New at the top: How a life of embracing opportunity led to a need to combat hunger
By Interview with Vanessa Small,
My career has included turns in journalism, the business world, the nonprofit sector, government and the United Nations.
I was a pretty versatile kid. I liked everything from math, science, sports, music and writing.
An important early moment for me was when I was 16 years old. I took a mission trip with my church to Guatemala where we helped provide food for hungry people. I had led a pretty parochial childhood, and that opened me to social need worldwide.
I saw mothers holding their hungry babies and crying. I remember being struck with a deep sense that things could and should be better.
The next year, I started working on the school newspaper. I loved the way a simple article could steer debate and occasionally effect change.
I caught the bug. I became editor of the newspaper and embraced journalism as a means of exposing injustice, raising discussion and improving policy.
I decided to pursue a degree in journalism in college, where I became a managing editor of the school’s daily paper. My first job out of college was to work for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I covered cops, schools and business but I was really moved by the international coverage.
I pursued an international studies degree, and then covered economic development in South Florida. I loved that career because if you wrote a story about the corner dump that hadn’t been cleaned up and was causing a rodent problem, the next week it would be cleaned up.
In covering the political issues there, I was approached with an opportunity to come to Washington and work for a member of Congress as a press secretary and foreign affairs adviser.
I tend to embrace opportunity when it is something I feel I can really learn from.
Then I got a call from a headhunter who said a small firm was looking for someone to develop a business around explaining aspects of Washington to Wall Street.
I embraced that opportunity, too. I set about building a team and streamlining the business. I led an effort to increase revenues and was tapped to be president.
When I was recruited to lead the Council on Foreign Relations, I knew the time was right because Wall Street was largely about money, and I was driven more by people, issues and solving global social problems. The council offered a rare opportunity to work on social problems at the global level.
During my tenure we worked on many things, from global environmental policies to the Middle East. I worked very closely with then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on bringing political parties together to more effectively create policy.
When the executive director of the U.N. World Food Program called with an offer to join the senior leadership team, it seemed perfect because the issues were challenging and fundamental to all development.
Education initiatives and health initiatives don’t work if people are hungry. I knew this would be a chance to delve in and apply everything I’ve learned working on such a critical issue.
The experience of working on hunger internationally has been transformational. I’ve seen the power of government and business to really help individuals and families and entire communities solve hunger.
I’ve traveled to Bangladesh, Darfur, Ethiopia, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Pakistan and South Sudan. But the most compelling hunger I’ve ever seen is right here at home.
I feel that the Capital Area Food Bank is already well run and doing incredible work. They are really looking for someone to innovate in nutrition and hunger solutions. I can’t imagine anything more rewarding to do than that.
—Interview with Vanessa Small
Nancy E. Roman Position: President and chief executive of the Capital Area Food Bank, a nonprofit that services 700 area partner agencies and innovates hunger solutions. Career highlights: Director public policy, communications and private partnerships, U.N. World Food Program; vice president, Council on Foreign Relations; president, G7 Group. Age: 51 Education: B.A., journalism and French, Baylor University; M.A., American foreign policy and international economics, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Personal: Lives in Bethesda, with husband Steven Cohen. They have two children, Taylor and Daniel.