Luana Vaetoe of Santa Rosa’s Becoming Independent wins North Bay Women in Business award

Luana Vaetoe

Chief Executive Officer

Becoming Independent

1425 Corporate Center Parkway, Santa Rosa 95407


Luana Vaetoe says revenue diversification is her organization’s biggest challenge. She is a 2020 North Bay Business Journal Women in Business Awards winner.

Education: Bachelor of Arts in Communications, Southern New Hampshire University; graduate of the University of Delaware’s National Leadership Institute on Developmental Disabilities

Staff: 240

Tell us about yourself and your company: Becoming Independent is a social impact organization founded in Sonoma County three years ago by a group of parents seeking community options and alternatives to institutionalization for their adult children with disabilities. Today we serve over 1,000 individuals supported by 240 dedicated staff with an annual operating budget of $14 million.

I am of Samoan and German descent and a Niner faithful through and through!

I am a proud mom of three children and married my high school sweetheart 21 years ago! Our oldest son is stationed at Travis Airforce Base and our two youngest attend Hidden Valley Elementary.

Is there a major accomplishment in the past year or so that you would like to share?

We like to believe that we are good at embracing change at Becoming Independent, and like every other business navigating the Spring of 2020, our assumptions were put to the test.

Happily, the adaptive skills that we’d developed were tested and proven to be strong as we responded to the need to deliver services in entirely new ways due to the pandemic and the associated shelter-in-place orders.

By quickly implementing recommended personal safety protocols for staff and individuals served at the outset of the shelter-in-place order, there has been no disruption to the BI services that allow people to live independently in homes of their own.

Because of these supports close to 200 people, many of whom have significant underlying health issues, have been able to avoid placing additional burdens on community resources such as hospitals and skilled nursing facilities.

BI’s Employment Services have also continued uninterrupted, allowing those who work in critical industries such as grocery to receive the support they require in order to successfully navigate safety protocols and succeed in their jobs.

In addition, throughout the shelter-in-place we have continued to serve hundreds of people by pivoting from in-person services to a virtual Day Program.

By June, we had already provided approximately 340 events that allowed the people we serve to remain engaged and active in their communities and social circles. A robust array of events are being provided, including everything from book clubs to cooking classes to virtual dance parties.

At the same time, mindful of the need to be prepared for our future, we have continued to provide professional development opportunities for our staff, who have completed over a 1,000 hours of training, and counting.

What is the achievement you are most proud of?

During my time as Becoming Independent’s CEO, I’m most proud of leading a team that has launched new and creative approaches that will enable the agency to effectively address the needs of an underserved and often overlooked population - adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

To a large extent, our efforts have revolved around the need to diversify and increase revenue streams. This pivot is big, and has required a major shift in mindset and approach.

First, we had to recognize that our heavy reliance on governmental revenue had to be significantly supplemented with private sector contributions as well as revenue that we ourselves generate through social enterprises.

As we embraced the notion of far greater economic self-reliance, allies rallied and we discovered that we could, in fact, play a far stronger role in fueling our vision for services.

Thanks to investments from local foundations, businesses, and individuals, in 2015 we launched a specialized program targeted specifically to ensuring that adults on the autism spectrum develop the social and vocational skills required to be engaged and productive citizens.

Inspired by this success, we then went on to significantly expand a modest social enterprise - drop off document shredding - and turned it into a game changing Social Enterprise Division.

Today, BI’s Social Enterprise Division continues to grow and flourish, creating job training and employment opportunities where people with disabilities work shoulder-to-shoulder with other community members while gaining valuable experience, income, and skills.

Meanwhile, BI’s social enterprises are expanding visibility for the agency and, most importantly, and the people we support. As we continue to grow enterprises that meet unmet business needs in the community, we are simultaneously generating stable sources of earned income to underwrite BI’s programs.

What is your biggest challenge today?

Revenue diversification was our biggest challenge pre-pandemic, and the urgency is now amplified due to the pandemic’s unprecedented negative impact on state finances.

Though we won’t know the full financial consequences for BI until the state releases its revised budget, there is no doubt that the agency will face diminished state funding to support our services.

It is incumbent upon us to continue to advance social enterprises that provide inclusive opportunities for people with disabilities to engage, grow, and work, while also fueling services with earned revenue. A bold and ambitious new social enterprise that can effectively address both of these urgent needs is underway.

We are particularly motivated by this new enterprise, as we believe that successful implementation can effectively address another challenge that BI - and all nonprofits - face. Rather than focusing on charity, we are determined to be a strategic business partner whose work fuels effective social impact.

Words that best describe you: I’ve been described by others as confident, courageous and inspiring.

In what ways have the pandemic and the shelter-in-place orders changed who you are as a person that will be a part of you long after the pandemic has passed?

The pandemic and the shelter-in-place orders have convinced me that change is the only certainty, and that our response proves the depth of our strength and resiliency. I’ve come to see that despite the very real pain that hardships present, they bring with them unanticipated and very meaningful gifts.

For me, these gifts have included supporting my children in their educational journey more intimately and learning to stock my parental toolbox with more and better ways for me to facilitate their growth.

I’ve also gained a greater appreciation of the incredible natural beauty that surrounds us in Sonoma County, and how easily we are able to access it.

In my professional life, I’ve grown to more deeply appreciate the commitment our staff has made to support the full well-being of people with disabilities. Both our staff and the people we support have exhibited truly remarkable resiliency and good spirits, and for this I stand in admiration.

On both a personal and professional level, I’ve come to the realization that we truly can reduce our carbon footprint by thinking creatively about alternatives to how we organize our work and personal lives.

Also, what ways do you think it will change the way you go about your career and your business?

Moving forward, I will be less focused on evaluation, and more focused on action. The world is shifting at warp speed and observing from the sidelines will most definitely result in missed opportunities.

Having proven through this completely unique experiment that telecommuting is effective, we will place greater emphasis on workplace flexibility.

Knowing that remote work and virtual service provision offerings will accelerate, it’s imperative that we now work to ensure that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities have access to the technology that they merit and require.

And when it comes to the COVID-19 issue, what are some of the lessons learned for the business community?

Your business model must be flexible as well as adaptable to your customer base, or you risk becoming irrelevant and obsolete. Failing to adapt to changing times with flexible and innovative responses will result in operational failure.

As a successful female professional, what were the biggest obstacles you faced and how did you overcome them?

When I assumed the role of acting director and then CEO, I was in my early thirties and, as such, needed to prove that I had what it took to effectively lead a business with a $14M annual budget.

I brought to the role a vision that tested some of the assumptions of a business model that had been in place for four decades, and building the confidence of stakeholders who were dubious about changes was key.

I earned confidence the old fashioned way - by demonstrating my ability to effectively lead strategic thinking that was necessarily bold, to then lead thoughtful planning, and, most importantly, implementation. While I hold my staff accountable, I hold myself to the highest standard.

How do you think your profession will change in the next five years?

At Becoming Independent, there will be a greater emphasis on service innovation and revenue diversification so that we are positioned to effectively support the current and coming generations of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Across the industry, I’m concerned that a continuing lack of executive leadership development will significantly impact the industry’s ability to effectively evolve.

Who was your most important mentor? And tell us a little bit about that person: My grandfather, Aaron. He was an immigrant from Germany, grew up farming in Nebraska and served in the U.S Army. There was nothing he couldn’t build, fix or grow. He would both directly and indirectly impress the importance of not telling people you had a strong work ethic but instead demonstrating it.

Growing up during the Great Depression instilled in him the belief that riches and success were not defined by numbers in your bank account, but rather by the shelter you could provide for your family, the food you could give to ensure their mental and physical health, and by inspiring their desire and joy to be together in both the bright and dark moments of life.

Every generation since has adopted and passed down these same beliefs, and we are all better for it.

What advice would you give to a young woman entering your profession or the work world today?

Lean in to your knowledge, strength and power. Do not dim your light in fear of failure. Share your light with others, empower them to shine brighter. Don’t be intimidated by the unknown, but embrace it.

Most admired business person outside your organization: Sheryl Sandberg - she doesn’t apologize for being a fierce and strategic female leader, inspires and encourages our next generation of female leaders, and has continued to thrive despite significant personal loss.

Typical day at the office: I typically start my day walking our 40,000 square foot campus, greeting staff and participants - discussing the adventures for the day, plans for the weekend and during football season typically how the Niners are doing.

The remainder of the day is spent working with various members of the leadership and management team on strategy, execution and opportunities to elevate our services and widen our community impact.

Best place to work outside of your office: BI’s beautiful outdoor garden space at our Santa Rosa campus! Over 10,000 square feet of open space and native plants, that provide a serene setting for tons of laptop work time.

Current reading: “The Five Invitations” by Frank Ostaseski

Most want to meet: Michelle Obama - fierce and unapologetic of her knowledge, power and impact

Social media you most use: All for the ‘Gram - Instagram

Stress relievers: Exercise, exercise, exercise, and vodka.

Favorite hobbies: Competitive sports with the kids, traveling when time allows, and soaking up all of the beauties of Sonoma County,

What would parents or significant others say if asked to brag about you?

I think they would say that my heart leads much of what motivates me in life. I am my best self when I am surrounded by my work, family and community. I tend to be equally passionate about all three and find ways to illuminate their interconnectedness.

Luana Vaetoe

Chief Executive Officer

Becoming Independent

1425 Corporate Center Parkway, Santa Rosa 95407


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