Influential Voices: Cynthia Russell

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Influential Voices: Cynthia Russell

Find your niche, or create it

by Rita Martinez on Friday, March 9, 2012 - 8:10am

The Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research is committed to empowering women’s voices and leadership on the Stanford campus and beyond.  To promote this goal, the Clayman Institute is publishing profiles of our Advisory Council, women and men who have volunteered their time and energy to creating greater gender equality.  Over the course of the year, student writers will interview council members-- representing many communities, including financial, legal, non-profit, and entrepreneurial. We hope these profiles will inspire, as well as begin a dialogue with our readers about what it takes to exercise voice and influence in the areas that matter to you.  We will ask each of the council members to share their histories, paths to success, and career advice.

Cynthia Russell

Cynthia Russell helps nonprofits build strategic partnerships and strengthen their organizations. As Founder and Principal of CrossSector Partners, a management consulting firm, Russell calls on years of experience in government and the nonprofit sector.  Reflecting on her career, Russell fondly remembers her first experience helping run an organization as an undergraduate of Stanford University in the 1970s.

Delving into managing at Stanford

Russell credits Stanford for providing the opportunity to develop the management and fundraising skills she now uses to help other organizations.  As one of the undergraduate founders, and later as the first employee, Russell had to figure out how to set up a new organization, now the Clayman Institute for Gender Research and then, the Center for Research on Women. At the time, the process seemed bureaucratic; in retrospect, Russell can see that the challenges taught her to create novel strategies to achieve her goals. Most students can agree that Stanford can seem like a huge sea of opportunities where finding a home base can be daunting. Russell states that finding one’s niche can be instrumental in connecting like-minded people in order to drive ideas forward.

When asked about the impetus for working to develop the Clayman Institute Russell pauses to reflect. “I have a lot of different ways of thinking about the ‘why’; it wasn’t necessarily one thing.” On one point, Russell is certain. “I was motivated by a strong interest in the interdisciplinary connections that could be made between faculty who were working on issues related to the changing roles of women.” The Institute continues to make these connections today. Russell applauds Stanford for creating an environment that encourages students to think about issues in new ways.

From academic management to community development

Cynthia (Davis) Russell in the early days of CROWThe experience of growing and cultivating the Institute gave Russell meaningful hands-on experience that served her well in her transition from Stanford. First as a volunteer, Russell was appointed to the Palo Alto Citizens Advisory Committee to help the city allocate new federal funds, with an eye toward fulfilling her passion for affordable housing and community development. She soon recognized the importance of finding the best models for financing the renovation of abandoned buildings.

Russell knew that inner-city restoration projects were a big focus in New York, so she moved East and enrolled in the Masters of Public Administration and Urban Planning program at New York University. This soon led to a job with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development working on a joint HUD-New York City project that tested various models to identify the most effective ways to restore tax-foreclosed buildings. “Landlords were just walking away from buildings,” Russell explains. “The best way to alleviate this problem was to finance innovative programs that brought homeownership investment back to the City”

Russell moved to work in the Westchester County Planning Department and eventually became Deputy Commissioner of the Housing and Community Development Department, running a multi-pronged program. The position was challenging, especially for a young woman. She recalls facing push back from municipal officials. Russell had to explain the program and support its implementation, a tricky task given that some of the officials were not familiar  with new federal programs

Russell observed how age and gender played out in the workplace. “It took some skills to not be perceived as this young ‘whippersnapper’ and to be helpful. I remember one official yelled at me and then sent me roses.  I’m unsure what made me more irritated,” she muses, “but those were some things I dealt with. I supervised about 35 people, and it was a tremendous learning curve.”

Such environments can be taxing, but Russell says she has a strong family and supportive husband which gave her the strength to stay grounded. Looking back, she wishes she had a mentor, but mentoring was not part of the culture that was in place at the time. The management classes were helpful, but Russell admits that it wasn’t the same as talking to someone who had been in a similar senior level position who could advise on how to handle situations.

Russell moved on from her role as Deputy Commissioner to the Connecticut Housing Investment Fund (CHIF), where she served as President and CEO. In keeping true to her understanding of the best practices surrounding community development, CHIF developed new loan products to help developers finance the renovation of abandoned inner-city properties throughout Connecticut.

Building organizations in the non-profit sector

After  working in government and the nonprofit sector, Russell wanted to try something different; she turned to running her own business. From her experience working with CHIF, she had discovered there were few consultants providing services to assist executive directors in developing and implementing business plans to grow their organizations or to get a different viewpoint; the idea for CrossSector Partners was born. Many of Russell’s clients are her previous colleagues.

CrossSector Partners helps organizations identify and build upon their strengths so they can expand services and be more successful. The firm often collaborates with other nonprofit specialists and uses a team-oriented approach. The projects CrossSector engages in are very entrepreneurial in nature and usually take place with groups seeking to expand or develop a strategic direction.

Working in this field has made Russell more aware of the stages of organizational development. “Not every organization is plan-oriented. Many don’t stick to the plan or implement it even though they have one. For me, planning is essential, so this was a huge eye opener,” reflects Russell. “Some organizations aren’t ready to take the steps that will help them expand and grow”

It’s always been about community

Reflecting on her trajectory, Russell acknowledges the profound impact of her undergraduate experience. “I had a difficult time as a freshman,” she recalls. “Stanford can be a big place, and it can instill a sense of anonymity.” A turning point for Russell was finding her passion to connect people around the issue of gender equality. “What helped me was getting that foundation, and from there everything flowed better. [The Institute] gave me an opportunity to connect with a group of like-minded people and something to work on. When you find your niche, Stanford is incredible. There are no limits, and that’s the positive side.”


Rita Martinez is a senior majoring in human biology and a member of the Clayman Institute Student Writing Articles Team.