try all the things.
If you’re working for big companies they’ll have a ton of opportunities available to you. Say yes to all of them. But don’t be afraid to walk away if it’s not a good fit.
How she did it
Always On The Move
I was born in Denver and raised in Dallas. We moved a lot when I was a kid. I went to around six elementary schools because we moved every two years. My dad had a corporate job and he was a really good problem solver. So when they had a problem in a market, they would send him there, he would fix it, and they would move him again. It became who I was, and I thought moving all the time was really cool. Part of it was because my parents treated each move as an adventure. There was always a conversation of this is where we're going, this is what we're going to do, and this is why this is exciting.
But it's also really hard because every time you move somewhere you have to get to know new people. Looking back though, that is so much a part of why I’m successful today because I'm not scared of being the new kid — I'm not afraid of meeting new people.
I ended up in Chicago right before high school. When we landed in Chicago, my mom said I'd like my kids to go to one high school. So my parents opened a restaurant and my mom ran it. I got experience with the corporate environment from my dad and the entrepreneurial side from the restaurant. I got to watch them start a business, work the long hours, and talk about the risk and reward — all of those conversations were dinner topics for us.
University of Illinois
What Do You Do With A History Degree?
Of course, you don't want to go to Illinois when you grow up in Illinois because everybody does. But the truth is, it's a great education. It's a huge campus, and even though I knew people that were there, I didn't see them every day. But it was nice to have that support and know that there were familiar faces.
Why did you decide to study history?
I wanted to go to law school. I loved the drama of the courtroom, and the art of the argument looked like fun. Then the summer before my senior year, I started dating a law student and I remember going to his house and seeing all these papers across the dining room table because he was cross-referencing all his notes. And I thought this looks ridiculous to me; I don't want to live like this. I called home and said, “I don't think I want to go to law school.” My dad said, “What do you do with a history degree if you don't go to law school?” I was like, “I have no idea, but I think I'll move home and we can figure it out together.”
Rising Through The Corporate Ranks
Back then there were help wanted ads in the paper, and you would see which ones were interesting. There was a customer service ad and it had the big Reebok logo on the top. I was a brand snob, and I wanted to be associated with big, powerful brands.
Because it was such a big company, there were hundreds of resumes and the woman who interviewed me had gone to the University of Illinois and her best friend had been in my sorority. She said to me, “Whether you were qualified or not I knew we'd have a fun conversation.” And so that had gotten me that first interview. When you look back, those decisions you're making early on can be resume builders. They're all building who you are and who's going to pay attention. You want to be smart about the school you go to and the groups you join because it will resonate with someone.
What was being a customer service rep like?
I would sit in a cube and answer phones all day, taking orders and returns and listening to people complain. I worked with a team of sales reps and was in a big office, surrounded by sales reps, marketing reps, people who were doing bigger business. I got to see the business at a 360 angle, so there was the retailer who was calling about an order, the sales rep that was selling it, and the marketing program that was behind it. We also worked in an open workspace, which in hindsight was key, because I could hear the conversations that were happening and learn from that.
Did you feel like you found what you wanted to do?
About three months in, I realized that this was not a job I wanted to do forever; there was not a lot of creativity. About six months in, they opened a whole new department of Field Marketing Reps, people who went out into the community and trained people to sell Reebok products or educated them about branding. If you walk into a Dick's Sporting Goods, you look at the shoe wall, and the decision is made in those last three feet from the wall. Someone's either going to approach you and help you find what you want or you're going to find the shoe you want yourself. So we trained the salespeople to want to sell our product.
How did you transition into your next role there?
I was a field rep for about three years. It was great because it was always changing. Then I was offered a Regional Marketing Manager position. Now, instead of executing the marketing, I was working with the sales team and the senior leadership to create the marketing plans, or the brand was creating them and we were executing them locally. There was a lot more creativity in that. I really liked the marketing and branding because it's a lot of storytelling, and a lot of connecting the dots for people.
What were your lows during your time at Reebok?
I was a woman in a man's world; sports marketing at the time was not friendly to women. I never felt harassed or put down or demeaned, but I often felt left out. You’d sit around a table and realize you're the only woman in the meeting. Then they would go out for drinks later and they wouldn't invite me. I don't think it was, we don't like her, we're not inviting her. It was just sort of like I know how to have a conversation with this group of people.
A lot of it was just keep showing up. What would happen is you would go to dinner and they'd say, let's go to the bar and have one more drink. And most of the women would say, I'm going to go up to my room. But, you have to be in there. You can't create change from the outside. So if you wanted things to change, you had to show up.
Minor League Ownership Group
Learning What Not To Do
How did you transition from Reebok to your next job?
I was traveling every week, five days a week for Reebok. We were getting great perks and I got to see sporting events that people pay big money to see. But you get addicted to the perks and if you don't pay attention, you'll lose yourself. The traveling got really hard. I was getting burnt out and I wasn't doing my best work. Something had to give. And so during one of Reebok’s reorganizations, I let myself go.
Why the Minor League Ownership Group?
I got a really nice severance package when I left, which gave me some freedom to decide what to do next. I had a friend who had left Reebok and was working for the Minor League Ownership Group, and she really enjoyed it. She said, “You should come work with us, we've got some openings.”
They would go into markets and start minor league teams. I learned a lot about what I don't ever want to do from this experience. We had weak leadership, poor funding, and bad revenue plans. It was a really bad business model. They let everybody go. They fired players, coaches, office staff, everybody. That all happened on a Friday afternoon and that Sunday I was having dinner with my parents and I said, “I think I need to do something good for my soul on this next job. I think I'm going to work in nonprofit.”
It felt like a really good idea. But my dad said, “I think this isn't your smartest choice. You have a lifestyle that you've grown accustomed to. You travel, you eat out, you shop when you want to shop, you do what you want to do. I don't know if the nonprofit sector will allow you to continue that.” But I had saved some money that I could live off of for a few years without needing a huge paycheck. So I decided to try it for two years.
Junior Achievement of Middle Tennessee
New City = New Career Path
Why did you decide to move to Nashville?
I started looking at places around the country and Nashville is rich in the nonprofit community. My immediate family was still in Chicago. I wanted to be close enough that I could get to them if anything happened, but I also wanted to have an adventure. I was looking for a network and I knew a couple people in Nashville. I started applying for jobs, and the deal was I wasn't going to move unless I had a job. So I would come down every few weeks to interview.
I was 45 minutes late for my first interview with JA because I got lost and missed an exit. I remember going into it thinking, they’re never going to give me this job. But I was invited back for a second interview with two board members, and I liked both of them. I remember thinking they were inspiring people who had great stories and were connected to the mission. I was offered a job in marketing at JA and literally in my first two weeks, the guy doing fundraising took a job somewhere else and they said, “How do you feel about fundraising?” I had never done it before and all of a sudden this one thing that I never wanted to do, which was sales, is what I was doing. But I was selling a mission.
Why did you accept that role?
I was open to anything. I've learned that great opportunities are going to show up, but they’re not going to be packaged the way you thought they would be. I liked the organization and I liked the people I was working with. I believe in saying yes now and figuring out how later. I started fundraising and really fell in love with it. You're telling a story, you're advocating on behalf of someone else. And I believed in the work we were doing.
I believe that teaching kids about business from kindergarten through 12th grade is important, and JA was taking attorneys and entrepreneurs and putting them in the classroom and saying, this is what I do and this was my path. And by the way, I'm going to teach you about economics by teaching you my journey. It became really easy to go out and ask for money because you're giving for someone else. That's when I learned that I was brand loyal, but also mission-driven.
MBA at Vanderbilt University
Deepening Her Business Knowledge
I had worked for about six months when my boss asked me if I'd ever considered getting an MBA. I'd always wanted to get an MBA, but I traveled too much with Reebok to do one. Owen had a program where they give one tuition grant every year to a nonprofit exec to get them in the classroom and teach them business. My boss encouraged me to apply, and I was the alternate for the grant the first year, but then I rolled my application to the next year and got in.
Make-A-Wish Middle Tennessee
I was sitting at my desk and a headhunter called and said, “Would you consider a CEO position with a midsize nonprofit?” I said no because the one thing I learned at Owen was I wanted to be someone's number two. The projects I loved were the ones where someone had a really good idea, but needed my help to make it huge. I asked who it was for, but she said it was a blind search. She said she couldn't tell me who it was and thanked me. But she called me again two days later and said, “I've talked to the search committee and they said that I can tell you who it is.” They thought if I knew the organization that was looking for a CEO, I would at least consider it. It was Make A Wish.
I got home that night, put together a resume, and sent it over to her. It was a really brutal interview process. It was long and intense. I was their fourth CEO in three years and the search committee was looking for stability. It's funny because you walk into these situations and you think I’ll interview well, they will like me and they will hire me. The truth is they had issues and concerns, and their own baggage so they were trying to make sure that they'd vetted well for a new CEO.
Why do you think you got the role?
If you ask the search committee now, I was probably not their first choice. Someone told me later that they were scared I would be here for a short period of time and then move on.
But I think this organization was ready for a business leader, not just a leader of heart. The CEOs that came before me, one of them is very much the heart of this organization. She built it, led it, really got in on the mission and built our foundation. I think they were ready for someone to come in and look at it strategically with a business mind. That was the talent that I brought. They were ready to grow more, wanted it to be bigger, and wanted to do more work.