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After working in fashion for 12 years as Director of Special Events at Vogue, producing runway shows for Tom Ford, Gucci, and Yves Saint Laurent, and managing public relations for Betsey Johnson, Jess Teutonico went on a trip to Kenya that would forever change her life and professional trajectory.  She now runs two non-profits, her own organization in Kenya called Under the Acacia and We are Family Foundation founded by legendary producer Nile Rodgers.  

Working with remote communities in Kenya, Jess builds sustainable infrastructures that meet basic human needs.  When in New York, she works with innovative youth around the world amplifying their ideas through TEDxTeen Talks and mentoring them through the Three Dot Dash program.  Find out her secret to running successful non-profits, how she found her passion and purpose, and her advice for being a woman leader.

Help Under the Acacia become a sustainable community by donating here!

Nominate an exceptional youth between the ages of 12-24 or become a We Are Family Coalition Partner here!

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I don’t feel like I found my purpose, I feel like my purpose found me.

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Creating Communities

What is the secret to building a successful non-profit organization?

Running a non-profit these days is so different than running a non-profit a few years ago because now they’re looked at as businesses versus fund-raising organizations.  It’s more about marketing, messaging, content, and impact and less about need.

For me, the motivator to get involved in this space after a long career in fashion was the narrative, being able to contribute, raise awareness, and become part of a global dialogue.  Non-profits have a tendency to operate on their own with their unique metrics and success stories, but really the big problem is that there are so many resources and not enough people working together sharing their resources and ideas.  All of the problems in the world could be solved if we allocated our resources in different directions.  

What are a few success stories from Under the Acacia and We Are Family Foundation?

I had been working in Kenya for a few years when an organization approached me about putting the Internet into one of my communities.  I thought, ‘this is crazy, these people don’t even have water or things they need to survive, how can we even contemplate putting in the Internet?’  To make the idea more accessible, we shipped 150,000 bottle caps to Kenya and had the women come together for a design challenge.  Instead of building a basic concrete slab and putting computers in it, we used the bottle caps to adorn the outside of the building to make it look like the iconic Maasai beadwork.  Every time I go there I’m blown away because you can see this little jewel box from far away on the hill and it cost us nothing.  That’s the power of being creative and resourceful.

With We Are Family Foundation, I’ve had the pleasure of being involved over the last eight years and working with extraordinary youth from all over the world.  I run a program called TEDxTeen, which is an independent license from the TED conference, and our talks have been viewed over 11 million times.  One of our speakers, Jacob Barnett (he’s the world’s youngest astrophysicist studying under Stephen Hawking) was diagnosed with autism at the age of two and told he would never speak.  Now he’s graduated with two degrees from college and his TEDxTeen talk has been viewed over six million times.  It was an extraordinary experience watching him and shows the power of story telling.

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Being able to contribute, learn, and participate in the growth of humanity is extraordinary

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What have been your biggest lessons learned from the Maasai people and working with youth?

Working in Kenya for the past 10 years has taught me more than I can begin to explain, but one thing I’ve learned is perseverance.  Joseph Koyie, my Country Director and one of my dearest friends, has had to overcome so much without getting any compensation because he knows the future of 150,000 people depend on him.  That opened my eyes.  I don’t live there and I don’t pretend to think I know everything there is to know so I let them guide the way.  That was a big lesson for me - to really listen to the people on the ground and make sure that they’re the ones running the charge because it’s their community.

What I’ve learned from working with We Are Family and hundreds of young people who are shaping this world is the power of community and working together.  When I was in school, we barely had the Internet, didn’t have email, and you weren’t connected to the world unless your parents took you on a trip.  Now there are no borders, no boundaries, and everything is possible.  I see a tenacity in the younger generation that everything is possible.  These kids aren’t creating something because they want to be featured in a magazine, rather they've been affected by something and want it to be different.  You have to have a connection to what you’re doing.  Don’t do it because society tells you to or because your parents are pushing you to be successful, do it because you feel a connection and there’s no way you could wake up and not do it.

What is your dream for Under the Acacia and the We Are Family Foundation?

My dream for Under the Acacia is to finish raising funds.  We set out to create a case study with Under The Acacia to make a community completely sustainable for generations to come so they would never have to rely on the government or support, but could rely on themselves and be a place people would want to live, create jobs, employment, and raise their families.  Once we finish raising $300,000 and all of our implementation is finished, that community will net proceeds, conservatively, of $100,000 U.S. dollars a year once their overhead is paid out, which is unheard of for a nomadic tribe.  My plan is to create an education model and offer this case study for other organizations and remote communities.  Anyone can raise money and do this.  I feel very strongly that there should not be any remote community that doesn’t have access to something as basic as water, education, or healthcare. 

For We Are Family Foundation and the young people I work with all over the world, our staple programs, TEDxTeen and Three Dot Dash, are programs that help young people shape their innovation.  We’re working on ways to connect with youth to develop that entrepreneurial spirit and social backbone sooner, so they grow up living and breathing the notion that as a human being you contribute to society, and to help them find early on what their motivations are and what drives them.  It comes down to community, connection and putting the right people in the right space.  If you have an idea and the right people around it, there’s no limit to what can happen.  

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It comes down to community, connection and putting the right people in the right space.

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How can bSmart members support you and your vision this year?

For my work in Kenya with Under the Acacia, the number one thing we need is finalizing our $300,000 so that our implementation can be completed.  Another important thing to do is get on a plane, go to Kenya, and spend your money because their economy needs it desperately right now.  For every person that works in the tourism industry, they usually support a family of 10-20 people.  As soon as my feet touched the soil I was done and I went home and quit my job.  I don’t expect everyone to do what I did, but the more you travel and look at nomadic cultures and understand humanity around the world, not just in your fast-paced environment in the states, you can’t help but come back a different person.

The best way to support our work with We Are Family Foundation is if you are a non-profit organization or an educational institution, nominate a global teen leader or bring to our attention the incredible work a young person is doing.  You can also become a Coalition Partner of ours to understand what it takes to elevate this generation.  And watching our TEDxTeen talks and sharing those ideas is the only way they’re going to turn into a reality.  The more people talk about them, support them, and get behind them, that’s when you see real things happen and something tangible comes out of the talk.

Watch Jess' bSmart interview here!

If you’re feeling like you want more, then you have to tap into it.

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Fashioning Leaders

How did your background prepare you to run Under the Acacia and We Are Family Foundation?

I moved to New York City the day after high school graduation.  I was always that young person who wanted to do more and be involved, so I ended up doing lots of internships.  My dad knew someone at New York Magazine and asked if I wanted to do an internship.  I ended up doing it and then they recommended me to be an intern at Betsey Johnson, the fashion designer, while going to school.  I was 19 years old when they asked me run Betsey Johnson’s public relations department.  I went to my parents and said, ‘I’ve got a job opportunity, I need to leave school (back then you couldn’t do anything without a college degree).  Against everyone’s wishes I dropped out and went to work for this incredible fashion designer.  

From there I produced fashion shows and traveled the world for Tom Ford, Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent.  At the end of my fashion career, I ended up at Vogue as Director of Special Events.  While at Vogue I knew I was pretty much tapped out and wanted to be more involved with Africa.  My aunt is a head nurse for Doctors without Borders and has lived and worked in Africa for over 25 years, so Africa has always been a big part of our conversation.  I marched into my boss’ office and announced, ‘I’m going on a volunteer tourism trip to Kenya.’  It was right before fashion week and probably not the best timing, but I knew I had to go.  I got on the plane, stepped foot in Kenya and thought, ‘this is it - I’m done.’  Two weeks later, I went back, quit my job, packed up my apartment, moved to Kenya and tried to understand as much as I could.

Going back and forth between Kenya and New York for many years gave me the opportunity to work with the TED conferences and do some consulting work for the United Nations.  I will always have a high regard for my 12 years in fashion.  The politics of Kenya are the same as 4 Times Square (or what used to be Condé Nast) in regards to logistics, politics and bureaucracy.  I don’t feel like I found my purpose, I feel like my purpose found me.

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Say ‘yes’ to everything.

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How can we find our purpose inside or outside of our profession?

Say ‘yes’ to everything.  Push your limits at all times and push past your comfort zone.  If you’re in a job that doesn’t feel right, sign up to be involved with boards, cultural or extracurricular activities that happen after hours.  Meet new networks of people.  Travel as much as you possibly can and go to places that scare you.  It took me getting on a plane, knowing I needed to shift my entire world, to come back a completely different person in only two weeks.

If you’re feeling like you want more, then you’re in a perfect situation because you feel something inside driving and pushing you and you just have to tap into it.  If you can’t travel, see everything in your own community and look for stones unturned to find purpose and meaning.  Looking back, now being in my late 30s, the things I went through in my 20s when I thought, ‘this is so mundane' or 'why am I doing this task at work' or 'what is this really doing for me?’  Those are the moments that defined who I was as a human being.  Don’t take for granted the things that don’t seem exciting because those are the things that shape you.

What makes a memorable event that creates a lasting impact?

When I think of events that stand out whether from my career in fashion or from the events we do in the social sector, regardless of budget, content is king and emotional connection is critical.  Whether it’s having a certain performer, speaker, painting, or conversation starter, you want to make sure you offer connection and that the people at your event have something to talk about beside themselves.  Take them out of their own experience and heads and give them something to learn.

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Don’t take for granted the things that don’t seem exciting, those are the things that shape you.

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What is your advice for becoming a women leader who makes a difference?

The key to being a leader is to make everyone around you better.  The more you can raise everyone else up, the better everything becomes.  It’s also important to remember to work smarter and not harder (which is a lesson I had to learn).  I would think, ‘I’m at my job until 4:00 in the morning, I’m so great.’  But I probably could have done my job by 6:00 PM.   It doesn’t matter how many hours you work, but rather the excellence you put into everything you do and how you structure your time management.  

It’s also important to have fun and make sure the people around you are having fun.  Otherwise, what’s the point?  But the most important thing I’ve learned is it’s not so much about being a woman versus a man - it’s about being a leader period and what you can do to elevate your circumstances, elevate your work, elevate the people around you, and elevate yourself.

How can we be smart like you finding our passion and purpose?

Looking back at my 20s, I never asked myself if I was doing the right thing or if this was right decision.  I just went forward like a train that was moving really fast.  I used to call my mom and say, ‘I wish I could slow down’ and she would say, ‘No you don’t.  That’s who you are and that’s what you do.’  I wouldn’t change a thing about my journey because every decision I made brought me to where I am today.  Trust in whatever decision you’re making even if it feels like ‘Why am I doing this?’ ‘Why would I not finish school?’ ‘Why would I take this job?’  Just do it.  It’s going to take you on a journey and each decision doesn’t need to be the be-all and end-all.  Looking back at all of the wrong mistakes and all of the right mistakes - they’re perfect.  Trust in the decisions you make.

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The key to being a leader is to make everyone around you better.

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It’s about what you can do to elevate your circumstances, your work, the people around you, and yourself.

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Spotlight on Jess Teutonico

Neighborhood: Upper East Side + The World

Occupation: Founder of Under the Acacia, Executive Director of We Are Family Foundation, Global Consultant, Purposeful Adventurer, Superhero Mom

Twitter: jessteutonico

Instagram: jessteutonico

Women I Admire: Anyone who carves their own path and is addicted to living a life of purpose and impact

Dream Mentor: See above

Look of the Season: Shopping is not my thing - I dress using staple pieces in my closet

Ultimate Accessory: Anything Holst + Lee

Favorite Store: OneKingsLane.com

Go-to Outfit: Classic black and safari chic

Must-have Shoes: Tom Ford

Favorite Nail Polish: Meet me at Sunset, Essie

Can't Live Without Product: Anything by Diane Higgins (also the best kept secret facial in town)

Salon Recommendation: Chris Chase - ask for Johnny

Signature Scent: Coqui Coqui Orange Blossom, Si by Giorgio Armani and anything Bond No. 9

Beauty Essential: Black eye liner and bronzer

Cocktail of Choice: A bellini - always

Best Date: Anything out of our daily routine

Travel Destination: Anywhere and everywhere I have never been

Current Craving: 'Frankies-esq' Beets and my husbands brussel sprouts

Best Advice: Say yes. A lot.

Favorite Quote: 'Only busy people have time' - me (I think) + 'The journey is the destination.' - Dan Eldon

De-Stress Technique: 'The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.' - Isak Dinesen

Latest Gadget: Fujifilm Instax Share Smartphone Printer

On My Playlist: 'I'll be there' by CHIC featuring Nile Rodgers (the boss man), 'Here' by Alessia Cara, 'The Rhythm of the Saints' by Paul Simon,  'Hello it's me' by Todd Rundgren, 'I can't hear you' by The Dead Weather, 'Just a touch of Love' by Slave - anything by Just a Band,  Bob Marley, old school hip hop and '70s

Favorite App: Instagram, Finish, Uber

College: Hunter College (but did not graduate)

 

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