Purposeful Q+A: Lauren Casteel

Lauren Casteel

Lauren Casteel believes we all can be philanthropists. It’s part of her mission as the CEO of The Women’s Foundation of Colorado, a role that is the latest in a career that includes more than two decades of philanthropy. Lauren is the kind of compassionate leader who speaks with great clarity about her purpose.

She says: “I've been blessed to find work to which I'm naturally suited, because it's relational, and I am relational by nature. I am an optimist by nature. I believe in possibility and promise and equity and inclusion, and I believe in leadership. So, to facilitate that in others has, in fact, been a recipe for happiness for me.”

Every inch of this conversation was a pure joy, and I encourage you to read it through to the end.

To start, I asked her about that recipe for happiness, to share an example of a project that has left her feeling energized.

LAUREN:

There are many, many stories that we could tell on the basis of our grantees, and I've had the opportunity to travel around the state, and when I travel around the state and I visit our regions fairly frequently, a couple of times a year, I try to visit the non-profits, the work on the ground as often as possible.

There's a video, April's video from a program in Fort Collins that's on our website, where she talks about, as a single parent, the support that she was given, and surrounded by community, and non-profits, and volunteers who were giving in many different ways. She is now an environmental engineer, and so the life that she now has for herself and for her son is very different than what she had imagined a few years ago.

And I asked the girls at Harrison High School, in one of the poorest districts in Colorado Springs, and they were very diverse, these 12 young women in this leadership program, how it was that they all came together. Even though they all came from poor, very diverse in every demographic you could possibly imagine, they realized that none of them could achieve without the other. They were collecting blankets for a homeless youth program. I said to them, "So, you're philanthropists. You're paying it forward. You're giving back." They were all surprised because I had asked them, "Do you know a philanthropist?" And their answer was, "Oprah!" which is what young people will often say; and I said, "No, you are. You're part of that next wave of philanthropy."

So, the stories go on and on.

KRISTINA:

When you graduated from school, what did you think that you were going to do and become?

LAUREN:

Oh geez. Throughout my life I've had different visions. When I was younger I wanted to be a jockey. True story. Well, the five-foot-eight of me was not inclined for that to happen. I went through a phase where I was really interested in law enforcement as well and thought about being a parole officer. Then I thought I could combine the two and I could be a horse patrol woman. Then I learned that I'd have to carry a gun. I thought it was just a PR job. I thought I'd just ride around in uniform and people would love the horses and I'd make them happy. So, that kind of didn't happen either. These are funny things.

There was a point in my life when I thought I would go into politics and be a state senator, a U.S. senator. In terms of my pursuit in education, I love language. I come from a family that loves reading, and so originally, English literature was my major, and then I switched to communications later on, and graduated from the University of Colorado at Denver. When I completed my degree and switched to communications, I was already working at a television station. I'd applied for a job for which I had no skills or experience, but the person who interviewed me took pity upon me. She was kind of fascinated. She said, "I honestly brought you in because I wanted to know who would apply for a job for which they had no skills or experience." She said it was very well written application, but it's not happening. Yeah, it was very funny. She became godmother of my oldest child.

But anyway, she offered me an opportunity to take an entry-level position and then to work my way back into the position for which I had applied, which I did. That position is where my passion for community really came to be. I had the pleasure of hosting two television shows and being an alternate host on a live daily show, and to do production as well. They were all community-focused, based on a requirement at the FCC in the 1970s to bring more community programming and diversity into media fields. So, I went from this station, then to public television as a producer, and again, continued that community track.

One of the things as I moved along the way was that I realized I didn't want to be a face. That was not what interested me. I mean, I loved being able to interview amazing people. It's fun being on air, but I really wanted to shape the conversation. So I moved more deeply into production when I moved over to public television, creating programs that were very well received and highly rated that talked about issues that otherwise had not really been talked about. Post-traumatic stress in Vietnam vets. We were early out on that. Issues related to persons affected different abilities. Just a wide variety of things.

From there, much to my surprise, someone saw me. Katherine Archuleta, who was in the mayor's office, they were looking for the first senior communications officer press secretary for the city and county of Denver. They invited me to apply. Again, I felt as though I was in a place where I was applying for something for which I had no skills, and yet there was no blueprint for what this position could be. The skills that I ultimately had that were of value were my voice, my understanding of community, a sense of team, a sense of sort of the core protocols, I guess. But we were all learning together. To be a part of that administration was exhilarating.

I made mistakes along the way. I saw Federico Pena not too long ago, and I mentioned one of my mistakes that has haunted me for years, and he didn't remember it, which made me really happy. Said, "You don't remember that headline?" He said no. I was like, "Great. I can let it go. I can let that one go."

But when I think about who and what I wanted to be, I literally never could have imagined what ended up being. I found a home in a field that I would never have imagined.

KRISTINA:

Do you still love horses?

LAUREN:

I do. I don't ride anymore. People are surprised to find out that there was actually a period of time in my life when I jumped horses. My father grew up in Kentucky. I used to spend my summers there, so there was something about the bluegrass state that just got in my blood.

KRISTINA:

Your father was a civil rights leader, and then your daughter, who just seems like the coolest young woman, is a painter in New York. Both work with purpose, and so do you. From your perspective, what can people do to create a family legacy of purpose-driven work?

LAUREN:

I have three amazing children that I adore. There's certainly more press about my daughter Jordan, but I think one of the things that has been important to me from my family, a fortune from my parents and from my grandparents is ultimately that we, whatever it may be, whatever it is that we may do, that we seek to bring good into the world. I grew up, and my immediate family was involved in the Unitarian Universalist church, starting in Atlanta in the 1950s. Very unusual for a black family to choose a Unitarian Universalist church as its home. But one of the things that I love about both that and as a consistent theme with the messages in my home was that it was value-driven. So, here I frequently quote Maya Angelou, that one moves from surviving to thriving with passion and compassion, humor, and style, generosity, and kindness. Those were kind of the core things for me.

So, I see that in each and all of my children in different kinds of ways, my sons and my daughter. I think all we can do as parents, so to be quite honest, I don't like to take credit or blame or anything, really. You raise individuals to simply be their best selves, whatever that may be, and you walk the journey with your children, whatever that may be. Each and every human being that I know ... That sometimes means you're walking up hills, or you're walking through valleys, or whatever it may be, but you just continue along the side. Whatever one's purpose may be or whatever that may look like, I don't think it's about the arrival at a particular mountaintop, or a particular title. I think if one's purpose is to be the best parent that one can be, or the best friend, or the best person who can demonstrate passion and compassion, then that is wonderful.

I happen to believe that regardless of one's identity, one's background, anything of that sort, that we all seek, that it is a human condition to find one's purpose and to have meaning in life. Those who may find themselves in points of time where they are struggling, we should never assume that they aren't seeking or working as hard as they possibly can to be the best that they can be in whatever form that that takes. I believe in that inherent passion and decency of all humanity. Each and every one of us. So, I think that that's a core value for me is that I have that profound belief in everyone.

Q+A's like the one you just read are near-exact transcriptions of live conversations, so please excuse any fragments, run on sentences, or other completely natural phrasing that often takes place in a conversation. 

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