Image courtesy of Melanie Stevenson
Like many, Melanie Stevenson makes the most of her morning commute. She’s not riding the train, fingers ticking across her iPhone in an effort to get a jump on the busy day ahead of her. She’s not inching along an interstate in her car, taking early meetings via her hands-free device. Melanie uses her half hour walk to the offices of Pencils of Promise, an outstanding educational non-profit, to get centered and energized for the tasks that await her. Armed with an iPod full of “happy music,” Melanie describes her commute as “one of the best parts of my day.” Pencils of Promise (PoP) channels resources to building schools and creating sustainable, long-term educational initiatives in countries such as Nicaragua and Guatemala where a child’s education is often a luxury, not a priority. As COO of PoP, Melanie is working diligently alongside her talented team to reverse that equation. One of the places Melanie looks to for renewed inspiration and motivation is in biographical writing. “John Wood, Audrey Hepburn, Bruce Springsteen, it’s so interesting to see the stages of a person’s life, to see what you can learn from their phases,” says Melanie. “There’s a lot to be learned from people who turned their life into something magical.”
If you could describe yourself in three words, what would those words be?
Idealistic, Playful, Compassionate
Tell us about a girl in your life who rocks.
My girlfriend, Catie, is a girl who rocks. She is equal parts strong & driven and caring & committed. She has career ambition while prioritizing her family first. I always joke that she has an "artichoke heart." Her tough girl exterior can kick butt in the most intimidating meetings and her soft side turns to mush at the sight of her niece, Ava. She represents balance for me and helps me keep my feet on the ground while dreaming big.
What are your dreams/goals/ambitions?
I dream of a world where good news, compassionate media, and positive public commentary are more highly valued than shock value or scare tactics. My goal is to build my skill set and leverage my biggest strengths to create the greatest good. I aim to change the nonprofit landscape so that talented individuals who dedicate their careers to creating good in the world can also do well. Bleeding hearts also want to send their kids to college and maybe, some day, take a vacation.
What are you most proud of?
My sister, Meryl. During her teen and college years I tried to guide her towards some of the biggest life lessons I'd learned, namely: give back and be good to people, kindness and joy are the most valuable currency. Now, she is my sounding board for right and wrong. In college she was a leader at the Center for Community Service and Justice, opting for alternative spring breaks (I went to the Bahamas). She's in graduate school for Social Work. She recently corrected me when I referred to someone as a "homeless person,” stating that I should say "person experiencing homelessness.” Her ability to identify injustice and compassionately support those who have been wronged astounds me every day. I am so lucky to have her.
What piece of advice changed your life?
No one knows the right answer. In fact, there are a million right answers to any question. The trick is to confidently follow what guides you toward your right answer, right now - whether that's faith, trusted advice, sound data, instinct, or a combination of these.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
About a year and a half ago I joined the amazing team at Pencils of Promise. I love every moment of working on this team toward access to quality education for children around the world. The outcomes we're seeing after just 5 years of operations are thrilling (3x higher test scores for children taught by PoP-trained teachers, for example!). What we have planned for the future will tap into the promise of millions of children in the most under-served parts of the world. We'll make it easier and easier for you to positively affect a life around the world. How could I ever leave? I'll be at PoP in 10 years and will feel honored every day to do this work with these people.
What is the number one item on your bucket list?
Be a good mother.
Who has been the biggest female influence in your life and why?
The biggest female influence in my life is Aria Finger. She's the COO of DoSomething.org, where I worked for 4 1/2 years before joining PoP. She's just a complete rock star. She creates clarity out of chaos every single day. Her energy stays at record-breaking highs as she leads a team of 50 toward some of the most ambitious goals out there. Every single day, I find myself thinking about what she would have done or said in challenging situations. I am so grateful to have learned from her.
What is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken and what did you learn from it?
Not entirely sure whether this is a risk, but it felt brave. After my sophomore year of college I felt like life was plunging forward too quickly for me to make real decisions about my future. I had to declare a major. Excel at it. Decide on a career trajectory. Figure out what I wanted to "be." At least, it felt that way in my over-achieving surroundings. As a result, I developed a really unhealthy relationship with exercise and food as a way to exert control over my life.
I found myself unhappy, too thin, and even more unsure of what the future held. I decided to take a semester off of college to get back in touch with myself (and be gentle with myself). I learned that the world will always be rushing forward. To step out of the current and reconnect with yourself is the most important thing you can do to join the forward movement anew in the direction that's right for you.
I graduated on time thanks to extra classes my senior year, studied abroad in Spain, and ended up in the most fulfilling career I could have possibly imagined. Take a break if you need one. You deserve it.
Why are you THAT GIRL?
I've always known that being a woman means I have the chance to achieve, lead and improve the world at the same levels as any other person, man or woman. It just gets to mean something more.
*Interview conducted and compiled by Sheila Moeschen, IATG Senior Editor