Wendy Guillies spent more than a decade leading and growing a number of Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation initiatives aimed at accelerating entrepreneurship in Kansas City and across the nation. In June, after 15 years with the Kansas City-based organization, Guillies was named its president and chief executive officer. She had served as the foundation’s acting leader since the previous July.
Guillies, who on Wednesday will deliver the foundation’s annual State of Entrepreneurship Address, now helms an organization with an asset base of about $2 billion and a dual mission focused on education and entrepreneurship. Established in the 1960s by the late Ewing Marion Kauffman, the founder of Marion Laboratories and original owner of the Kansas City Royals, the foundation today oversees programs and initiatives including the Kauffman School, Kauffman Scholars, Global Entrepreneurship Week and 1 Million Cups.
Missouri Business Alert caught up with Guillies during Global Entrepreneurship Week in late 2015 to discuss future goals and a new strategic plan at the foundation.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Missouri Business Alert: How have the first months of the permanent role been for you?
Wendy Guillies: They’ve been terrific. I’ve been here for 15 years, so I’ve known the team for a while and had the benefit of being in the interim role, or the acting role, for almost a year. So we had a good deal of work that we got done during that time. I really spent the summer focusing on what my priorities are and working on building the team. We had some senior leaders, some open positions we needed to fill, so that’s been a really big focus of my few months.
What are your priorities for the short and long term?
In terms of what my role is, my priorities are to make sure that we have the right people here to execute on the foundation’s strategy, and then to help create the conditions in the organization that allow us to be successful in what we are trying to do. So making sure that we’ve got a good communication throughout the building, that we don’t have silos, that we are collaborative, that we know how to measure our work and impact, and that we have a really healthy culture – those are my focuses.
In terms of what the foundation is trying to achieve, we are embarking on a long-term, 10-year strategic plan that we started in 2014.
But let me back up. It all starts with Mr. Kauffman, and we are working really through his legacy and his mission, which is to foster economic independence. He wanted people to have the resources and education to make choices in their life rather than life making choices for them. We do that through an education focus in Kansas City and through an entrepreneurship focus that is nationwide.
Within our education work, we are really trying to get as many students as we can, particularly those who come from low-income or disadvantaged backgrounds, to get into college and through college, so they have a much better chance of having a productive, successful life after school. We do that in a number of different ways: we focus on quality schools, investing in good schools; we focus on the human capital in those schools, the teachers and leaders; we have a large post-secondary program that we are pursuing; and we are now starting to get into pre-K and what can we do in the pre-K space. It’s really a pre-K-through-college, comprehensive strategy.
In entrepreneurship, it is really enabling as many entrepreneurs as we can to know how to access the resources that can help them become more successful. We offer some of our own programs, and we invest in other organizations that are helping entrepreneurs overcome the challenges that come about in starting and growing a business.
How does financial planning work at the foundation, given that you are invested in so many different initiatives?
We have about $2 billion in our endowment. We are required to spend 5 percent of that every year. So that translates into $105 million, and that’s both wages of the staff here as well as the grants we make. By and large, we give grants to non-profit organizations that are carrying out the work in pursuit of our strategies.
How do you pick those organizations?
We definitely take a good look at the capacity of the organization to scale — we want them to try to reach more people. We just announced almost $4 million in grants recently to eight organizations across the country to help them reach more entrepreneurs in terms of what they do. One example is a group out of Massachusetts that works in low- and modest-income communities with small business owners to help them with some of the challenges they face. And with our grant, they can actually reach more communities, so it helps them expand their operations. Our goal is to reach more entrepreneurs than we currently are, so how can we work with organizations to do that?
You’ve been here for more than a decade now. How has the Kauffman Foundation changed since you started?
How about some of the things that don’t change? Our mission is the same. Our focus and commitment to Kansas City is the same. What’s different is that we are moving away from trying to invent our own programs, and (instead) trying to invest in other programs in the community. I think we are working to be more collaborative, having more partners.
For example, we have a program called Kauffman Scholars, which is a really wonderful scholarship program for students in the inner city to go to college and get through college. We are already thinking about what the next generation of a program like that might be. It would be one that, obviously, we would be a lead funder of and contribute to, but we are working in the planning stages with key stakeholders in the community to help design what that program is.
That’s the kind of the model that we are using (going) forward. We are taking a humble approach that we don’t have all the answers and we really value input from other people, not just other funding but other ideas and other input.
As a Kansas City native, what do you think the foundation means to this city?
Well, I am probably biased, but I think it’s a huge impact over the years. And not just the foundation but the man, Mr. Kauffman, and his wife, Mrs. Kauffman. His legacy is carried out here. You’ve got Kauffman Stadium. You have the Royals. You have the beautiful and important Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. That would not have happened without Mr. and Mrs. Kauffman, so it goes well beyond this foundation.
I think that we are changing people’s lives. We hear often from a child or a student who’s in Project Choice, which is one of Mr. Kauffman’s first programs: “I’m a doctor now, and I am impacting lives. I couldn’t have done it without Mr. Kauffman’s support and belief in me.” So that’s amazing, when things like that happen.
Did you have the opportunity to get to know Mr. Kauffman?
No. He died in 1993. I had just moved to Kansas City, and I didn’t have the opportunity to know him. But he left us with a gift — many gifts, actually. But he went on videotape before he died, and he talked about his wishes for the foundation, so we have that to remind ourselves what he was about and what he wanted. And there was a book written about him. Through quotes and videos that I’ve seen of him, I feel like I know him as well as I could without really knowing him.
What’s ahead for the Kauffman Foundation?
We are setting out to build on the impact that we’ve had at the foundation for the last couple of years and trying to help as many students in the Kansas City area to graduate from high school and college, so they can have a productive and self-sufficient life.
In entrepreneurship, we want to help as many entrepreneurs as we can — not just in Kansas City, but across the state in Missouri and across the nation — to have more success in terms of them starting and growing their firms.
As a female leader of such an important institution, have you seen any improvements in women’s entrepreneurial activity in Missouri?
It’s an incredibly important topic. The good news is that there is a lot of momentum and conversation about that now. And women start businesses — not quite at the rate of their male counterparts — but what’s actually more concerning is that they don’t grow them as quickly or as large as their male counterparts. And that’s something I know there are a lot of organizations out there trying to address. We’ve done some research on that, and we are looking at ways we can try to help that through some of our financial support.