Council Profiles

Leading With Purpose: How Amy Nelson, CEO of ‘Venture for America,’ Stays Connected to Her Work

January 29, 2020
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Leading With Purpose: How Amy Nelson, CEO of ‘Venture for America,’ Stays Connected to Her Work
Amy Nelson isn't just putting purpose into action — she's devoting her life to helping so many others do the same.

Ahead of Summit West 2020, NationSwell is profiling leaders and luminaries from a diverse array of fields to discover how they lead with purpose and inspire others to do the same.

As CEO of Venture for America, an organization that empowers the next generation of our nation’s socially minded business leaders, Amy Nelson knows that walking the path of entrepreneurship will help new opportunities flourish around you. But she also knows that, traditionally, there hasn’t been a clear path towards becoming an entrepreneur. Nelson and Venture for America have changed that through their commitment to equipping business-minded youth with the skills they need to succeed in an ever-changing economy. Nelson and VfA’s impact is staggering: The 129 fellow-founded start-ups have created over 360 jobs and employment opportunities in cities that stand to benefit greatly from them.

NationSwell recently connected with Nelson by email to ask her three quick questions about how putting purpose into action has made a meaningful difference. Here’s what she had to say.

NationSwell: Can you tell us about a time in your professional or personal life that you made a difference by putting purpose into action?

Amy Nelson: Most of the work I have done has been in education or leadership development; so the most impactful results are years in the making. I’m in a space now where I have mentored or coached hundreds of young entrepreneurs, and seeing many of their businesses flourishing is hugely gratifying. For me, there is nothing better than receiving a heartfelt thank you note from someone whom you worked with in the past. A nonprofit I’ve been advising for awhile wrote to me, “I smile when I think back on those conference calls we had when Bench Mark Program was just beginning. Your advice meant the world to me, and I am so incredibly proud of you for rising to the role of CEO at Venture For America. I know that now so many others are benefitting from your insight and advice.”

I have really made a point of carving out time to stay close to the work and the individuals we support even as I’ve become CEO so that I can maintain that connection. Yes, it helps me be a better leader, fundraiser and ambassador for the organizations — but it also just feeds me personally and allows me to stay in the work.

“We need to understand that purpose-driven work is a marathon and not a sprint — building coalitions and social change takes time, and there will be setbacks. Accepting that … is absolutely key.” – Amy Nelson

NationSwell: What advice do you have for others on how they can better act with a clear sense of purpose?

Nelson: There is no shortage of worthy causes to get behind, which can be overwhelming. Add to that the relentless barrage of the 24 hour news cycle, and it’s easy to feel discouraged. I think it’s critical to really zero in on and deeply understand your own unique abilities and how they can help move us forward, and then line that up with your sphere of influence. We might not all be addressing the same issues or operating at the same scale, but everyone can be a part of this work. At the same time, we need to understand that purpose-driven work is a marathon and not a sprint — building coalitions and social change takes time, and there will be setbacks. Accepting that, and finding space for rest and reflection, is absolutely key.

NationSwell: Who are others leaders or luminaries who inspire you to act and lead with purpose, and why?

Nelson: Reading Jacqueline Novogratz’s The Blue Sweater when I was an early career professional inspired me to return to school to get my MBA so that I could better apply business skills and free market tactics to purpose-driven work. She remains a huge inspiration for me.

More recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Equal Justice Initiative’s Museum and Memorial in Montgomery, AL and left absolutely floored by the leadership of Bryan Stevenson. He manages to put his whole being into the work of racial justice while maintaining tremendous humility and groundedness. He sets a high bar for all of us.

The job of CEO, even in a smaller organization, can be quite isolating. NationSwell has introduced me to a community of peers across multiple landscapes that has been incredibly valuable, both for building community and gaining perspective on different areas of work.


Amy Nelson is a member of the NationSwell Council. To find out more about the NationSwell Council, visit our digital hub. And to learn more about Summit West 2020, visit our event splash page
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