Fellows Grad Lori Spicer Robertson Reignites United Way’s Iconic Brand

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“All the women in my family are natural-born leaders,” Lori Spicer Robertson says as she leans forward in her desk chair. “To me, that was the norm – just what you did.”

Robertson’s office in the Highland Heights office building of the United Way of the Mid-South is warm, the windows bright with yellow leaves outside. Robertson, chief communications & engagement officer for the United Way, is describing her circuitous journey back home to Memphis and how she came to her current leadership role.

At the United Way, Robertson is part of a 95-year-old organization committed to building capacity for nonprofits, with focuses in the areas of education, health and financial stability. By pooling resources, the United Way can make a bigger difference – and through a well-crafted vetting process led by teams of volunteers, the organization verifies that contributions are being deployed responsibly.

The White Station High School graduate remembers that, growing up, she always envisioned her future in Washington, D.C. In high school, she was selected for the prestigious Presidential Classroom program, which introduced her to the capital city; she quickly fell in love with “the energy and the people – young, hip, progressive.”

Inspired by female role models – her mother, a three-decade FedEx employee, and an anesthesiologist aunt – Robertson knew she could tackle a challenge. She changed her major relatively late in college at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, from medicine to business management, after realizing that a leadership path was a more natural fit. And after graduate school in public relations at the University of Florida, she took a job with the American Association of Colleges of Nursing in Washington, D.C., her dream city, working in communications.

But what she found was not quite what she had dreamed: “For a person who is very civically and community-focused – someone who wants to get her hands dirty and be involved – you are very far removed from access to change in D.C.”

Robertson moved home in 2007 for what was to be a brief spell, helping to care for ailing grandparents.

“I planned to stay for a year,” she said, “but the Memphis vacuum won me over – and I’ve been here ever since.”

In Memphis, Robertson found access to opportunity – and also the ability to make a measurable change, directly. She was working at the Greater Memphis Chamber – “a great catalyst,” she said, to new connections in the community, along with the Urban League of Young Professionals. And she was serving on seven or more nonprofit boards in her quest to “do more and be more.”

But still, what she craved – what “tugs on my heart,” she said – was “the volunteer space – getting my hands dirty. I can do the policy-making, directive approach, but I’m an action person.”

She set her sights, then, on a career path that would allow her to “pull nonprofits together to advance and accelerate community impact.”

When the United Way job entered her radar screen, Robertson was attempting to scale back some of her plethora of commitments (an event-planning business, a mentoring program, the nonprofit boards, plus her full-time job).

Robertson and her husband – proud residents of Soulsville – had become parents to two boys, and “parenthood changed my perspective.” She had pledged to herself that she would “sit and be still – stick and stay.”

Then came the United Way job offer.

“It’s like the saying, ‘God laughs at your plans,’” she said, with a laugh of her own.

Robertson is finishing her first full year at the United Way.

“Every single thing we’ve done this year has been new,” she said.

Her team is working on a refreshed brand, which will roll out in 2018 as part of the organization’s 95th anniversary. She has been instrumental in developing the platform to promote the new Driving the Dream initiative, along with program director Cecelia Johnson-Powell. The initiative will build an “innovative system of care to address the effects of generational poverty and help people craft – and reach – the life of their dreams.”

She’s also responsible for curating experiences like Driving the Dream Town Hall and a recent evening event called Feast of Dreams, which she describes as “a dinner party meets workshop – a chance to explore local challenges and out-of-the-box solutions.”

“I’ve seen the struggles of people who live in poverty,” Robertson said, “but also how blind others can be – how easy it is to retreat into our own lives and not see poverty head on.”

She mentions that Memphis is the most generous city in the country – but also among the poorest.

“Where are the gaps,” she asked, “and how do we close them?”

She’s leaning into the opportunity of this moment.

“We want people to know about Driving the Dream because we want people to do this work with us. We can’t do it alone.”

Lori Spicer Robertson is a graduate of New Memphis’ Fellows program. Learn more and nominate today atnewmemphis.org/fellows.