Mentor with a mission

Judith Vredenburgh.

"I have absolutely the greatest job in the world."

That's what Judy Vredenburgh, MBA ’75, says—without so much as a moment's hesitation—when asked how she likes being president and chief executive officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBSA), the nation's oldest and largest youth mentoring organization. Vredenburgh accepted the position in June 1999.

Since 1904, BBBSA has matched millions of children in need with adult mentors. Mentoring and caring for others is a way of life for Vredenburgh. It's how she was raised. It's what she believes in and what she loves. It's who she is.

Formerly senior vice president at the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation, a position she held for six years, Vredenburgh is a Philadelphia native who has returned to her hometown for the first time in 30 years. The city is the site of BBBSA national headquarters.

"It's nice to be back," she comments. She has family nearby, and that's an added bonus. In fact, she notes, her passion for her work has its roots in her own childhood.

"My motivation for entering the field of human services goes back to how I was raised. Social justice, helping the disadvantaged . these are values I was brought up with."

Vredenburgh earned her B.A. at the University of Pennsylvania in 1970. She was encouraged to enroll at UB because her husband, Donald, was working on his doctorate here, and because the program offered her the flexibility of maintaining her own job during the day and attending classes at night. (Donald Vredenburgh is now a tenured professor of organizational behavior at Baruch College at the City University of New York.) She considers her UB experience critical to the success of her career. She started out in retail management as a buyer and spiraled upward to several executive positions, including CEO at Chess King, a $257 million specialty store division of Melville Corp.

As she climbed the career ladder, Vredenburgh's vision was to one day apply her leadership skills to benefit a nonprofit company. In 1978, her daughter, Cynthia, was born prematurely, weighing only three pounds. Cynthia's successful treatment in a neonatal intensive care unit further fueled her mother's dream of working for an organization whose mission is to serve those in need.

"This was my plan, even back in my twenties. I wanted to break some barriers for women and, at the same time, I always planned a second career with a nonprofit organization. And one reason I wanted to work for the March of Dimes was because my daughter had benefited from their services."

When Vredenburgh joined the March of Dimes in 1993, revenues had been declining. Applying her seemingly boundless energy and the business acumen she had gleaned in Buffalo, Vredenburgh steered the organization from financial stagnancy to fiscal success. By 1999, the March of Dimes had seen a 50 percent revenue increase, from $121 million to $183 million, and this trend continues. "We built the strategy and infrastructure to sustain this growth," Vredenburgh says.

Vredenburgh's pride in the success she has achieved goes hand in hand with her appreciation for the program and faculty at UB.

"I don't come from a family of business people," she explains. "I learned all my management skills at UB. I feel deep gratitude toward the professors who taught me in areas such as accounting, organizational development, and operations and strategic management. I was inspired by the intellectual stimulation of faculty members who opened my mind to new disciplines. UB gave me an excellent education."

It was while she was working for the March of Dimes that Vredenburgh began volunteering for Big Sisters of New York, continuing to act upon her heartfelt commitment to the power of mentoring.

"Mentoring is a theme I have embraced my whole life," she says, noting that for eight years she mentored female entrepreneurs, giving them needed guidance to excel in their professional lives.

"I have always been motivated by women's issues, and, I always had the feeling that I, as a woman, could help other women go as far as they could and successfully combine career and family," she notes. Now, at the helm of BBBSA, Vredenburgh has taken this commitment to another level, heading an organization that reaches 180,000 children and youths annually.

Coincident with Vredenburgh's appointment, BBBSA has just completed the first year of a five-year business plan, with ambitious goals for growth. One area targeted for expansion, Vredenburgh notes, is the organization's school-based mentoring programs, the kind of initiative through which she believes "we can change the nature of youth in this country."

It is BBBSA's objective-and Vredenburgh's vision-to reach 500,000 children by the year 2004, including 300,000 through schools. School-based mentoring is an attractive option for working people and retirees, as well as students. It may only involve an hour or so a week, dropping by a school at lunchtime, reading, or just talking and spending time with a Little Brother or Sister.

"Mentoring is absolutely critical," emphasizes Vredenburgh. "We know that education is the key to democracy, economic growth and opportunity. Kids must be able to fulfill their potential to become contributing citizens. The way out of a troubled situation for many children is education. Kids cannot access the education system unless they believe in themselves. Mentors help them develop this self-confidence and self-caring. This can happen through a trusted friendship."

An added benefit is that mentoring often has a "ripple effect" as youths are positively influenced by their own mentors and then go on to influence others. From business executives and parents to professional athletes, the benefits of youth mentoring have been documented in countless success stories.

Sixteen months into the job at this writing, Vredenburgh is well on her way to making the BBBSA growth plan a reality. In her own words, she has begun to assemble "a top management team" that includes a new COO, as well as vice presidents for fund-raising, program and agency development, marketing and communication and mentor development. She intends to build on the continued success of BBBSA as she leads the organization into the 21st century. She has a solid foundation to work with. In 1995, a national BBBSA impact study showed that children with Big Brothers or Big Sisters were 46 percent less likely to start using drugs, 33 percent less likely to engage in violent behavior, and 52 percent less likely to skip a day of school than troubled youths with the added burden of facing life alone.

Not surprisingly, Vredenburgh herself is a Big Sister, mentoring 13-year-old Sherice Holliman. The two spend time visiting African American art exhibits, reading and listening to music together, and talking over meals.

Vredenburgh's love of the arts translates into a form of stress relief, as she practices her own mantra of balancing her personal and professional lives. She is "relearning the piano" after a lapse of many years and loves to attend classical music concerts.

Judy Vredenburgh has marked many milestones. In 1996, she was one of 22 women featured in the Pamela Gilberd book The Eleven Commandments of Wildly Successful People. But perhaps her proudest moment came last May, when she watched daughter Cynthia graduate with a bachelor's degree in humanities from Yale University. Cynthia is employed by the New York City Partnership for Parks as a grant writer and editor.

Recapping her achievements and looking forward to the work ahead at BBBSA, Vredenburgh exudes optimism and enthusiasm. She has cracked the glass ceiling and paved new pathways to success. She is, in a word, happy.

"With all we have to accomplish here, I sense this job is long term," she notes. "I hope to be here for quite a while."

Written by Diane Zwirecki, APR