A native Californian, Yael Lehmann, moved to the East Coast on a whim early in her career in 2001. A few years after landing in Philadelphia, she became executive director at a small nonprofit agency dedicated to providing access to healthy food and nutritional information for Philadelphians. A decade or so later, she has grown the Food Trust into 130 staffers and one of the city's most respected public health organizations, while helping lead the expansion of their programs across the country...and beyond. When she's not jumping out of bed to go to the job she says still energizes her a decade-and-a-half in, she is playing bass in a band with her husband, volunteering for Girls Rock Philly and helping guide the board of directors for Franklin's Paine Skate Park. Or in her words: having fun.
We sat down with Yael in her Center City office to learn about her life and career and philosophies on both. Find out more below...
Interview by Corinne Warnshuis.
Tell us about your background, education and how you came to lead The Food Trust.
I am originally from San Francisco, born and raised.
I was born in 1968, and we had an apartment not far from the Haight-Ashbury. So there was a lot happening at that time and through my younger years: there was protesting and Vietnam. I felt surrounded by people that were trying to make the world a better place, and who were bringing attention to issues that they thought needed to be changed.
I ended up going to UC Berkeley and majoring in social welfare, and then from there working for different public health causes. One of the first places I worked was focused on HIV prevention in San Francisco.
The whole HIV crisis actually also had a huge impact on my life, because I was there right as the peak was happening, just as it was being introduced. At that time, no one knew if there was a cure or what was going to happen. I’ve described as it felt almost like there had been a war of some kind, you know? You saw all these pictures in the paper of all these young men dying.
I worked at one restaurant where half of the staff had died of AIDS, so there was just this feeling of trauma and crisis and fear.
But also at that time, I was witnessing people coming together — to organize, on multiple levels.
There were people who were organizing to deliver food to people who were homebound and suffering. At the same time, there were people marching, advocating for federal policy —eventually successfully.
For a long time, there was no money, no resources — people had to make it up from scratch; and I saw people doing that. Eventually, the victory of finally getting the federal policy through was an amazing thing to watch and learn and be a part of.
Yael Lehmann stands at a Food Trust organized farmers' market at 18th and South in Philadelphia. Photo by Chris Fascenelli.
So you were inspired by that.
Yeah, I had always been really interested in the intersection of social justice and public health.
But then there was a point that I realized that I had never left the West Coast, and didn’t have any clue what it was like outside of this nice bubble that I was in, where I had my friends and my family.
So I said to my husband, “Let’s just go check out the East Coast for a couple years and then come back.” And little did I know I’d land here and meet my mentor Duane Perry, who founded The Food Trust.
The minute I walked through the door for the interview — that was in 2001 — that’s what changed my life. And now I’m here in Philly…13 years later, with no plans to go back.
How did you find out about Duane and The Food Trust?
I had an old supervisor in San Francisco who was really into food stuff and was on all of these — well, back then it was all about Listservs— so he was on one of these Listservs where they posted different jobs. And he said to me “Hey I just saw this job posted in Philly” and Philly was not on my radar at all, but on a whim, I just thought I’d apply.
And when I walked in, I fell in love with Duane. At the time, it was only like four or five people working for the agency, but I knew that this guy had something really special, and I just wanted to work with this guy…wherever he took us.
So what were you doing when you first started?
Because it was such a small agency, I just did a little bit of everything.
It was very startup. I was doing a program evaluation of our farmers’ market program, and I would help Duane write our strategic plan, and then I would call Blue Cross and figure out what was going on with everyone’s health benefits…and then clean the kitchen, you know. It was really just a huge range of stuff, but my official title was Assistant Director of Programs.
I eventually worked my way up to the number two role within this very small agency. And when Duane decided to retire in 2005, I came on as interim director, and then became director in 2006.
Since you came on as Executive Director, how has the organization grown? What’s changed?
When I came on, there was about a $3m budget, and now we have about a $9m budget. And I think there were maybe 30 staffers; now we have about 100 full-time employees, and around 130 including part-time.
I think it was really when the childhood obesity statistics really started to be published, and there was a lot of hoopla in the press about this health issue.
And then suddenly — you know, the work that we did was so weird at the time. I remember when I first came on, no one understood why I took this job.
There was nothing like it [The Food Trust] out there. Duane really was kind of visionary. There was no one doing this kind of work. The only food nonprofits were food banks. So the only way people understood us was “Oh you’re a food bank…”
We were kind of this quirky little group, but when the childhood obesity stuff hit the stage, there was a lot of interest nationally looking for solutions and suddenly things like “food access” the way we defined it, made sense to people. There was a lot of interest in what people were eating, why are they eating like that, that sort of thing. All those questions started bubbling up. But they wanted more than just the statistics — they wanted to see what solutions were out there.
In 2005, we had published a study with Temple University showing that our school programs had reduced the amount of kids becoming overweight by 50 percent. So we had some really hard data to show that what we did was solution kind of stuff.
People were interested, [asking] “What did you do? How did you do it?” and then we found ourselves slowly gaining interest from some of the national foundations and people wanted to replicate what we’re doing in other places.
Was that interest what caused you to expand?
We work all over the country now, and a little bit of the country as well. It first started with some of the public policy work.
But then as people got to know us, they saw some of the other work we were doing, and we started getting phone calls from people asking — and we didn’t do any marketing — “Hey can you come show us how to do this …or that?”
Now we do technical assistance, really everywhere in the country. But all of our staff are based here in Philly and we will always do on-the-ground programming in Philly…always.
The thing I am really proud of is that we actually do stuff. We actually run farmers markets, we actually have staff in schools, and we actually go door-to-door to corner stores.
We don’t just tell people how to do stuff…without doing it ourselves.
What leadership qualities did Duane or others have that inspired you as a leader?
For me, Duane and my mom are the two people that I looked to to learn leadership qualities.
Duane is just very elegant and hyper-intelligent…I would just watch him in awe. What I loved about Duane was that no matter what happened, or went wrong, he was very cool and very calm about it. I learned a lot watching him.
My mom was also a very important role model for me. She’s a CPA and she ran her own business for many, many years. I used to work with her in the office, typing up stuff, doing secretary work like filing papers, putting on the stickers that say “sign here.”
I would watch Mom also, very carefully. I didn’t even realize I was doing it. She was so cool because CPAs you don’t think of as being fun or something, right? But she was totally fun! She had the coolest office, and she was always laughing on the phone with people and making them laugh. She made accounting fun.
With your tax returns or anything else, that’s your life on paper. It’s very personal stuff and if you think about it, it shouldn’t be dry.
I loved watching how she would interact with clients, and just how she ran that thing. She built it from the ground, too. There were no women accountants; there were maybe two in San Francisco — as hip as San Francisco is. She built this really great business and it was really cool to watch that.
Yael stands next to a Farmers' Market stand in the middle of Broad Street, Philadelphia. Photo by Chris Fascenelli.
Is there anybody you currently look to who is inspiring to you? Maybe Michelle Obama over there?(Note: Yael has a photo of herself with the First Lady in her office.)
Definitely Michelle Obama, she is clearly a hero for me. I was lucky enough to meet her a few times.
First of all, as everyone knows, she’s drop-dead gorgeous. She’s like six feet tall, and like how you would hope your heroes are. You know, you kinda hope 'I hope they’re not a jerk'.
She’s really affectionate; she’ll totally hug you. She’s very warm, very normal. She has that ability — and people describe Bill Clinton this way — that when you’re with her, she will just focus on you, even though she’s got 999 other people waiting to talk to her. She’s like “I’m with you this minute, what’s up?”
Watching her speak, she just speaks from the heart and truly cares about the same issues that we work on at here the Food Trust. Watching her in action is just an amazing thing.
What are other qualities —aside from some of those you’ve picked up from others — that you think make a good leader? And maybe if there’s anything that makes a female leader different?
For one thing, I think it’s very important to be self-aware. What’s my personality? What are my strengths, weaknesses?
For example, one of my weaknesses was really needing to be liked…all the time, and obsessed with that. I used to be really down on myself for it, like “Ugh that’s a terrible weakness” but now I realize there’s a strength to it as well. It’s not either/or; it’s both.
But I had to give up being liked all the time, and that was hard for me — that was really hard for me. I think it is kind of a girl thing, too, wanting to be liked.
There were points and continue to be points where I couldn’t be nice. Times when I had to defend the agency, or I had to fight for someone —and that actually meant being combative and confrontational. And combative and confrontational are not in my toolbox…at all.
The way I try to manage it is in two ways: Number one is that I think being in the leadership role has made me a better person that way —it’s forced me to grow, to stretch.
I really feel like it’s made me a better, fuller person. It’s forced me to not be as safe all the time. But then it’s also important for me to say “Cool, I am not always comfortable in this situation” so I am going to balance out and try to find people who are good at that. But as years have gone by, I have needed less and less to have a crutch. But just recognizing that too.
I feel like I’ve heard other women talk about this, too: being uncomfortable around being strong about some of these things.
There’s been a big push in the past few years to get more women into leadership roles. What do you think is the solution?
For me, personally, I had someone who believed in me.
When Duane first asked me, “Would you apply for this job?” I was shocked by the idea of it. I wasn’t even comfortable with the idea. I had never led a place before and I didn’t have the confidence. I had enough confidence, obviously, to try and go for it, so that’s not totally honest. I had confidence but was unsure of myself at the same time.
So having someone who believes in you, at least for me, made a huge difference.
I volunteer also with Girls Rock Philly, which is so awesome. One of the things I love about Girls Rock Philly is that it’s all women instructors, all girls, and then you watch all-girl bands play.
It’s kind of that same thing, like how do you get more girls to play music? I think it’s great to have role models and people who are like “You’re awesome. You can totally do this.”
Because too often all of the signals that women get are: you’re not smart enough, you can’t do it, you’re not leadership material. It’s just more natural for folks to look to men in that leadership way.
I think women will sometimes acquiesce more, but I feel like that’s changing.
Because you’re not the traditional leader, and you’ve been in this space for 10 years doing this, have you seen a difference in the way that you’re perceived?
This is coming from my subjective point of view, but I felt like people thought they could push me around pretty easily. And they underestimated me, I think, some of the male figureheads of some of the other agencies and companies.
I had people try to tear me down. And it was just intimidating, honestly.
In a way it was kind of fun to be underestimated, and just being like “I’ll kick your ass!” You know, you think you can just bowl over me…but you can’t.
What other roadblocks, if any, did you have to face to get where you are?
There were a lot of roadblocks. There were different places where there were different struggles.
Right when I came on as Executive Director, I was finishing up grad school, I had a three-year-old son and I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. So there was the personal side when I first came on that was happening. The agency was awesome, and I was so excited about the role, but sometimes it was personal, when all these personal things would converge.
So there was work-life balance thing, just figuring out how to manage. And actually that work-life balance thing is so important. I’ve watched a lot of people in leadership roles hit the wall — men too, by the way — and have a total nervous breakdown.
Because you can work 24 hours a day. So finding ways to put your phone and your computer away…take a break. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Other barriers… I just had to learn a lot. For me personally, and this is just a self thing that’s maybe not for everyone. Duane was one of these guys who could just effortlessly be perfect at everything. He was like a one-stop-shop. And early on, I realized I wasn’t.
So I am one of those people that needs other people. Duane, on his own, was one of those guys who was just going to be a star and make magic happen. And it’s not a self-criticism, it’s just a self-aware thing: I need lots of people to help me.
Early on, I just had to be very open about that: I need help, I need help, I need help. And I think it had a positive effect; it energized people around me.
I was trying to imitate Duane at first — be commanding, or something — and I remember early on, someone came to me and said “You know, if you keep doing it this way, it’s not going to work out.”
I figured out: “I gotta be me, man!”
This agency is definitely not led by me alone. We have a full team and I need every single one of them, very desperately. There are a lot of people here running the show. And I am actually really proud of that.
What do you bring from the experiences of playing in a band and volunteering for Girls Rock Philly back into your work?
For my extracurricular stuff, I want it to be completely different from work. I also just want it to be totally fun. I am also on the board of Franklin’s Paine Skate Park. It’s important to me to have fun; I want to be laughing all the time.
I don’t know if you’ve been to a Girls Rock Philly performance, but it’s awesome. It’s a one-week day camp, and on the last day, they perform at a club. Different girl bands play songs that they wrote, and it gives me the chills. You’ll see girls as young as nine all the way up to 17, and I love that conquering your fear piece, expressing yourself. In that case, it’s a very supporting environment, everyone’s cheering for you.
But it’s scary as hell to get on stage. As a leader of any agency, it’s also like you’re constantly on stage, and it is very frightening. But I get completely inspired thinking of the girls who after one week are on stage in a club playing guitar.
Playing in a band for me is like a really important stress outlet. Just being able to plug in the bass and just play really fucking loud. I can’t explain it, but just having that physical sensation helps me relieve my stress, and makes me feel powerful.
Even though I’m 46 years old, I don’t give a shit. I’m going to play bass until I die.
And I’m not that good at it, even though I’ve been playing for 10 years, I’ve never really evolved. For me, it’s not about being technically good, it’s just a great release.
Also, it’s a great thing for me and my husband to do together that’s not bills and the kid and the laundry and stuff like that.
Yael Lehmann stands at a Food Trust organized farmers' market at 18th and South in Philadelphia. Photo by Chris Fascenelli.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
That’s a hard one. Some of the proudest moments was going to the White House and standing on stage with the First Lady and having her talk about how the Food Trust is a model for the country.
There’ve been a lot of highlights here. Even Night Market — it’s been amazing to start this thing and have it take off. Starting various different farmers’ markets, and watching those take off. Having the amazing results in the schools…I could go on and on.
I will say that every Monday, we have an all-staff meeting. We all bunch up together in a conference room. And really, looking out at the staff, on a simple level, is in some ways my proudest moment. Every single person reports out what they’ve been up to, and every week, I am blown away by what everyone is accomplishing. I feel this crazy sense of pride about that.
Do you have a life motto?
Years ago, when I first became ED, the Philadelphia Business Journal asked me that question. I talked it over with a couple of different people, and we came up with the motto “Create the world you want to live in” and I think that’s a pretty good one.
I like the idea that there’s still possibility — that you can make change. I continue to believe that, and have to believe that.