Confident, Collaborative, and Committed to Greater Washington: Meet Rising Leader, Reece Soltani (’18)
Reece Soltani is currently a Social Entrepreneur for Food Security with the AARP Foundation. Her position is a cross-pollination of academic rigor and innovation toward building new products, programs and solutions to old problems for vulnerable seniors within the United States. Prior to joining the Foundation, she was a part of several non-profit start-ups and “tech-for-good” organizations. While at Kiva, she understood the dichotomy of financial services and how to harness the Internet for those at the bottom of the pyramid. As an AmeriCorps Fellow, she worked with the Harvard Kennedy Initiative for Responsible Investment researching policy and advocating for social enterprises. Thereafter, she was involved with two Silicon Valley startup ventures. One was called Copia, a company focused on ending food waste, named the Mother of Inventions by Toyota, where she was head of strategic initiatives. Most recently, she graduated with an MS in Global Health, Social Policy, from the London School of Economics and spent her field research in Cuba examining the healthcare system. She lived in Denmark while interning at the World Health Organization, and has a BA from University of California, Berkeley.
Recently Reece sat down with LGW to discuss her experience as a 2018 Rising Leader. Enjoy the conversation below:
LGW: How did you first become involved with Leadership Greater Washington and the Rising Leaders program?
RS: My fantastic manager, Kimberly Perry ('04) is an alum of the Signature program and swore by the invaluable experience of LGW; she told me I had to get involved. I owe all credit to her support and advocacy in making this program possible for me.
LGW: What was something that surprised you about the Rising Leaders program?
RS: So many things. The program was unlike anything I could have anticipated. The first session still really sits with me. Beginning with the DISC personality assessment, which left me more self-aware of who I was not just as an employee but as a human being. My assessment was foundational. Because we took the time to unpack the motivators and stressors of every personality, I was able to manage my own expectations with colleagues better, socialize information in formats more useful for them and ultimately took away a skill that will help me navigate any workplace. It was the most rapid and significant growth spurt of empathy I ever experienced.
LGW: Can you give us some background or insight into your personal leadership path-including your sources of inspiration and most important lessons learned?
RS: My approach to leadership has been a precise amalgamation of two strengths my parents carried: believing in your ability to succeed and having the humility to say you do not know. My father is an entrepreneur at heart and always maintained a side business – he always took risks in his career, and that’s where I find my faith in my own abilities comes from. While my mother has been a lifelong learner, I cannot recall a time she was not enrolled in a course after work. She has always been eager to learn more and never been afraid to say “I don’t know.” And though some may attribute asking questions to inexperience, I find it a pivotal quality to being an effective and well-respected leader. Never stop asking questions.
The most important lesson I have learned in my early experience with leadership is taking the time to get to know yourself – hone in on your strengths, own your weaknesses, and learn to get very comfortable in your own skin. Because people will not follow you for your technical expertise, though it is a large component. Ultimately, people will follow you if they believe in you, trust you, and feel they know you. And the only way they can get to know you is if you know you.
LGW: Can you describe an extraordinary Rising Leaders Moment from the experience-a connection you made, something you pursued because of Rising Leaders or a distinctive memory?
RS: The most extraordinary experience I had with Rising Leaders were the peers I’d met and whom I can now call friends; they took me out to my first DC brunch! I met people across industries I cannot imagine how I would have otherwise connected with. In addition to that, my favorite memory is the time I asked the fabulous Mary Abbajay to collaborate on an event that would promote her new book, whilst supporting one of my passions.
My “side hustle,” is as an Ambassador for Ladies Get Paid, a women's career development organization focused on closing the wage gap. We ended up hosting an event that drew 100+ women for a panel discussion on Managing Up with female focused struggles in the workplace. It was my first time moderating a discussion, and I could not have asked for better turn out. The event was an absolute success, and with Mary’s help, our organization was able to host a powerful, vulnerable and honest conversation of women supporting women sharing their frustrations, strategies, and encouragement. That was a shining moment I will carry with me and was solely made possible because I was a part of the Rising Leaders program.
LGW: How has your experience in the Rising Leaders program impacted your future goals as a leader in the region?
RS: For the first time, I’ve started considering running for office. A political career always seemed something so intangible for me. I had no family history in politics, no experience in supporting a campaign, nor a mentor or even acquaintance I knew who had run for office. And while I am not sure a career in politics is anywhere in my near future, my experience with Rising Leaders has left me with the confidence that it is attainable. What I mean by that is, I moved to DC just over a year ago, a city where I knew no one. Rising Leaders has left me with an impressive network of Washingtonians well on their way to creating impact if they haven’t already. It additionally gave me the toolkit I needed to consider a political career realistically. We’ve covered how to network and introduce yourself, the depths of our strengths and weakness, how to be an effective communicator, run effective meetings and accumulated together, these are the basis for what a leader is and what public office can always use more of.
LGW: How do you envision the future of the region? What about LGW’s role in the future?
RS: Millennials are stereotyped as being overly optimistic and willing to charter new paths. You could categorize me as the stereotype, and for that reason, I think the future this region holds is a brighter one. DC is such a transient town, and as I have witnessed it, that has created many visible opportunities to improve the area especially in regards to homelessness, adequate health care, a just food system, an equitable and fair education system and greater respect and empathy for one another. However, DC is also a region saturated with brilliant minds, including those graduating from LGW programs, and thus a catalyst to be harnessed and amplified toward addressing these issues. LGW has a significant role to play as not only convener of these great minds, but as pioneers in pulling LGW Alum together and implement ways to leave DC better than we found it.
LGW: How do your efforts and leadership at your current organization or in the other community groups you serve, impact the future of the Greater Washington region?
RS: I often tell friends and family how lucky I feel to be with the AARP Foundation, and tackling issues of senior poverty which are typically forgotten. As a Social Entrepreneur focusing on food security, the Foundation has trusted me to execute the proper research, and design products that will not only help close the gap on social determinants of health perpetuating senior poverty but will scale and have an impact across the nation. I feel blessed to be employed to fulfill my passion and focus on a population that is growing quickly. My research has also opened my eyes to some realities, like the fact that the District’s average poverty rate is almost 20%; that is unacceptable anywhere, but particularly upsetting to be true in the Nation’s capital. I carry those numbers with me at work and am grateful for the empowerment my position gives me to research and innovate as we charge forward to make a dent in staggering statistics like DC’s.
LGW: Please tell us something people might not know about you.
RS: Some fun facts: I’m a passionate salsa dancer; you can always count on me to be the first to the dance floor. Belgian beer is the only beer. And I am a sucker for America’s Got Talent “golden buzzer” moments, they get me every time!