By Bridgett Harris
Helping others has always been a powerful motivator for Adah Rodriguez — and that drive has led her to mission-based nonprofits.
A Colorado native, Rodriguez grew up in the small town of Gardner, between the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the Wet Mountains. She says the strong sense of community she experienced there impacts her work to this day.
“It definitely made me who I am,” she said, “so it’s no surprise that everything I’ve done since I graduated college has been in the nonprofit sector.”
Rodriguez started in the pre-med program at Colorado College, switching to psychology after her first semester. She graduated with a bachelor’s in psychology and her first jobs in the nonprofit sector were at a local youth residential facility followed by a domestic violence shelter. She waited tables at the same time, saving for a trip to South America.
Her original plan was just to travel — but soon she wanted to do more with her trip. She spent six months volunteering at an orphanage in Santiago, Chile, and got a taste for making an impact.
“One small change can make a huge difference,” she said. “I saw that while volunteering in South America and I see it in all my work today. You can’t take one small act for granted.”
Rodriguez takes those values into her work at the Better Business Bureau of Southern Colorado. She spoke with the Business Journal about what it means to help others, and the importance of building and maintaining trust.
Tell us about your professional background.
After I spent time volunteering in South America, I returned to Colorado Springs and began working at AspenPointe in the youth and education program. I spent eight years there and ended up as the director of education and youth services.
While I was there, I was able to develop, manage and create programs using social enterprise models. That entails merging mission and margin and running programs using a business model to work towards self-sufficiency. In that role is where I found that I really was a social entrepreneur at heart and really believed in the idea of business creating a positive impact.
After that, I also worked with youth experiencing homelessness for several years while living in Portland, Oregon. It was a nonprofit organization that operated following a business model that made them very self-sufficient. I learned a lot about how successful mission-based programs can be when they generate their own revenue.
Why did you make the move to the Better Business Bureau?
When we moved back to Colorado, I initially wanted to work with young people once more, but it was difficult to find the right role. Instead, I began working for Peak Vista [Community Health Centers], where I got to be the director of the women’s health clinic there for three years. Peak Vista has an amazing mission and they do so much with the community, but I realized pretty quickly that health care was not where I wanted to be. So much is driven by insurance and I wasn’t able to connect with community leaders or do much program development.
When Jonathan Liebert, the CEO and executive director at the BBB, reached out, the timing worked out really well. He had worked with me for eight years at AspenPointe and I respected him as a leader, and I trusted him when he said that he knew the new role would be a good fit for me.
What’s your role at the BBB?
I’m the vice president of development and operations. I oversee all of the core services that the BBB provides to the community. That includes dispute resolution, consumer and community education, fraud protection, business investigations, accreditation processes and all of the daily operations of the BBB. I also get to work with program development and any new types of services or programs that we want to offer.
What is the BBB’s purpose and why is it important to the community?
The BBB aims to build marketplace trust — that’s probably my favorite comment that I like to make because it really is about building that trust. The organization does that through offering free services to consumers on the website about businesses, as well as fraud and scam protection. We help build trust by supporting businesses and helping identify those that are doing great things in the community — and those that aren’t doing such great things. It is incredibly important for a business community to have trust. Without it, opportunities to grow and collaborate as an economy are lost.
What do you wish more people knew about the BBB?
I would say two things. One is that I wish that more people understood that the organization is more than just a seal. I think some people look at the BBB seal and they just think it’s a membership organization. It’s really important for people to know that businesses work very hard to obtain and maintain that seal. We complete investigations, we do a lot of legwork and we work closely with businesses to really ensure that they are upholding that seal of trust.
From a consumer perspective, I wish that people knew more about the core services we offer. Part of it is submitting a dispute for review, but on the positive side, there is also the ability to submit a positive review on businesses that were doing well in the community. I think all of our core services are such a huge value to consumers and it’s important to remind people that this free service exists.
What is the BBB doing to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic?
We’re still processing complaints, reviews and investigations and focusing on any complaints that are COVID-19-related. Unfortunately, we have gotten a lot of scam alerts and we have been trying to push out scam prevention information to help support those consumers that are being impacted by businesses that are not making ethical choices during these times.
On the business side, we’re really trying to act as a resource navigator for our accredited businesses and even those that aren’t accredited. That includes getting them lists of resources and other information to help them find information on what they can do as a small business to, hopefully, bounce back from this.
Has social distancing had an impact?
That is not that difficult for us. We’re a website company, so we don’t have walk-ins and our phones are still open. Anybody can call in and we’ll respond to them and we are still processing everything else the same. It has been a shift for sure to have everyone working remotely, but it has not been as challenging for us as an organization compared to others.
What has this situation highlighted for you with regard to leadership?
This situation is a good reminder about how important it is to be flexible when you’re a leader. Whether that is flexibility in how you manage your team or flexibility in how you plan.
It’s also a reminder of just how important collaboration is. There has been a ton of collaboration and rallying to support the business community and that’s been really encouraging to see.
You also hold a position at the Colorado Institute for Social Impact. Tell us about that.
The BBB and the Colorado Institute for Social Impact are both underneath Jonathan Liebert as the CEO. When I was hired at the BBB, I was also being given the opportunity to work with CI4SI as the VP of development and operations.
It’s a very small organization that focuses on accelerating the fourth sector of the economy — merging mission and margin and profit and purpose.
So you serve in two VP roles?
Yes. I would say that probably 90 percent of my job is with the BBB, but with CI4SI there are occasional opportunities —whether it’s teaching a class or a community presentation or helping with various things — that I get to be involved in. It’s a really exciting organization.
Which accomplishments in your current role are you really excited about?
One big accomplishment is just being able to jump in and really learn the operations of the Better Business Bureau. It is an international brand and so there are a lot of guidelines and processes you have to follow, and you have to understand and know at a local level. I was told it would take a long time to truly learn this job, so that is huge.
One of my own more personal accomplishments has been building a strong team. In the last year, I have really been able to build a super collaborative, strong, core team that I supervise. That makes a huge difference in being able to run a department successfully. When you have good people on your team and you work together, you’re just a lot more successful.
How would you describe your leadership philosophy?
I lead with humility and passion and I believe strongly in collaboration. Working together with other community leaders, my team and my colleagues is super important in building those relationships. You can’t really accomplish much by yourself as a leader.
It is also important to lead by example and with integrity. I don’t do a whole lot of coaching and directly telling people what they should be doing. Instead, I try to model good leadership. To be a good leader in whatever it is that you do, you have to do it first and show the way.
What other leadership advice would you give?
It’s really important for people to get out in the world and make themselves vulnerable. Whether that’s traveling, volunteering, adopting a rescue pet, fostering a child or serving in some other way, these are the situations that make you vulnerable, challenge you to learn and make you realize that you can make a huge impact.
I’m also reading a book right now called Start With Why by Simon Sinek. It’s a great book because it talks about how important it is to find your ‘why’ in life. That is another good piece of advice that I would offer. Think about the impact you want to make and what is driving you to do it — find your ‘why.’