The Power of Persistence:
How It Paid Off for One Founder, Who Led Her Nonprofit to Powerful New Funding
After going through The StillPoint Experience, Villy Wang had an epiphany: She needed to persist, even while BAYCAT, her San Francisco nonprofit for underserved youth, labored under a deficit after two funding sources dropped out. Not long after this, formidable new guardian angels signed on, easing the nonprofit’s budgetary imbalances and restoring her faith.
Villy Wang had been a Wall Street banker and lawyer. But her beginnings were humble as the child of a single Chinese mother who, as a struggling immigrant, lived in the New York projects and worked in sweatshops. Wang even toiled there with her. Her mother—who was her inspiration—worked hard, studied, rose to build her own sewing business and moved her family to a house away from the projects.
Wang did well in high school and got into Brown University, her goal was “to make as much money as possible so I could take care of my mother.” But “between Brown and Wall Street, I began to realize I didn’t quite fit in.” She had been that disadvantaged youth who, thanks in part to technology, was able to make it.
Wang’s career took her to San Francisco and eventually she gave up her well-paid job as a lawyer to found a nonprofit that would provide a way out of poverty, via technology, for the underserved youth of San Francisco. In 2004, she started BAYCAT (Bayview-Hunters Point Center for Arts and Technology), which she describes as “a nonprofit social enterprise that educates, empowers and employs young people, from historically underserved Bay Area communities, in the digital media arts.” They develop expertise in video and music production, graphic design, Web design and even animation. The central idea is to tell stories. “We believe everybody’s story matters,” says Wang.
She understood that in neighborhoods like Bayview and Hunters Point, kids suffered from a creative digital divide. “Even if you put an iPhone in the hands of these [BAYCAT] kids, they don’t have the parents who have any idea about this. There’s a lack of education, a lack of role models. And how many jobs can they get by referral this way? I want them to get where they could be.”
For her, empowerment is key: “We believe in giving them the technical skills, access to the equipment, getting to know themselves better. That’s what [BAYCAT] is about—bridging the [disadvantaged] past to the [promising] future. BAYCAT was one of the few social enterprises that made the link between the underserved and the higher industries like high tech,” Wang says.
In the 11 years BAYCAT has been operating, more than 3,000 kids have taken at least one class. They’re all—low-income white, African-American, Latino, Asian—producing something, from a TV show to corporate identity videos for local businesses. Eighty-nine percent of BAYCAT’s kids come from households making less than $55,000 a year, and they’re living in neighborhoods with the greatest health and crime challenges. BAYCAT STUDIO, the working production arm of the nonprofit, employs 20 young adults—18- to 25-year-olds—every year. …We have a 90 percent success rate in employment, meaning they stay on the job,” Wang says.
In the process, BAYCAT has won the support of arts greats like musician Herbie Hancock, author Dave Eggers, and actors Benjamin Bratt and Delroy Lindo.
Wang, both BAYCAT’s founder and CEO, was inspired by President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper program and his commitment to bettering the lives of young minority men and boys. “I do want to change the system,” she says and points to a 13-year-old African-American boy who came to BAYCAT and was “a handful. He needed a lot of help to be confident,” she says. “He was academically challenged—one of those who society assumes will end up in prison.” Today, thanks to BAYCAT, he’s an employed filmmaker.
BAYCAT STUDIO had served more than 100 clients, but by 2014, it was facing a deficit after two foundations dropped out as funders. “Our kids’ films were in over 30 film festivals, and our production studio was thriving. But at the end of 2014, we still ended in deficit,” she says. Lisa Arie entered the picture in late 2014 when she was looking for a videographer and found the studio. “How perfect is it to meet a Lisa,” Wang says now.
GETTING BACK ON TRACK
Before long, Wang and several of her team members engaged in The StillPoint Experience to find out where and how they needed to focus their thinking to get BAYCAT back on track. “This was beautifully designed, fairly easy to use. What was interesting was getting the first feedback. How it was framed was very interesting to me. This was different in that it really valued balance. Other assessments tend to put you in a box,” Wang says.
She tried to incorporate balance into her everyday life, and to achieve balance she needed more persistence. Bringing her thinking into balance by challenging herself to be more persistent was an epiphany, as was the idea of “not being afraid. …The StillPoint Experience does a good job of opening the dialogue within yourself. I realized that my personal development is so wrapped up with my organization—it’s like a baby. I birthed the baby and now that baby is 11 years old. I’m the mother who didn’t get any sleep over the last years. I need to replenish myself.”
“This has been an amazing time to see my self-awareness and how this affected the success of BAYCAT. I asked myself, What am I going to do if there’s a deficit? I talked with Lisa about it [after doing The StillPoint Experience], and she said, ‘Just let it go.’
The moment she gave me permission, everything fell into place. I could be fully engaged with my amazing management team, and we could be strategic thinkers together. I had been worried about the well-being of my employees, my students, our community. I think I felt that I alone had to make the final decisions. But I realized I didn’t. This new idea gave me a completely new perspective on decision making. The minute I realized that, the blockage stopped. I was less afraid and more open to opportunity and new ideas. And along came the 50 Fund.”
Did it ever! The 50th anniversary Super Bowl will be held in the San Francisco Bay Area in February 2016, and the local Super Bowl 50 host committee decided it would donate back 25 percent of its proceeds through the group’s nonprofit arm, the 50 Fund. One of its signature philanthropic initiatives is the Playmaker grant program, which awards 50 grants of $10,000 each to 50 notable Bay Area nonprofits every week leading up to Super Bowl 50. The host committee, after a competitive process, chose BAYCAT STUDIO to document all this in videos. It means churning out 50 videos with 50 nonprofits in 50 weeks. It’s a superb opportunity.
“This is a game changer for BAYCAT,” says Wang. “It will take us to the next level. We could have been closed in fear and not taken the leap. But we’re seizing the opportunity. We’ve got to take some risks to scale. This has been a great turning point.” As soon as the contract was signed, BAYCAT got to work.
By early June 2015, Wang was feeling concerned again. BAYCAT needed more capital from the donation side of the business. She reached for her persistence. Once again, it paid off, as it had so many times in the past. A generous new funder, Bloomberg Philanthropies, entered the picture with a multiyear grant for BAYCAT.
Arie’s perspective, constant words of encouragement and the lessons of The StillPoint Experience stay with Wang. She reminds herself to remain persistent to achieve balance in her thinking, which counteracts the stress and fear that had dogged her. With persistence and balance, she has found a new perspective that has opened her eyes to new possibilities. She has found a new clarity and a new confidence that keeps BAYCAT moving forward in wonderful and unexpected new ways.
Through metacognition—a deep self-awareness—Wang can see the relationship of the various styles of her thinking, and through a neuroscience-based repeating process of self-reinforcement, she has been able to bring those styles into balance. She saw plainly what she needed to do, and BAYCAT has benefited from that wisdom. Stresses and fears figure less and less in her decision making. Her new confidence clearly places decision making with her and team.
All this is a good thing. “I know that finding balance through persistence and focus leads not just to my own fulfillment but to BAYCAT’s, too,” says Wang, “and I’m happy about that.”