Profiles in Leadership

UPDATED: April 5, 2011
PUBLISHED: April 5, 2011

Everyday Leaders: Scott Silverman

Years of drinking and drugging had taken their toll on Scott Silverman. In 1984, working for his family business, feeling lost in life, the 30-year-old felt that the only way out was down: through the window of a skyscraper. An associate, spotting him perched on a windowsill, said, “Get the hell away from that window before you fall, you idiot!”

“My associate’s words pulled me back into the room,” Silverman recalls. “And they pulled me back into life.”

He went on to rehab and committed to “give back to those who had helped me and to pay it forward to those who could use what I had once needed,” he says. That eventually led to the founding of Second Chance, a San Diego nonprofit “committed to breaking the cycle of unemployment, poverty, homelessness, substance abuse and incarceration.” It provides services like job placement, affordable housing and counseling to ex-prisoners, the homeless and drug addicts—and has touched the lives of more than 24,000.

Now the head of a successful organization as well as an author and speaker, Silverman says that his willingness to learn helped him become a better leader: “I learned to question the way things were being done. I learned to be willing to do something different. I also looked to others in leadership roles for guidance. I asked for help.”

He also points to his no-nonsense approach as a major factor in motivating Second Chance participants to succeed. “I always give heartfelt, direct and honest feedback,” he says. “I do not sugar-coat anything. The type of people I deal with need to hear the truth.”

Profiles in Leadership: Linda Fondren

In 2010, for the sixth year running, Mississippi has maintained its rank as No. 1—and nobody is applauding. According to Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Mississippi is the fattest state in the country, with about 34.4 percent of the state’s adults qualifying as obese.

But Linda Fondren is one Mississippian who isn’t sitting idly by and encouraging that onerous title to remain. The Vicksburg resident is motivating others to get moving, lose weight and improve their lives. She’s inspired in part by the 2006 death of her sister, Mary Washington, who was obese when she died of cancer. That same year, Fondren established an all-female workout facility, Shape Up Sisters, to cater to overweight women embarrassed to exercise in front of the opposite sex.

To expand her reach, Fondren founded Shape Up Vicksburg in 2009, a program that challenges residents to lose weight and provides the resources to do so, including fitness classes and weight-loss trackers. The result is a total of nearly 15,000 pounds (and counting) lost by the 2,500 participants.

She says the key to leading the masses to lose mass was her contagious enthusiasm. “If I have enthusiasm, people around me will have enthusiasm,” she says. “I develop within myself an optimistic glow so that others can catch it, too. I give pep talks; I communicate uplifting touching stories that cause others to have self-observation.”

Profiles in Leadership: Alfa Demmellash

When Alfa Demmellash and her mother fled war-torn Ethiopia for the United States, they hoped that the American Dream would be within their grasp—but they found it was just out of reach. Demmellash’s mother was a skilled Boston seamstress who made next to nothing for her beautiful gowns, and her daughter realized that she lacked fundamental business skills to adequately turn a profit.

After enrolling at Harvard University with the help of financial aid, Demmellash and fellow student Alex Forrester (the two are now married) founded Rising Tide Capital in 2003 to help the local poor. Targeting underserved populations in New Jersey, such as immigrants, ex-cons and minorities, Rising Tide has served more than 250 entrepreneurs through training sessions, coaching and mentorship.

Demmellash says that her path to leadership was born of a realization: “I recognized that the suffering of those who are trapped by the cruelty of poverty cannot be solved by intervention from some more powerful, more resourceful external entity. People have to use whatever means they have to create and fight for their own opportunities—becoming entrepreneurs of necessity.”

Much of her strength as a leader is drawn from loved ones—her mother, her husband, friends, family—and then passed on to others, she says. “We must invite others on our journey and into our dreams,” Demmellash says. “Our great strength lies in our relationships; they help us to defeat apathy, indifference, and, above all, they help us celebrate our capacity to love and nurture what is good and lasts beyond our brief time on earth.”