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Tuesday, Dec 6, 2022
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Heart of the Valley

Jan Sobel, chief executive of the Boys & Girls Club of the West Valley, recently announced her plans to retire in December after more than three decades of nonprofit management. The self-proclaimed “Valley girl” was born and raised in Van Nuys; after graduating from Van Nuys High School, she earned a dual degree in political science and sociology from California State University in Northridge and went on to complete the U.S. Chamber’s Institute for Organization Management program at Stanford University. Her career in nonprofit leadership began in 1987 as chief executive at the Encino Chamber of Commerce, where she boosted membership from 200 to 750 in less than 10 years. She then led the Carlsbad Chamber in San Diego County from 1996 until 2004; under her direction, the organization doubled its budget and grew membership more than 50 percent. For a few years, she worked as a consultant for nonprofits until taking the reins at the Boys & Girls Club in 2006. She was named the San Fernando Valley Business Journal’s Best Not-For-Profit CEO in 2010 and Assemblyman Matt Dababneh’s Woman of the Year in 2015. Title: President and Chief Executive Organization: Boys & Girls Club of the West Valley Born: Van Nuys Education: Bachelor’s degree of sociology and political science, California State University Northridge; Certificate in Nonprofit Management, Stanford University Career Turning Point: Hired as president of the Encino Chamber of Commerce in 1987 Most Influential People: “All the business and civic leaders that I have met in my career.” Personal: Lives in Woodland Hills; mother of two adult sons; six grandchildren. Hobbies: Gardening, walking, needlepoint, attending grandkids sporting events. “I look forward to new hobbies once I retire.” Question: How did you end up at the Boys & Girls Club? Answer: I was still living in Carlsbad in 2004 when I became a grandmother. My kids live here in the Valley, and I decided that life’s too short not to spend it with my grandchildren, so I came back and worked as a consultant for different non-profit organizations. And then in 2006 I was approached by the Boys & Girls Club because apparently I had a reputation for turning organizations around. They came to me because the club was in financial straits, didn’t have much of a board and had just really fallen on hard times. What was the club like when you arrived? The first time I opened a bill here in October 2006, the bill from the Department of Water and Power was pink. I had never seen a pink DWP bill, but I realized after looking at it they were about to shut the electricity off. That’s what a pink bill means. That always struck me as a good illustration of how the organization was going: It couldn’t afford to pay the DWP bill. We had six board members and one location – this one here in Canoga Park. And as a former mortuary… This was a mortuary? Yup. And when I came in, there were holes in the ceilings, so we couldn’t use the whole building. It had old chandeliers, scant carpet, just two small bathrooms. … It was pretty disgusting. So I called my friends and associates from my Encino Chamber days, and said would you join our board, we could really use your help. (That’s how) we got some people to help with our marketing. How about the membership? The thing you learn about running organizations is that people leave when it’s not successful. They come back when it is. So our goal was to change the perception of our organization. With the help of those people (Encino connections), we were able to get more community leaders to serve on our board, which gave us more money, which gave us a higher profile. … With success comes success – everyone wants to be part of a winner. When did you upgrade the offices? In 2007, one of our board members who was a producer with Home and Garden Television helped us hook up with HGTV and they did a remake of our building. We had no heating and no air conditioning. We had no floors. We had concrete in the sanctuary, which is now our basketball court. So they came in and put in about $200,000 into the building itself – heating, air conditioning, flooring, lighting, painting, patching all the holes in the ceilings and all of that. So it changed the whole atmosphere of how people perceived us. What did you learn from this turnaround? It wasn’t just me. And that’s the key. It was everybody. I was the catalyst for bringing in those people who could see there was a future for the organization, but it took a village to change the attitude and to change how we were perceived and how we were looked upon. Then all of the sudden corporations say “Oh, hey, we believe in what you do.” Then with the help of the Los Angeles Unified School District, we started to add locations at school sites, and then we started our College Bound program five years ago. So the club started to grow with members and support from the community. Is this the same formula that worked at the Encino and Carlsbad chambers? Yes. It’s hard work; picking the right board members and the right staff, going out and communicating with the community. Those are the things that help organizations grow. What else made revitalizing the West Valley Boys & Girls Club challenging? One is that we’re in the west Valley, so (people say), “Where’s the poverty? Where’s the need?” In somewhere like Pacoima or East L.A., there’s a different feeling. But people wonder how we could need a program like the Boys & Girls Club here in the Valley. They don’t realize how many of our families here live below the poverty level. There’s a silent need among the working poor for a place where their kids can go after school, because if they don’t have somewhere for the kids to go, then they can’t work. Communicating that message was very important for us. How is growing a nonprofit different from growing a Chamber? Well, chambers of commerce are made up of businesspeople. They want to expand and grow their businesses, and they want to know how the organization can help them. That’s different from the Boys & Girls Club in the sense that it’s the parents and the kids who need the support, so you have to find that through people who care about children, who care about their futures and their education, who care about them getting out of poverty. There’s a different mindset. What are your observations on the state of chambers in general? Chambers are still very relevant, as they help build the business community. I do think things have changed. Back in Carlsbad, the chamber was a political force. The city was run by three entities: The local government, the homeowners and the chamber of commerce, which represents business. They worked together to promote the wellbeing of the community. So when the city wanted to ban drive-through restaurants, for example, the chamber brought together the Taco Bells and In-N-Outs and the rest of the drive-throughs to go before the City Council as a group. We also brought in others who would have been really inconvenienced by the ban, like moms and the disabled and senior citizens. We as an organization were able to bring them all together, march into the City Council and speak our peace. These days, especially in a city like Los Angeles, (chambers) don’t have as much say in the political policy-making. They take on a different purpose, like networking. How does that relate to the business climate here? California has always been the toughest state in the union to run a business. They make it really hard, whether it’s regulations or work environment. California is one of only three states that has an eight-hour overtime rule – the other 47 have a 40-hour overtime rule. That’s something we’ve always wanted to change, because it’s really, really hard to run a business when you can’t be flexible for your employees or for your business. And what’s even more frustrating is that we have the strongest workforce here. We have the brightest educators, the brightest college graduates. It’s confounding that the state makes it so hard to run a business despite the fact that we have this great workforce, not to mention all the energy that comes with having the sixth-largest economy in the world. Why is it so challenging to mobilize the business community to take political action? They have to let the legislators know the impact of the decisions that are made – but that can be problematic because, frankly, I’m not sure legislators understand. Things might be different if lawmakers knew what it was like to sign the front of a paycheck instead of the back. When you’ve never signed a check for someone who works for you, you don’t really know the challenges of running a business on a day-to-day basis. How do business regulations impact a nonprofit like the Boys & Girls Club? We run a business here at the Boys & Girls Club. I have payroll, I have insurance, I have workers’ comp, I have overhead. … I have everything that the guy who’s for-profit has, except we don’t make a profit. When minimum wage gets to $15 an hour, it will cost us as an organization a half a million dollars more a year. That’s another half a million dollars I have to raise. Right now our parents pay $35 a year for membership. I can’t say OK, now you’re going to have to pay $100 a year, because our parents can’t afford it. So since I can’t pass that expense on to the parent, we have to go to the community to raise the funds to keep paying for things like our College Bound program and our music program and our STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program. If I’m McDonald’s, I can make up for the cost by adding a quarter to my burger and no one will complain. It doesn’t work that way for us. Does the Club receive any funding from the state or federal government? We as an organization don’t receive government money. No one from the government hands us a check and says, “Here, run your programs.” We have to raise that $1.8 million ourselves. I wake up every year on January 1 and think to myself, “$1.8 million dollars? I have to do it again?” What about lowering your budget? I don’t want to have to tell a parent, “I’m sorry, but to keep the ratio of staff to students what it needs to be to run our program, I can’t accept your child.” That becomes the frustration and the dilemma that nonprofits have: Keeping up their services as expenses are going up. Where is that extra money going to come from? We become dependent on the community, and when the community is spending more money to run their businesses, they have less to give. Do you feel nonprofits are left out of conversations about business regulations? Yes. And again, I’m not sure legislators would listen. It’s not that I don’t want minimum wage raised. I want our parents to make more money. But consider what that means to us. Some organizations can charge $300 a month for after-school programs. What happens when you can’t afford that for your family? That’s where the Boys & Girls Club steps in. That’s why we exist. We are here for those who need us the most, and that’s often those who are underserved and underprivileged. What’s your proudest accomplishment at the Boys & Girls Club? Obviously, one of my proudest accomplishments is the fact that we took a very struggling organization and built it into the success it is today. I’m most proud of our growth in the sense that we’ve shown the community that we have a strong place here and that we care about what we do. If you come here in the afternoon, you’ll see our kids laughing and working on homework and going to their STEM program and music class, things they might not get at home. But most importantly, when the day is done and their parents pick them up, they can go home and be a family. The parents don’t have to deal with the stress of forcing their kids to do homework – homework they might not be able to understand anyway. Seventy percent of our families are Hispanic, and many of the parents don’t speak English. So who’s going to help them read? Who’s going to help them with math? We fill a niche, in my opinion, that most people don’t think about. How do you define success? I think personal success, for me, is being able to bring a community together through hard work, passion and belief in the mission. And finally, the question everyone wants to ask: What’s next for you? I know that I would like to travel. I haven’t really had the opportunity – I’ve been working for 50 years straight, minus the six weeks I took off to have each of my two sons. I also want to take a noon yoga class on Thursdays. And I have six grandchildren now, so I want to spend more time with them and help my kids out. What about involvement in the community? I hope to be more involved in public policy – that’s really my world, I love public policy. Maybe I’ll get a part-time job working for an elected official – I don’t really know! But I do know that I’ll find something that will fulfill my life, whatever that may be. I just don’t know what it is yet.

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