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Wednesday, Jun 7, 2023

Compassionate CEO

John Brauer may have found his dream job as the new chief executive at New Horizons, the North Hills nonprofit that helps those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. During his career, Brauer has tried his hands at different businesses, from running a restaurant to managing his father-in-law’s construction business to eventually gaining 28 years of experience in nonprofit management. Brauer started off at UC Berkeley but during his last semester had to put his studies on hold to take over his father-in-laws construction business, from there he later went on to finish his Bachelor and Master’s degree at John F. Kennedy University. His journey into the nonprofit sector began with a nine-month internship during his master’s degree program at Las Trampas in Northern California, where he learned to help adults with developmental disabilities discover their capabilities. Prior to New Horizons, he served as chief executive of Union Station Homeless Services in Pasadena. Prior to that, he worked at NW Works Inc., a Virginia nonprofit serving those with intellectual disabilities. He also ran Community Vocational Enterprises, a nonprofit in San Francisco for the intellectually disabled. Brauer met with the Business Journal in his office at the New Horizons campus to talk about how he decided to switch to a nonprofit career, why he loves his job and the opportunity he sees at New Horizons. Question: How would you describe yourself? Answer: A serial entrepreneur. I started working when I was 15 and worked for a restaurant for many years, did everything from bussing, cooking and waiting tables to eventually managing the restaurant. And I did that while I was in school. Then I opened a dental ad and then got into the construction business and then into non-profits. Why nonprofits? Even though my degree is in clinical psychology, I’ve always been a business guy. I’ve always liked to look at the restaurant business and see not only how do you provide good food and good service, but how do you make the business side of it work? So now taking those same principles and applying them to the non-profit field has been amazing. What motivates you? I’ve always been a people person. Success to me is watching other people succeed. And that’s everything from the clients we serve to the staff to the board but also the community. Can you give an example? I’ve been very lucky in my career. I’ve been president of a chamber of commerce, so I’ve had opportunities to feel like I’ve had a wider impact in the community not only from my job – meaning helping people with disabilities and getting them connected – but just in general being part of a bigger community. And I just love it. I find people fascinating and I love to help, and part of the fun for me everyday is to figure out what the next challenges are. What was your previous job? Last year I had the opportunity to work for a nonprofit here in Southern California called Union Station Homeless Services. It’s amazing, just a great organization. I was only there for a year but it was such a great opportunity for me. Working with folks with disabilities – it’s what I have done for the last 28 years and I’ve just found it’s something I’m good at and I love. Once you start working in the field it kind of gets in your skin and I’ve really missed it so when this opportunity came up to work for New Horizons, I feel really blessed that it was the right timing for them and for me. Title: Chief Executive Organization: New Horizons Born: 1960, Chapel Hill, N.C. Education: University of California – Berkeley; master’s degree in clinical psychology, John F. Kennedy University Career Turning Point: After running a construction company for six years, he decided to return to school and shift into a career where he could make “a difference in the world.” Personal: Married with two adult daughters, lives in Arcadia. Hobbies: Hiking, reading, tennis and travel. What is New Horizons? New Horizons is an organization that works with folks with special needs, with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and that tends to be folks that have autism, Asperger’s, or Down Syndrome. The kinds of services we provide here are anything from classroom-style training to a program that helps people learn to ride the bus. We have a very big work service program and almost 400 people working in the community right now. We want folks to be as community-based as possible, so we try to provide a whole range of services to help folks to live as independently as they can. Why did you take this position? I have been so blessed with two nonprofits where I previously spent a lot of time. They were life changing. I don’t know what to say about it other than it just brought me such joy. I saw both organizations thrive and grow and really become part of the community, so I wanted to really take my time, but I knew I wanted to get back into the disability field just because I missed it. I knew when I interviewed at New Horizons, this is an organization that walks its talk. They’ve really done some spectacular things, so I kind of feel in love with the organization. What are your plans for the campus? We had drawings for a planned expansion that at this point we’re probably going to change. Now we are talking about reimagining the entire 7-acre campus. We want to make sure we are trying to create not just a building but our whole infrastructure on how we can best serve our clientele. We are taking about adding potentially some residential, maybe some retail space. But it’s all to be determined. What do you like about working with the disabled? The first day I showed up (to my nine month internship) by the end of the day I realized that working with folks with disabilities is no different then working with the general population. It’s just some folks have it a little more obvious and by the end of the first day I thought I loved this. My nine months went so fast and I thought at the end, “This was life changing for me. This is what I want to do for a living.” And if I had not had the exposure I wouldn’t know. Are there any other careers you considered? I’ve thought about it and to tell you the truth this is my first love. I’ve been very lucky over my life that I also do things on the side. I teach at Florida State University, I teach budget and finance and personnel management. It’s really fun – a whole other world. I’ve always had something on the side that kind of keeps me going. What was the turning point in your career? I was running this construction company – and mind you I’m not very handy with a hammer, so I really had to learn the construction business from the ground up – and I did that for about six years. My wife and I were on vacation in Florida and we were at Disney World. There is a series of strip malls there and it’s the same thing over and over again. I turned to my wife and said, “This is not what I do for a living and it’s really depressing, I have to do something different.” It’s the only job that I’ve ever had that wasn’t my cup of tea. So that motivated me to go back to school. I thought, “If I’m going to go back to school I want to do something that I can feel like I’ve made a difference in the world.” How has the transition gone in your new job? They have been so welcoming here (at New Horizons) and you can just see the management team and the board of directors, these are rock stars and I feel like I got plopped into a group of rock stars. I’m really excited to be working with them. I’m just excited to roll up my sleeves. There is so much excitement in terms of where we’re heading with this organization. What’s the most important part of your role here? As CEO, it’s setting the tone for the organization. Everybody in this organization is equally important. I don’t care if you’re at the front desk, if you’ve been here for 100 years or you’re a new employee. If you give people a chance to have input and help shape the organization and help to create that as part of the vision, it’s a unique position to be in to be able to listen and to implement ideas. What’s the biggest challenge? I’m the new guy here so the first challenge is getting the community to know who I am. A lot of times people feel like nonprofits are there because they want something. I want to give as much as I get, so I really want to exchange. The challenge is getting to know all the players around here and I’m really excited about learning the business folks here and seeing what their needs are. What are your plans for this organization? I hope to do some mixing and mingling and different community event, certainly would be open to have anybody come tour the campus here. I hope to go out and personally meet local politicians. I just expect to be out there a lot. What is the most rewarding part your job? Seeing the success of people and knowing that we are going to challenge both our own and other people’s expectations. How do businesses fit into New Horizons? Again, I feel very blessed I fell into this field, but I realize if I were running a major company today, if I didn’t have exposure to this business, how would I learn about how cool it is to have people with disabilities on your staff? As you’re growing up and you’re trying to find your way in the world, you try to fit in. And really what I’ve learned from all of this is the things that make us different make us interesting. To have somebody with a disability on your team, it’s just a piece of who they are but it makes it interesting. It changes the workplace a little to broaden your own perspective and your own vision of what somebody could achieve. What is one of your memories at New Horizons so far? I have to say coming on the campus the first day and meeting the clients, it’s just absolutely overwhelming to be in a place where you feel like you’re coming home. I can’t wait to get to know the folks and their stories. I loved meeting some of the folks for the first time. Is there anything you would have done differently in your career? I don’t think so. I feel like everything I’ve done in my career has lead me to where I am today. So even the construction job that I ended up doing for almost six years, it wasn’t my favorite, but I learned so much. What are your hopes for New Horizon? Position ourselves so that we are on the forefront, the cutting edge of what’s possible for folks with disabilities. There’s no reason we can’t do that. I think we have a great team here. We’re very lucky here in Southern California to have a 7-acre campus. It’s amazing looking at new ways to provide for folks and I just think it’s going to be a really exciting time. We have all the ingredients to do something pretty amazing. Who are the people you admire most? When I was younger, going back to college at Berkeley and working in the restaurant business, I met a mentor who was another serial entrepreneur. He had such confidence that I feel like I learned so much from him just about being confident and taking a risk and diving in and doing business. With him I learned you have to take a chance, you have to learn the business side of stuff and then you take a chance. What are your hobbies? I love to hike. I’m an avid tennis player. I read a lot. I have two amazing grown daughters. I’m married so we love to travel together, it’s the way I get everybody back together. If you come into my office, you’ll see a lot of travel posters because I love going to other countries and other states and learning and observing. How long do you plan to stay at New Horizons? I’m 57 and at some point, I’m going to retire. I’ll find something new to do but I’ll tell you I’ll always be on a board or connected to folks with disabilities because it’s just been such a rewarding thing for me personally.

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