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Change requires we adapt, says CEO of Sonoma County nonprofit Becoming Independent

Focus on 2020

The Business Journal sought out leaders in a variety of fields asking what they consider important issues to focus on in the coming year. Luana Vaetoe is the CEO of Sonoma County-based Becoming Independent, established 50 years ago to help those with disabilities live meaningful and productive lives.

Read other perspectives on the local business environment for the year ahead.

Luana Vaetoe is the CEO of Sonoma County-based Becoming Independent, established 50 years ago to help those with disabilities live meaningful and productive lives.

Whether your business measures success in profits or in social impact like Becoming Independent, a focused vision for the future is precisely what you will need for a prosperous 2020 decade.

As CEO of Becoming Independent, I have come to embrace the notion that change is the only constant, and our ability to adapt to that change is what determines our success. We must ensure that our business model is healthy and sustainable and that we remain relevant for a shifting customer base. In our case, that means providing wraparound supportive services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Whether we’re leading a business that tracks results in selling products or improving lives, we must keep our eyes focused on trends and respond to an ever-shifting environment with flexibility and innovation.

Two major changes occurred between 2010 for 2019 at BI and both will impact how we do business in the next decade.

First, California’s commitment to funding services for people with IDD faltered. California was once considered the most progressive state in the nation when it came to funding services for people with disabilities such as autism, cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome and epilepsy. However, 10 years of relentless budget cuts have created a crisis across California.

In 2019, California Health Report estimates as many as 28,000 social service organizations serving people with IDD have been forced to close across the state. Those remaining must struggle to hire and retain qualified staff despite limited funding.

Second, people with IDD began advocating for themselves and insisting that services be delivered in a very different way.

Whereas previous generations felt affirmed when community-based programs like BI began replacing the institutional model, this new generation experienced inclusion from their first days of elementary school and presumed that it would continue. Their desires require us to think very differently about how –- and where - to provide support.

Like many other businesses, we found ourselves in the cross-currents of shifting trends. These two intersecting shifts forced us to re-imagine how we provide support and how we generate the revenue required to fuel our services. In order to meet these fundamental challenges, we determined that we would aim to live up to the meaning of our name: Becoming Independent.

The key practices that I see buoying BI into 2020 and beyond include:

Creating revenue generators that fill a market need while maintaining strong alignment with our core purpose, mission and values.

To do this, we took what was a very modest social enterprise - drop-off shredding - and built it into a game-changing Social Enterprise Division. This division currently includes the operation of all concessions on the SMART train, as well as the Buzz Café inside Kaiser Permanente’s new Mercury Way Medical Office Building in Santa Rosa. Through these enterprises, we are creating job training and employment opportunities for people with disabilities while generating earned income that helps underwrite BI programs.

As we welcome the new decade, we’ll be announcing a campaign that will launch BI’s largest social enterprise to date and help to ensure the long-term health of the agency.

Creating collaboration across industries through which assets can be leveraged across organizations in ways that are mutually beneficial. Whether it’s assisting Meals on Wheels with their daily food deliveries to homebound seniors or socializing animals at Pets Lifeline, BI’s large volunteer workforce is prepared to participate. When community businesses find themselves in need of workers, we’re ready to fill those positions with motivated individuals who are eager to exceed expectations.

These endeavors support my guiding philosophy: to seek a handshake, not a handout. Every nonprofit charitable organization in our community does important work and deserves philanthropic support.

But in the long run, it is those organizations that make themselves essential to the long-term economic and social health of the community that stand the greatest chance of not just surviving, but thriving.

Turning challenges into opportunities has always been at the core of who BI is as an organization. Whether it’s working with individuals to achieve their goal of living independently, or imagining and launching dynamic new business models, we are willing to think outside the box and take risks in order to reap rewards. This is an approach that is increasingly necessary for all types of enterprises.

As Becoming Independent continues to illuminate the value and purpose our clients have in our community, as a business we must continue to be strategic and bold as we align our goals to match our community’s overall needs. This approach, coupled with our innovative spirit and strong vision, assures us that we will be here, we will be growing, and we will be strong for the coming decade - and beyond.

Focus on 2020

The Business Journal sought out leaders in a variety of fields asking what they consider important issues to focus on in the coming year. Luana Vaetoe is the CEO of Sonoma County-based Becoming Independent, established 50 years ago to help those with disabilities live meaningful and productive lives.

Read other perspectives on the local business environment for the year ahead.

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