Leadership that Leaves a Legacy with Sloane Keane
Change occurs when we consistently show up
Sloane Keane is the CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County and the Inland Empire. Inspired by the change that the organization was creating locally, Keane joined Big Brothers Big Sisters in 2013 and by 2018, she was named CEO. Tune in to hear why Sloane believes that adult mentors can make a difference and what leaders must do to pave the path forward.
“It’s as simple as showing up.”
- How to recognize doors of opportunity and walk through them.
- Don’t let fear stop you from taking a risk for something you believe in.
- Be a leader who looks forward, fostering resiliency and recovery.
Sloane Keane is the CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County and the Inland Empire. Keane first got involved with the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization in 2012 as a mentor to a 9-year-old from Santa Ana named Wendy – an experience that has forever impacted her life. Inspired by the change that the organization was creating locally, Keane joined Big Brothers Big Sisters in 2013 and by 2018, she was named CEO.
Keane is passionate about making long-term, generational impact for as many local youths as possible. She believes that having the consistency, guidance and support of a mentor can make a life-changing difference. With a mentor, children are not only graduating high school, but are becoming the first generation in their family to do so. That is the definition of life changing.
“When I take my last breath, what am I going to be really proud of?”
Hello, I’m Michael Kurland, CEO and Co-Founder of Branded Group, an award-winning national facility service company that services multi-site commercial properties such as retail, restaurants, healthcare facilities, and educational institutions.
Welcome to the BeBetter podcast! Each week, I interview thought leaders from a variety of industries who will share their stories and the lessons they learned as they strive to Be Better for their clients, partners, employees, and their community. Are you ready to Be Better?
Michael Kurland (00:00):
Welcome to another episode of the Be Better podcast. I’m your host, Michael Kurland. Joining me today is Sloane Keane, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County and Inland Empire, California. Sloane, welcome to the show. Please tell the audience a little bit more about yourself and what you do.
Sloane Keane 00:23):
Hi, Michael. Thanks for inviting me. I get the pleasure of leading the largest mentorship organization in the state of California. Big Brothers Big Sisters has been around for over a century. Most people know us in mentorship as the key component for children facing adversity to achieve success in life. We really believe that every child was born with potential. We don’t have to create it. We just get to foster it, support it, and ignite it. That is what all of our mentors do. We serve over 4,000 kids every single year throughout Orange County, Riverside, and San Bernardino, and we do it through caring mentors. Adults who really believe that they can make a difference within their communities, within society, empowering kids and creating equity. One kid at a time.
Michael Kurland (01:18):
That’s amazing stuff. It’s very inspirational, and I appreciate that you have that role and that you’ve taken on that role. Let’s tell the audience a little bit about how you got to where you are now, about your story, and leading up to becoming a CEO.
Sloane Keane (01:35):
This was definitely not a structured plan. I didn’t wake up one day at age six and think, “I’m going to be a leader of advocacy and mentorship and nonprofit.” It actually started quite the contrary. I grew up in Orange County – oldest of three. I’m the only girl. I have two younger brothers. I grew up a girl in a guy’s household with sports and all that fun stuff and from parents who were East Coasters. Very early on, I realized I was going to move to the east coast and take it by storm. I went to school back east and graduated early. I graduated at 21 and moved to New York where that was the beginning. New York City. Orange County girl via east coast university at Penn State and found myself in New York City, which in my opinion, is where I grew up.
I started in marketing and advertising frankly as the entry level sales associate assistant and really got my first taste of mentorship from an adult perspective. My first boss was amazing. He took me everywhere and showed me everything. My career skyrocketed. By 25, I was well on my way. In fact, I was so well on my way that I got recruited back to California to run the marketing department for the Discovery Channel in LA. From there, I spent a couple years and decided that TV was the beginning but not the end of my marketing career. I moved on to advertising in magazines and got into the trade business and trade publications and traveled pretty much everywhere. I traveled out of the country. I traveled internationally. Quite frankly, I was at the pinnacle of my career. I was in my early thirties. I had nothing to hold me back, and I went for it. This is where I suppose I got this crisis of conscious. I was in that movie Up in the Air where I was wining and dining and all of the cool Delta platinum little areas in the airport, drinking champagne and avoiding all the lines. I would come home and then Saturday morning I’d wake up. I had absolutely nothing to do. Absolutely nothing. No kids. No family. No community involvement. I woke up one morning in my early thirties and said, “Okay. This has got to change.” That’s when I moved back to Orange County and got connected with Big Brothers Big Sisters. I met the CEO at the time, and she convinced me to become a mentor. I like to say my career shift or change, or right turn instead of left because it was the right thing for me, really started through the front door.
I started as a mentor and was able to really understand intrinsically the value that one person can make just by showing up. There’s some really cool stories. I speak a lot on this topic because oftentimes people ask me, “What does it take to be a volunteer?” I say, “It’s as simple as showing up.” You’d be surprised in life how often people overestimate the impact you can make if you consistently show up, particularly in a child’s life where consistency is the one thing that they do not have. I know, Michael, that you are potentially on the road to being a Big Brother yourself, and I commend you for doing that. Quite frankly, we have hundreds of youth currently on the wait list, particularly little boys, who are waiting for someone to basically step in and show up.
Michael Kurland (06:04):
Let me pause you there for a second because you covered a lot of ground there, and it was all good information. I want to highlight a few things we talked on the pre-show and yes, I am in the midst of becoming a Big Brother out here in Orange County. We’ll get into that more in a little bit. Let’s talk about when you were a kid and when you had your first mentor. I believe you said it was your first-grade teacher?
Sloane Keane (06:30):
Yes. I fell into that precocious, potentially problem child maybe, category early on when I was in Kindergarten. Thank you for reminding me. It’s interesting how life serves you really mentors, which of course you couldn’t differentiate at the moment. I was very precocious. Very smart and also very hard to handle. Early on in Kindergarten, my Mom would pick me up from school. I remember weeks on end with that red slip of paper that you go home with. “Sloane was in the chair again.” One day, early on, it was probably within the first few months of me being in Kindergarten, the first-grade teacher substitute taught. I remember specifically that day. My Mom picked me up from school and instead of a red slip of paper, she met my mom at the door and said, “I don’t think your daughter is a troublemaker. I think she’s bored. I think she’s smart. She’s teaching the class. I think actually instead of reprimanding her, we should promote her. She should go to first grade and she should be in my class.” I skipped Kindergarten all because of Ms. Neff. I now identified that as an adult and understand the value and the impact that she had in my life.
I graduated from high school at 17 early and on track and a straight A student. To this day, you never know what would happen if the intervention hadn’t happened. I do credit her. Ms. Neff: If you’re out there, if you are hearing this, I credit you for being the first person in my life- first mentor- to put me on my journey to success into leadership.
Michael Kurland (08:29):
Ms. Neff set you up to be the CEO you are today. Thank you so much, Ms. Neff. I also want to touch on something else you said. You did the reference to the Up in the Air movie. If you haven’t seen the movie and you’re a salesperson, watch the movie. I think it’s the most relatable movie to being a traveling salesperson. I also accustomed that to my life. That movie, in prior times, when I was living in New York and even when I first started Branded Group, I was on a plane every day or once a week and couldn’t wait to get to my million-mile mark with Marriott or American Airlines. It’s a very empty life, and you touched on that. I wanted to see if you would be willing to go a little deeper into that. Besides waking up and having nothing to do, what did that lead you to do and aspire you to grow to where you are today?
Sloane Keane (09:33):
It’s interesting because like most of us that achieve success, we’re achievers. You’ve got your blinders on. I’m going to achieve. I think that’s funny that you said you that million-mile mark. In the absence of really anything, you just want to achieve something. I will say, yes, George Clooney’s Up in the Air. Great movie. It really does capture when you’re at the height or the pinnacle of really success, how truly empty it is. [Laughs] You’re choosing yourself on a plane with the flight attendant and that’s kind of your best friend.
Now, in hindsight, to kind of juxtapose my lives, I feel like I’ve lived a few lives at this point. I have two small kids. I wake up on a Saturday morning and I go, “Oh, my gosh. I wish I had a little bit of that self-time.” I think a lot of your listeners can identify. Certainly, COVID has amplified this. If you were pre -family, all of a sudden, you’re in a situation where potentially you’re successful. You’ve had your head down career wise. You’ve climbed the ladder. You are on the way or you are where you want to be. You stop, and you pause. You look around, and you realize, there’s nobody with you.
For me, being a woman in particular, we have this clock that ticks. It starts to tick a little bit louder when you start to hit 30. It ticks real loud at 35. You start to think, “Okay. What is success at the end of the day? When I take my last breath, what am I going to be really proud of? Is it that that million-mile mark? Is it going to be my family? Is it going to be how I invested in the community? Did I leave a legacy? Did I leave this world a better place than how I found it? I think it’s that crisis of conscience moment that people have. You don’t have to decide to chuck your career and go into non-profit. You can have all those things, certainly, by investing in your community and volunteering at large in any capacity. I do think that that’s that moment that you realize that there’s something bigger than you. You have to really ask yourself, “Are you stepping through that door or are you just kind of watching it pass by?”
Michael Kurland (12:22):
I think what you said is really informative. I, too, had that same empty feeling when I woke up. It wasn’t on the weekends, but it was just like, “What am I doing? What legacy am I leaving on this planet?” Cool. I am an Elite Platinum member for Marriott. I’m a whatever for American Airlines. Great. I’m cheers-ing the flight attendant because there’s no one to share it with. That’s when I just started feeling empty. I felt that I had no one to share with. I felt very empty and that’s how we actually started working on the Be Better program, which got us involved with the community out here in Orange County. It’s grown since 2014 all across the country.
I just think that if you are someone out there currently and you are celebrating all these achievements and gaining all these accolades, but you have no one to share it with, you really do need to take a pause and take a step back and see if that’s the life you want to lead. Like you were saying, when you die, are you going to be remembered for being a million-mile club person on Delta?
So take us now…You were feeling empty. You’ve gotten done with your very successful marketing career, and now you become the CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters. Tell that story. That’s a very interesting story of how that happened.
Sloane Keane (13:55):
Life is a series of opportunities. I’m a big fan…Let me wax philosophically for a second. We all are presented with doors. It’s a few of us that stop and linger just long enough to see if that door is cracked. I feel like in life, I have been presented a lot of opportunities. If I have done anything successfully, I think kind of stopping and recognizing, “That is an opportunity. You want to jump for it. You want to roll the dice on.”
I talked about becoming a volunteer. Probably for the first 12 months of my experience, I leaned in. I had gotten another advertising marketing job here in Orange County, and I was, frankly, satisfied. [Laughs] It wasn’t knocking my socks off, but it was achieving what I wanted to do. I wanted to stay local. I wanted to get more connected to my community. I wanted to be consistent, not only with myself but obviously with this new volunteer opportunity. I realized very quickly that they did not have any marketing focus or brand. I thought, “I’ll join that committee.” I realized the world goes round by money. If anybody is sitting on their hands and a lot of money and they don’t know what to do with it, find a cause and invest in it because the world is a better place because of your nonprofit partners who work every day to achieve that.
I stepped in and said, “I’ll help you with some fundraising. I’ll help you with marketing.” That’s my background, sales and marketing. About 18 months in, I found myself in Cabo at a little philanthropic boondoggle that had a couple non-profits that benefited financially. I met the board of Big Brothers Big Sisters. I guess I get to plug the board a little bit here. I’m just so impressed. Amazing people. Successful people. They had done well and now they want to do good, which is grammatically incorrect, but that is the #dogood from a community perspective. They found me. I was on a little bit of tequila on the way home. I had a little bit of a headache from three or four days in Cabo. The board chair with the current CEO, said, “We think should come and run development for us.” I said, “Are you kidding? I know nothing about non-profit. Does it even pay?” [Laughs] A couple of days later, I thought about it. I went in for a more formalized interview. Now almost nine years later, I built a very sustainable and financially solvent organization over the first five years. When I was just about to take a step back, which is sort of how life works, I had a three-year-old and an 18-month-old. For those of you women out there who have two kids under three, you can identify with the juggling act of “what role am I playing today?”
The CEO, who was my friend and my mentor, resigned to me. After realizing that my life is about to change, I said, “Oh, God. You’re resigning to me because you want me to take your role.” She said, “That’s exactly right.” Again, best possible opportunity at the worst possible time. I went home, and I talked to my husband and he said, “Hey. Life is serving you up a real chance here. Do you want to walk through this door? Do you want to leave your own legacy?” The answer is yes. Now, what I didn’t know was 18 months into being a new CEO, a pandemic would hit, and I would have to recreate everything all over again. Again, if there’s anybody listening, and they have been presented an opportunity and you’re fearful or you’re scared. You don’t know how it’s going to turn out. Who cares? You can always go back.
Michael Kurland (18:19):
I totally agree. I think with COVID in general. We were talking about this yesterday with a group of buddies. There’s there is no playbook. There’s no right or wrong. Whatever you did, no one’s going to say, “You did this wrong.” We were talking about what we do, which is a facilities maintenance. We did a bunch of COVID cleanings for a bunch of our clients. They said, “How did you know you were doing it right? “We said, “Because there was no wrong way to do it. We just did it.” We did it and that was good enough. I think that’s great. I love the story of how you fell into it. A little bit of tequila never hurts anybody.
Sloane Keane (19:03):
It sterilizes. It’s great. If you’re worried about germs, just drink a little tequila.
Michael Kurland (19:07):
Just a little tequila. I will tell you my favorite. I was just newly introduced to it. It’s Cincoro. Have you ever tried that one?
Sloane Keane (19:16):
I have not.
Michael Kurland (19:17):
Do you like Clase Azul?
Sloane Keane (19:20):
I do. I do. I do. That was my Cabo introduction to good tequila.
Michael Kurland (19:27):
I will tell you, and audience I will also tell you, Cincoro is a little bit cheaper. It tastes better than Clase Azul. Clase Azul was my go-to. This has nothing to do with Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Sloane Keane (19:41):
I love what you were saying about COVID. Let’s talk about the benefits of COVID. You had a little bit more time. You had a little bit of space to maybe creatively think, go for a walk, digest podcasts like this. My COVID crash, I’m calling it. I really got a chance to walk around my neighborhood, to get some space and air, and to listen to some podcasts. I love the fact that leadership has become on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Before, you would read all these books. “Leaders do this.” What COVID has completely eradicated is that there is no playbook.
Leadership is the heaviest, biggest mantle, and you literally live at one day at a time. One step at a time. There’s a great saying. With every meeting now as we kind of transition into this new phase that nobody has any idea how to do, is we’re not going back. We’re moving forward. I think that’s a really important thing to think about. We’re not going back. The world has changed. Maybe you like a little bit of what changed, and maybe you can’t wait to start seeing people again. We’re not going to go back. We are moving forward. I think that’s a cool way to think about resiliency and recovery and what this next phase is going to look like from an optimistic lens.
Michael Kurland (21:20):
Totally. I’m glad you brought that up. I think it taught me specifically to take the little thing, a little bit of happiness in the little things that you took for granted for so long. Like you said, walking around the neighborhood, I’ve incorporated a daily walk with my dog on two miles. I dive into a podcast or I listen to some music or Audible. I’m really knee-deep in Brene Brown on Audible right now. I’m loving her stuff. It’s taught the leaders what was the most important. You saw the good leaders and you saw the leaders that weren’t so good. The ones that I can tell you survived and thrived during COVID are the ones that put their people first, however it had to be.
At Branded Group, we put our people first. We had to furlough seventy-five percent of our employees, but we let them keep accruing vacation time and keep all their health benefits because our end goal was to bring them back. We brought back, by now, everyone that could come back because some of them moved on and got other jobs. Totally understandable. Now, we’ve hired another 30 people, and we’re, thriving right now. I think if you always have your people and their best interest in your mindset, you’re going to be a great leader. Thank you for touching on that. I didn’t expect to go there, but that’s cool.
One thing we talked about on the pre-show is right now Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County and the Inland Empire, what are you guys facing? I know there’s a big shortage of male volunteers, which I’m trying to help you guys lower by one, at least. Hopefully, this podcast gets out there and all you Orange County and Inland Empire men that are listening. They need your help, but I’ll let Sloane tell you more about that.
Sloane Keane (23:22):
Absolutely. Michael, this is how it works. One conversation at a time. As we’re moving forward, as I clearly established, what we found is unfortunately our marginalized neighborhoods have been disproportionately affected by COVID with the schools closing. A lot of our colleagues, probably, Michael, yours and mine, we were able to work from home. That was a luxury that was allowable. For most of our families working hourly, that’s just not an option. With the schools closing, we’ve seen our high school students have to grow up overnight. They’ve become now caretakers to their family in addition to trying to navigate their own educational career and getting part-time jobs, and disconnection from every single direction. One of the great joys of my life is that we’ve always stood for connection, human connection. and for igniting that potential and really supporting and fostering it, walking alongside it.
If you believed in mentorship pre-COVID, then we really need you now. We’ve got 3x the amount of kids who have been disconnected from school, disconnected from their communities, parents just trying to do the best they can to keep a roof over their head. We’re really moving into third world territory here where we’ve taken a major step back into just basic needs. Mentors right now are necessary and critical to take us really to the next phase and resilience and healing for a lot of our youth. We need you. I need a few good men, so I need a lot of Michaels. Whether you live in Orange County, Riverside, or San Bernardino, we want to meet you. We want to talk to you. Come and kick our tires. We’re going to interview you. We’re going to talk to you. We’re going to see why you’re interested in us and see if it’s a good fit to see if down the line you would be a great mentor to one of our kids that desperately needs a role model to walk alongside them. The best way to do that is to jump on your smartphone, your computer, the thing we have in front of us all the time and go to iebigs.org or ocbigs.org and hit that that volunteer button. Come and schedule a meeting to come and sit down and talk to us. That would be my greatest joy if I was able to get a few volunteers from this opportunity.
Michael Kurland (26:19):
I’m sure you will. For the audience’s benefit, and COVID, which we just talked about, how is that working currently for volunteers and Bigs and Littles?
Sloane Keane (26:32):
We’re at a really great moment because for the last year and a half, we really have been making virtual friendships. As the world starts to kind of regain its feet again, we are now offering in-person options as well. We really get to meet you, our new potential volunteer, kind of where you are. If you’re comfortable with coming in and meeting face-to-face and starting to look at the world in this new format with vaccinations and everyone getting back to in-person contact, then we’ve got a program for you. If you’re hanging back a little bit and you just really prefer the virtual route, we also have that opportunity as well. We really have something for everybody. There’s no reason for you not to reach out and talk to us.
Michael Kurland (27:22):
I am looking forward to it. Like we talked about before the show today, I have my interview on Monday. I hope I am able to pass that interview. [Laughs] I got my fingers crossed because I’m looking forward to making a good impression on a little mentee’s life. I know I’ve had my mentors growing up, even when I was starting Branded Group. I look forward to being able to possibly give back.
Sloane, it’s been great having you on the show. If the audience wants to get ahold of you, how can they do so?
Sloane Keane (27:59):
Michael Kurland (28:15):
Great. Again, Sloane, thanks for coming on. Audience, until next time.
Thank you for tuning in! I hope that today’s episode inspired you to become a purpose-driven leader in your career or your community. There is no doubt that when we lead with purpose, we can change lives. If you enjoyed today’s show, I’d be grateful if you would take a moment to rate us on your preferred listening platform.
To learn more about California-based facilities maintenance company Branded Group’s “Be Better” experience and how we provide industry-leading on-demand facility maintenance, construction management, and special project implementation, visit us at www.branded-group.com. Be sure to follow us on social media and you can also reach out to me directly on LinkedIn. Until next time, Be Better.