How Non Profit CEO Dr. Kellie Warren is Changing Lives and Giving Girls a Chance

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“You teach by behavior instead of what you say.”  Dr. Kellie Warren is a powerhouse.  A CEO named one of the most admired leaders of 2015 in Phoenix.  Dr. Warren talks to Carey about her leadership style as the head of the powerful non-profit, Florence Crittenton.  Warren says she works with purpose and teaches her staff to do the same.   Their mission is for the girls who walk through their doors, many broken and abused, to walk away empowered and seeing their full potential.

Podcast Transcript

Carey Pena: Hey everyone. I’m Carey Pena. Thank you so much for joining us. “I raise up my voice, not so I can shout, but so those without a voice can be heard. We cannot succeed when half of us are held back.” That is a quote from Malala Yousafzai, the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who has become a symbol of the fight for girls worldwide.

Our guest today, Dr. Kellie Warren, is the CEO of Florence Crittenton. Kellie, thank you so much for being here.

Dr. Warren: Thank you for having me.

Carey Pena: Can I call you Kellie? Or Dr. Warren?

Dr. Warren: Kellie’s fine.

Carey Pena: All right. Your mission is to give every girl whose life you touch safety, hope, and opportunity. The quote I just read from Malala, who was shot in the forehead by the Taliban because she wanted to go to school, because she’s fighting for the rights of girls to go to school, tell me your reaction to that quote.

Dr. Warren: It just resonates with me, and really represents the mission of Florence Crittenton. I think, for me, we are a voice for girls. We listen to their voice, and we respond on their behalf. More than that, we understand how important it is for girls to have a safe place to get the services they need. So when I hear that it really represents the work that Florence Crittenton does, and my personal journey in life.

Carey Pena: What does it mean to say, “Every girl matters.”?

Dr. Warren: Every girl that comes through our door, no matter what her background is, her story is, her social economic status, her culture, sexual orientation, identity, it doesn’t really matter. If she walks through those doors, we have to give all of ourselves on her behalf.

Carey Pena: Well, I want to talk to you a little bit about being the CEO of this organization, and your personal success as a woman and a business leader in just a minute. But first, a little bit more about this agency. Florence Crittenton is a social service agency, one of the oldest. It began in 1896 in central Phoenix, serving unwed mothers. And today you help approximately 1,200 girls and young women a year. One of the things that you guys focus on is helping these girls and young women become empowered to reach their full potential. How are you able to do this when so many girls who walk through your doors are coming from horrendous circumstances? Some who’ve been abused emotionally and physically, some have been homeless, some are teen mothers. There’s just such a plethora of problems that these girls have faced at very young ages. How do you go about trying to break down what they’ve been through and then show them there is life out there, there is a future, and empower them to take control of their lives?

Dr. Warren: I think first of all we have a full continuum of care. In other words, we offer many services. It’s not a one-size-fits all. So our girls there are as young as 10, all the way to their 18th birthday. They have an opportunity to work through our therapeutic group home where we provide behavior health services. So we employ qualified mental health professionals in that program, as well as behavior health staff, and we introduce the girls, again, to education and support. They go on their own treatment journey. Some of them stay with us from 90 to 120 days on average. But some of the girls have been there close to a year. So I think for the girls that need that intensive behavior health, support for mental illness, substance abuse, and trauma, that’s a good program for them.

We also have a girls’ ranch program. If they’re 12 to 18, pregnant parenting and non-parenting, we provide a safe home and support for them to receive life skills, self-sufficiency, and parenting classes. Their babies actually have the opportunity to live with them while our staff teach them how to be good parents, and maybe break some of those cycles that they’ve been exposed to, if you will.

Carey Pena: Mental health issues is such a big problem in our society. Because you deal with so many young women and young girls who have mental health issues, at a young age, what do you think it is? And I know there’s no magic bullet, but what have you seen as a piece of your success in sort of showing these girls that they do have the power to go out and live a decent, fulfilled, healthy life?

Dr. Warren: Well, I think starting with our therapeutic group home, we do a screening, an assessment process, and we also assess for trauma, because sometimes trauma mirrors mental illness. Sometimes you’re responding to the trauma in a way that looks like you’re suffering from a major mental illness. So I think it’s important for us as a voice for girls to consider the impact of trauma.

And during that journey, while they’re with us we give them the tools and resources to live their own lives. And we try to motivate them and instill hope so that they know that whatever they’ve been through, there’s still a promising future. So I believe when they walk through the door, many of them do not see hope. But when they walk away, they can be so empowered to live their full potential. We have future senators, presidents, engineers right in our hands. So I believe if we believe in them and we demonstrate support and treat them with dignity and respect, many of them can start to see hope or a future that they didn’t even think they were worth having that opportunity.

Carey Pena: How important is it that these girls, and this could be applied to all sorts of folks in a society who’ve been treated poorly, who’ve suffered trauma, and now are sort of cast aside as having mental health problems, how important is the respect component, feeling that they matter?

Dr. Warren: I think you teach by your behavior, instead of what you say. So we can promote this great mission, but if we don’t believe in that mission and walk the walk, we have less of an opportunity to really impact their lives. Maybe they haven’t had anyone to say, “You’re beautiful. You have the opportunity to be the greatest whatever: veterinarian, doctor, lawyer, what have you.”

We have a teachable moment every day with these girls, and we have to stay consistent and supportive and let them know that we care. That does more than any of our treatment, in my opinion.

Carey Pena: Well, you are such an incredible woman in your own right. I have to say to our listeners, I mean, you walked in here in this incredible red dress. I mean, you are a fashionista. And these shoes that are beyond amazing leopard shoes. And the Phoenix Business Journal recently named you, congratulations, one of the valley’s most admired leaders of 2015. That’s huge. That’s such a huge honor.

Dr. Warren: Thank you.

Carey Pena: What kind of personal attributes do you bring to your role as CEO to try to keep your staff motivated?

Dr. Warren: I think I just try to encourage them to really work with purpose. I think that every last one of our staff, no matter what role they play, have a purpose in these girls’ story. So I think when you have purpose somewhere and you give all your heart, it makes it feel good to be there. And in social services and nonprofit work, it’s not the money that draws us. It has to be the mission. So I try to walk each day with a purpose-drive life. And I like these girls to know just how special they are. They pay very close attention to me and the other staff, and so my example will either break some cycles, or continue to validate to them that they are not worth anything. So for the staff, I believe I encourage them to bring their purpose in every day, and let these girls know that we are collectively rooting for them.

Carey Pena: You know, Dr. Warren, one thing that you just said really strikes me, because I’m fascinated how more and more people today, both in the nonprofit world, and just in the corporate world are searching for more purpose in their lives and in their jobs. Something you just said really struck me: that you try to give your employees, the folks who work with you, motivation that you believe in them. What do you see the reaction being? Psychologically, there has to be a shift when people know that the CEO cares about what they’re doing and values them, because we’re not seeing that in every company today. We’re seeing people feel just so broken down, and just worked to the bone. That sort of steals your soul a little bit.

Dr. Warren: Well, I think for me, I just feel very blessed to have been selected. I don’t think that I’m just teaching girls. I’m also being an example for staff. And people believed in me. So I think that I’m where I am today because I had people that invested in my life, so I want to invest in our staff’s life. And I’m so amazed by their courage and commitment to come in every day and deal with girls who are oftentimes broken and don’t believe in the staff that show up. So I just find it so meaningful, even for me to spend time and build relationships with these staff, and encourage them to fight the fight, and come in every day with their smiles, and keep trying, even when girls have given up on themselves and the world.

Carey Pena: And when you do see a girl who rises out of that, that must be a tremendous feeling of accomplishment.

Dr. Warren: It’s major. And I think every day that I walk around … so I’m a walk-around leader. I don’t sit in my office-

Carey Pena: You’re not in your office with the doors shut, “Do not disturb”?

Dr. Warren: No. No. No. Not at all. I walk around every day, and I’m reminded of how much these girls need us. My staff know me. I know them. And I care about the girls and the staff. So to me, that gives me some meaning in my life, because I will not land anywhere in a job unless there’s a purpose that I can fulfill. So I am just encouraged by them. Because without them, there’s no way that we can deliver the safety, hope, and opportunity to these girls. I need every last one of them.

Carey Pena: You try to teach these girls to become more than a statistic and accomplish all of their dreams. Do you think there is a level playing field out there for women in general? And I ask you that for multiple reasons, one, because I’m just curious what your thoughts are. But I also read the other day, Sheryl Sandberg published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, and it was titled, When Women Get Stuck, Corporate America Gets Stuck. And just to kind of boil this down for you, her organization,, which I know you know a lot about, just published a study about the state of women in the workplace for 2015. Part of their results are as follows. I’m quoting here: “Women see an uneven playing field. A workplace tilted against them. Women are twice as likely to believe their gender will make it harder to advance, and senior-level women view gender as a bigger obstacle than entry-level women.”

So I’m just wondering kind of what your thoughts are and how you prepare your girls to go out there. Do you feel that there is a level playing field? How do you prepare them to go out and take on the world?

Dr. Warren: I think that your gifts really make room for you. So I don’t think that the world is necessarily fair. I don’t think that the girls, even with their greatest gift, will always be afforded opportunities, but I want them to learn from my story. So, I’ve been the first at many things. I think the mistake my parents made was to tell me that I was beautiful and I could do whatever. And I’ve walked through life like that. So I don’t ever let anyone tell me who I am. My worth comes from inside.

When I don’t look at the world to validate me, I have a better life. So I want these girls to focus on their education. I want them to get beyond their past story and see their future. And I believe that, despite the world’s craziness, they can accomplish whatever they need to accomplish. So I’ve lived it. I mean, I was a deputy director of juvenile corrections. Corrections was seen as a male-dominant career. But I came in there every day and gave all my might. And I knew in the end they would change their opinions. So for the girls, I want them to know that, “Don’t look for the world to validate you. Learn to love and validate yourself.” I think that’s one of the greatest gifts we can give them.

Carey Pena: That is such great advice. Florence Crittenton is well known to have very successful fundraising, including the Teaming Up For Girls luncheon, which I was so honored to emcee for several years. And I will never, ever forget the year that kidnapping survivor, Elizabeth Smart, spoke at the luncheon. She was the keynote. And I interviewed her up on stage. And I was so amazed that she does not live her life with a victim mentality, even after all that she went through: being kidnapped and forcibly raped day after day. How do you go about teaching these girls to escape the victim mentality?

Dr. Warren: Well, I think we deliver a lot of services. So through our individual, group, and family therapy we do a lot of work. But more than that, I think we have a great opportunity to teach them that they are more than their past, that they can write their own story. So Elizabeth Smart taught all of us, a couple of years ago, that you can go beyond the tragic situation and live a fulfilling life. I think the girls walked away hearing that. I heard it. It validated how I kind of see the world as well. So we’re encouraging these girls to take a different route. Don’t let the tragic situation, the trauma that they’ve experienced, the neglect, abuse or anything define them. That they have the power of the pen, and they can write their own stories. So I think that’s one of the greatest gifts that we can give at Florence Crittenton to the girls we serve.

Carey Pena: Do you think that that is a conscious decision that we all have to make: to get past whatever stuff is in our past, and everybody has stuff, and make a conscious decision to write your own story?

Dr. Warren: I think we are empowered to write our own stories. There’s the statistics that have told me who I should be. I’ve never really listened to that, because I had people that invested in me, believed in me, and told me at a very young age that I can conquer whatever. So I have the power of my pen, and I write in a different story. So I don’t worry about the playing field. I don’t worry about what the TV says about people that look like me. I know that I have a purpose in this life, and I’m going to spend this life living it and serving others.

Carey Pena: I love it. And you feel so fulfilled. You just have a peace about you, a strength, but a peace. And I think that’s because you’re so comfortable in your own skin as a woman, and as a leader. What a great example for these girls to see in you.

Dr. Warren: Thank you.

Carey Pena: I mean, you’re an amazing example. One of your big accomplishments at Flo Crit is the Girls Leadership Academy of Arizona, the state’s first and only single-gender public high school. I read an article published last year where you were quoted as saying, “Research has shown that there are many benefits to single-gender education, including high academic achievement, improved self-confidence, and increased college enrollment.” What has been your experience and what are some of the statistics that you’re seeing there?

Dr. Warren: Well, first of all, we opened the doors in 2011, and last year we graduated 33 girls, many of whom had started with us in 2011. Of the 33 girls that graduated, 100% of them were accepted into a college. That’s all I need to say.

Carey Pena: You changed their lives.

Dr. Warren: Exactly. And I think we provide a safe place for girls to accel and support one another, and learn leadership, college preparation. With the state of education in Arizona, I’m so grateful that our board of directors decided to invest in education. You cannot have opportunity, as our mission describes, without having education. So our Girls Leadership Academy allows girls from everywhere. I think we have about 33 zip codes represented in our school, to come and get quality education, and to get a teaching staff that really drives them, pushes them, and believes in them. So I’m very excited that we started with an idea, and it is now a major accomplishment for our girls.

Carey Pena: Another way you guys raise money is the Heels For Healing event. And I mentioned earlier about your amazing leopard shoes. So you wore them on a perfect day because the Heels For Healing event is going on this weekend. Tell us about it.

Dr. Warren: I’m so excited. We are having our seventh annual Heels For Healing event right at our store, Flo’s on 7th. It’s on the corner of 7th Avenue and Indian School. So we kick it off with the Diva Dash, which is a high heel race where our participants have paid $25 to run in this obstacle course. We have males and females participating.

Carey Pena: It’s always so funny. I love it.

Dr. Warren: So we’re giving awards to the person with the highest heel, which for the last two years has been a man.

Carey Pena: Oh, wow!

Dr. Warren: Yes!

Carey Pena: Impressive!

Dr. Warren: Yes! And for the person with the fastest time, and the team with the fastest time. We kick it off, and then we sell at our thrift store new and gently-used shoes and handbags to the public. Our goal is to raise money. Then, we send the proceeds back to our programs.

Carey Pena: And by the way, for people who are listening who are not in Arizona, people can always visit the website because you guys have incredible things there. I mean, very high end. You have some Chanel there. I know one year I donated a pair of Lanvin high heels. I parted with them. They were … my wrist was … I was clenching. But I know that they were going to a great place. So how can people find out more information if they want to check it out, here in Arizona or elsewhere?

Dr. Warren: So they just go to our website,, and learn about the agency’s history, the life-changing programs, our thrift store, our Heels For Healing event, and any other fundraisers that we have.

Carey Pena: I always like to ask our guests before we end this show, what personally inspires you?

Dr. Warren: I think the girls. I mean, when I’m having a rough day, I just walk the campus, and they greet me with pictures, and … One of the girls just drew me a picture thanking me, calling me the best CEO, and she loved me, and she had a high heel on it. So I think the best part of my job is I get to touch these girls’ lives every day, advocate for them, be a voice for them. And I’m so grateful for the opportunity.

Carey Pena: Well, it goes without saying you know how amazing I think you are personally, woman to woman. You’re just incredible.

Dr. Warren: Thank you.

Carey Pena: You’re an inspiration. And Florence Crittenton, the work that has been done at that facility year after year, it’s God’s work, really. I mean, you’re changing lives for these girls. It just makes me so proud to have been a part of that mission over the years. Dr. Warren, thank you so much.

Dr. Warren: Thank you as well.

Carey Pena: It’s always a pleasure to see you. Now go out with that red dress and those leopard shoes and stir it up out there today!

Thanks for listening, everyone. I’m Carey Pena. Today’s show was produced and engineered by Shannon Hernandez, brought to you by Inspired Media 360. Until next time, stay inspired.