Karla Grazier grew up in Indianapolis with three sisters and parents who instilled in them a love of education. Grazier says their belief that “we are responsible for everything that happens to us” has carried through all aspects of her life.
After earning a bachelor’s from Notre Dame and an MBA from Indiana University, she was a corporate banker in San Francisco, led the Middle Market Leverage Buyout Group at Wells Fargo Bank in New York City, prepared audit clients for initial public offerings and advised on mergers and acquisitions for Touche Ross, all while teaching for eight years as an adjunct lecturer in the graduate finance programs of Yale University and New York University, before taking a snack-food company from startup to IPO in 1992.
After moving to Colorado Springs in 1996, she bought and co-managed two catalog companies, which she eventually sold.
An avid tennis player, she is captain of a couple of tennis teams, one of which won a state championship in 2011. She’s married to Ward Berlin, and their daughter, Morgan, is a junior in high school. One of Grazier’s favorite spots is Section 16 because of the “silence and the views.” Grazier took time this week in a live interview with the Business Journal to discuss her career and plans as president and CEO for Discover Goodwill.
How did your career path prepare you for the nonprofit industry?
Part of the affinity for the role I have now came from a long time ago as an entrepreneur. A partner and I started a snack-food company, and we employed a lot of people who were disadvantaged. What I gained from that is people really want to work. They want the opportunity and to learn skills — and they don’t want things handed to them. And at Discover Goodwill, we help people become independent. In my banking career and as a serial entrepreneur of three companies, I gained a lot of skills and was able to hone my financial and operational skills, and that has helped me tremendously here, with [running] 20 programs and nine retail centers, and we have programs or services in 38 of the 64 counties in Colorado.
Now that I have the job and look back, I had a job in high school working with individuals with Down syndrome — and understood what God hasn’t given people cognitively, he makes up for by giving them a huge heart. Now, to walk over to Possibilities (a first-of-its-kind program in the nation), seeing and feeling all that love — brings it all full circle for me.
After being fortunate in my career as an entrepreneur, I feel like this is my way to give back. Some people give back directly by serving soup to the homeless, but my skill set is in financial and operational areas — so that’s my best way to give back to the community.
What was your most satisfying accomplishment during your banking career?
I led a group headquartered in New York City for Wells Fargo that was dedicated to financing leveraged buyouts, and our team was able to help a group of employees, of a division of a Fortune 500 company, buy the division in the face of it being closed by the company. It was a small town of about 20,000 in North Carolina, and we saved over 500 jobs. It was about jobs, family and the community, and you don’t often get exposed to the human side of things in banking. It was pretty special.
What are the current challenges for Discover Goodwill?
There are three sets of challenges. One we share with the community: creating jobs and economic vitality, and paying for health care. The second we share with all nonprofits, as we want to create jobs and help people become more independent. We need to develop the resources to support those activities.
The third challenge is unique to Goodwill. For example, we face a lot of competition from national for-profit organizations that are dropping donation boxes in parking lots all over the city — and those resources leave the community. Some of these for-profits are using the name of a nonprofit as a front and only pennies of that go to the nonprofit. Whereas if you give to Discover Goodwill, we use that money in the community for programs and nearly 90 cents of every dollar goes to programs and services and to create jobs in our community.
We have nearly 1,200 employees, and the majority are in El Paso County, but some are in Fremont, Mesa, Pueblo and Teller counties. Over 200 of these people have developmental and cognitive challenges — and that’s a population that has over 90 percent unemployment. That competition from the for-profits consumes profits that we’d like to use to perform our mission.
The perception of Goodwill is primarily formed through our stores and retail centers, which support our programs. Last year, we served over 50,000 people in our territory, and our career development center placed nearly 5,800 people for employment in the community. We have a staffing service, we have our Possibilities program, and we serve the senior population with day programs here and home-based programs that enable them to stay in their homes. People can feel good about their donations when they understand where they’re going and how they’re being used.
We issued hundreds of thousands of dollars of free merchandise vouchers during
the Waldo Canyon fire. The county trusted us to do that, and we feel really good we were able to help them.
What has been the highlight during your tenure?
Our accomplishments here have truly been because of the employees. Our highlights have included the move to this new campus [on Garden of the Gods Road]; the launch of Possibilities, a program for  individuals with developmental challenges; opening the retail center in Pueblo, and the inauguration of Pursuits — a youth transition program for cognitively challenged youth, to help them get jobs, and the thousands of people we helped during the fire.
As I look back, though, the real highlights are the stories of people we’ve helped and the lives we’ve changed. Such as the young man with a cognitive challenge, waving his first paycheck around; the elderly woman in our Voyages program dancing and smiling to Elvis impersonator music; and the woman who transitioned off welfare to her first job as a certified nursing assistant — and now she’s supporting her daughter.
What are your goals for the organization in the next couple of years?
Our business is a business of changing lives. So really our goal is to change more lives by helping people become more economically and personally independent.
So we’re going to focus on our business enterprise to create more jobs, and we’re also going to be focusing on expanding our mission service programs so that more people can participate. And the way we make that happen is to grow donations and expand the retail operations, which are our primary funding source.
Describe the workforce culture at Discover Goodwill.
Well, I think of the workforce culture as being developed by the employees here — they are incredibly diverse and teamwork-oriented, and they are mission-driven in a huge way. They are all key stakeholders. They are all participating in the lives of the people we serve. It was in 2013 when we received the Business Journal award for best nonprofit to work for.
What do you wish the people of Colorado Springs knew about nonprofits?
First is that we’re a tremendous economic force in the community. We have 1,200 employees.
Second, when people want to get involved, they need to figure out what their passion is and find the nonprofit that exhibits that work, and research that nonprofit and make sure they’re performing that mission in a fiscally responsible and sustainable way.
(There’s a great organization called GuideStar, which has all kinds of information about nonprofits. And we’re very proud we’ve achieved gold-star status for our mission focus, fiscal responsibility and transparency. )
And once you find that nonprofit — get involved. Take your passion and go for it. There are so many different ways to give — not just money. You can use your heart and your hands.