Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Nicole Suydam of Goodwill of Orange County Is Helping To Change Our World
An Interview With Maria Angelova
“Prioritize your wellness before your work.” My self-inflicted pressure of performing beyond expectations caused me to overwork and nearly burnout at times. It was actually during the pandemic that I learned to practice more wellness, including doing regular exercise, and create more work-life boundaries. Without any in-person meetings and travel, I had the ability to take better care of myself and that continues to stay with me as the pandemic has eased.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nicole Suydam.
Nicole Suydam has more than 20 years of management and leadership experience working with local and national nonprofits dedicated to meeting human service needs. She currently serves as president and CEO of Goodwill of Orange County, one of Orange County’s largest nonprofits by revenue.
Suydam leads Goodwill’s social enterprise operation that employs nearly 1,800, manages 23 local thrift stores and ShopGoodwill.com — the online e-commerce marketplace for Goodwills across the country — and serves more than 18,000 individuals annually through its innovative programs and services aimed at providing pathways to opportunity and sustainable jobs.
Suydam has received several accolades for her commitment to creating a better and brighter Orange County for all, including being named to the Orange County Business Journal’s “OC 50” list for 2020 and 2021 for her influence and impact in the community. She was also named one of just six “2019 Women of Coast” by Coast Magazine and received the “2018 Women of the Year Award” by the Orange County Business Journal.
Suydam graduated from Vanguard University in Costa Mesa and lives in Aliso Viejo, California with her husband and two teenage daughters.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path and point in your life?
The desire to find a career path that would give me an opportunity to positively impact the community around me was modeled to me from a very early age by my mother. I was born and raised on the Central Coast of California by my single mother and grandmother and we didn’t have much. No matter how tough the month was, my mother would always find a way to give back to those around her — whether that was giving financially to our church or volunteering for a local charity. She showed me that helping others, sharing what you have, and giving your time and your compassion was the most rewarding way to live. It was her selfless way of living that really propelled me into working in nonprofits.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
While the COVID-19 pandemic created a crisis for our organization, it also created a unique opportunity for us to dig-in to our e-commerce operation. When all our stores, both here in Orange County, Calif. and nationwide, were forced to close for the first time in history, the only thing left open was our online business, ShopGoodwill.com. ShopGoodwill.com was created here in Orange County back in 1999 and currently lists unique donated items from more than 130 Goodwills from across the country.
The pandemic gave us the right moment to invest in and really accelerate the platform. Our team led a full platform transformation and branding refresh for the site, as well as the launch of the first ShopGoodwill mobile app. By harnessing the power of thrifting online, we’ve cemented ShopGoodwill.com as a significant and critical revenue and mission services driver for the Goodwill network.
The site has generated more than $1.5 billion since inception, with more than half of that coming in the last three years. Those sales equate to more mission services delivered and more lives changed through employment opportunities around the country. And that’s why we do this work!
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
During my first year as Goodwill’s CEO, I was accepting an award from a local media publication at a well-attended event and inadvertently thanked their competing publisher for the honor. I quickly realized the mistake when I saw the audiences’ faces and also I heard the editor of the publication from afar correct me. I quickly apologized and said the right publication’s name. Everyone, including me, had a good laugh, and I was able to continue on with my speech. I learned several things from this experience — 1) that I need to slow down when speaking, especially in front of large crowds and take my time to deliver my messages in a thoughtful way, and 2) never take yourself too seriously! It is okay to make mistakes, we all make them, as long as you own them and recover gracefully.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Goodwill of Orange County has been an integral part of the Orange County, California, community for nearly 100 years. We help people achieve their goals through a journey of personal support, work experience and career development. We operate 25+ innovate programs that build pathways, remove obstacles and provide personalized support for every individual that comes through our doors. Many of the individuals we serve have developmental and physical disabilities, a mental health diagnosis, little to no work experience, or are transitioning veterans. We connect people with opportunities that change their lives and propel them down a pathway to employment and greater independence. As a nonprofit employment social enterprise, our collection of 24 thrift stores and our online platform, ShopGoodwill.com, provides the fuel to make this work possible. We are most known for these thrift stores, but we are most proud of the work we do to positively impact lives.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Yes! There are many, but one story that stands out to me is a woman named Debra. When I first started my role at Goodwill as CEO, I was spending time at each of our facilities and at one of those visits, Debra walked right up to me and told me: “This is the best job I’ve ever had.” Debra had a colored past, she described herself as a former “bad girl,” facing addiction, homelessness, trouble with the law, and no direction. Then she came to Goodwill. Debra was connected with our Employment WORKS program, a supported employment program providing individualized job placement and job retention services for adults living with a mental health diagnosis. Through one-on-one job coaching and many discussions about how Debra envisions her future, she was placed into her first job at our e-commerce facility. Debra not only found a great job, but she found a work family that cheers her on every day. She told me: “I think I’m a better person now, since coming to Goodwill. I found a purpose in life today. I’m happier, and my life is on the right track.”
Debra’s story always stands out to me because she is representative of so many in our communities — down on luck and not sure where to turn. I am so proud of the opportunity we were able to connect Debra with, and so proud to still have her on our team.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
At the root of the gap we are trying to close is inclusion, especially from an employment standpoint. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statics, only about 22.5% of Americans with disabilities participate in the labor force. That is a stark contrast to the more than 67% of people in the general population who are working. Without a doubt, the entire country benefits when everyone who wants to work is given the opportunity to do so. Neglecting job applicants with disabilities is not only a disservice to them, but also to the American economy. Some employers may argue that the investment in training employees with disabilities is too great. However, people with disabilities actually have higher rates of employee retention, ultimately reducing hiring and training costs for employers. We call on employers to consider hiring people with disabilities and to adopt inclusive policies and practices in the workplace.
The second thing that would greatly increase the ability for every individual to have the opportunity to work is public funding to provide job training and career development for people facing barriers to employment. Workforce development organizations like Goodwill can provide people with disabilities with the job training and skills development services they need to succeed in the workplace and support the local and national economy. Public funding to do this work would greatly reduce the inequity that continues to exist in today’s job market.
The third thing that the community can do is consider giving financially to Goodwill. We have a strong and proven retail operation that helps to fund our programs, but additional financial gifts can really be leveraged to do the most good. By giving money, opportunity is strengthened so we can put more people on a pathway to employment and greater personal independence.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think this might help people?
We certainly are! In 2023, we are launching into a new Strategic Plan for the organization with a bold goal and strategic vision to Double Our Impact & Footprint. We envision a caring and connected community where everyone has access to meaningful career opportunities — and this new Strategic Plan provides a roadmap to make this vision a reality. We will continue to serve the community as a leader in workforce development and we will double down on our work building career pathways and 21st century skills for every individual who wants to work. We are optimistic that this inclusive and person-centered plan will help more people in Orange County access life-changing opportunities.
What you are doing is not easy. What inspires you to keep moving forward?
Staying connected to the mission of our organization inspires me every day. Staying close to the individuals we serve and hearing their stories of how Goodwill has helped change the trajectory of their life keeps me moving forward and keeps me motivated to keep pushing boundaries and elevating the way we serve our community.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- “You’ll operate during a pandemic, but don’t worry — you and your organization will come out even stronger.” I’m sure we all wished we knew a pandemic that would completely disrupt our professional and personal lives was on its way. I was just about one year into my job and my team and I had to close 24 Goodwill stores and 15 Goodwill programs, and furlough 836 people during our closure. While this was the most challenging time of my career and I was making decisions quickly that impacted so many lives, this crisis made us stronger than ever as a team and organization.
- “Prioritize your wellness before your work.” My self-inflicted pressure of performing beyond expectations caused me to overwork and nearly burnout at times. It was actually during the pandemic that I learned to practice more wellness, including doing regular exercise, and create more work-life boundaries. Without any in-person meetings and travel, I had the ability to take better care of myself and that continues to stay with me as the pandemic has eased.
- “Get involved in the Goodwill network right away.” Goodwill of Orange County is one member of Goodwill Industries International, which is made up of 155 member Goodwill organizations. It took an invitation letter in the first year of my new job to join a 6-month retail training program for CEOs to see the true value of the amazing network of Goodwill organizations across the country. This experience allowed me and my team to accelerate the change we needed to increase revenue and decrease expenses and create more mission-based training for the people we serve.
- “Hire a data analyst.” It took me about two years to hire a Data Analyst after we struggled to track and analyze the data we needed to make strategic, data-driven decisions. We’ve had a Data Analyst in place for two years now and it’s a game changer to have someone track and analyze data that helps us operate the business and plan for the future.
- “Trust your instincts when you are creating transformation.” We own and operate ShopGoodwill.com, an e-commerce platform established in 1999 that features donated items via an auction format from Goodwills across the country. When I arrived at Goodwill of Orange County, I heard a lot of feedback and advice on what my colleagues expected of ShopGoodwill.com in the future. I took that input, most of which was very helpful and constructive, along with other important advice from industry experts and developed a plan to modernize and transform ShopGoodwill.com. I knew that making these changes was critical to the continued success of our business and these were big decisions that impacted many Goodwills. So I took this responsibility very seriously. This business continues to thrive, and in 2022 we experienced record revenue of nearly $270 million in total site wide sales from 135 Goodwill organizations across the country. We have also surpassed more than $1.5 billion in total site wide sales since inception — half of that in the last three years alone!
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 😊
I would love to inspire a movement to create a formalized career pathway for individuals with disabilities to work in the growing world of e-commerce. These are sustainable jobs of the future and a formalized training program to provide access for people with disabilities to find success in this industry would be very transformative. I envision that we could use ShopGoodwill.com and the 130+ Goodwills using the platform to accelerate this program in a huge way. If we all come together on this program, that would mean hundreds of jobs for communities across the country. I’d love to see a national e-commerce training academy with a curriculum created by industry leaders and innovators so we could develop many meaningful career pathways for these important 21st century jobs.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“What would you do if you knew you wouldn’t fail?” — unattributed
About mid-way through my career, I had the thought that I could maybe run this organization one day, but I brushed it aside. I was quick to brush it to the side because it seemed too big, too risky, and had too many opportunities to fail. But when that opportunity truly presented itself, this quote came to mind and helped me put aside fears and go for it!
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 😊
I’m so fascinated by Mackenzie Scott and the good she has done. I’ve been a fundraiser my whole career and I’ve been waiting for philanthropists like her to start trust-based giving. With 25 years of nonprofit fundraising experience, I know firsthand how difficult it is when donors want to restrict gifts. Even through their generosity, it does make it hard to do the good work. When you see the kind of giving she’s doing, it opens doors for organizations in a big way. Within the Goodwill network, I’ve seen the difference it’s made for the Goodwills she’s trusted with her giving. She is revolutionary in her giving and is going to set the stage for future donors to do the same.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can follow along with our good work here in Orange County, California, at ocgoodwill.org. You can also shop with us 24/7 at ShopGoodwill.com. To get involved with the Goodwill organization in your local community, visit goodwill.org.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!
About The Interviewer: Maria Angelova, MBA is a disruptor, author, motivational speaker, body-mind expert, Pilates teacher and founder and CEO of Rebellious Intl. As a disruptor, Maria is on a mission to change the face of the wellness industry by shifting the self-care mindset for consumers and providers alike. As a mind-body coach, Maria’s superpower is alignment which helps clients create a strong body and a calm mind so they can live a life of freedom, happiness and fulfillment. Prior to founding Rebellious Intl, Maria was a Finance Director and a professional with 17+ years of progressive corporate experience in the Telecommunications, Finance, and Insurance industries. Born in Bulgaria, Maria moved to the United States in 1992. She graduated summa cum laude from both Georgia State University (MBA, Finance) and the University of Georgia (BBA, Finance). Maria’s favorite job is being a mom. Maria enjoys learning, coaching, creating authentic connections, working out, Latin dancing, traveling, and spending time with her tribe. To contact Maria, email her at [email protected]. To schedule a free consultation, click here.
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Nicole Suydam of Goodwill of Orange County Is Helping To Change Our… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.