Linda Latsko-Lockhart is founder and CEO of the Global Give Back Circle, a non-profit organization “designed to help at-risk girls realize their leadership potential and become change-makers, while gaining the skills needed to get good jobs so that they can break the cycle of poverty and lift up their families and communities, too.” Linda has leveraged her more than 25 years of global entrepreneurial experience and desire to give back to society to bring structure and sustainability to a critical social intervention—the empowerment of disadvantaged girls around the world. The Global Give Back Circle provides resources and mentors so that these girls can have access to education, gain employment, live independent lives, and eventually give back, too.
Latsko-Lockhart got her start at Penn State Altoona before earning a bachelor of science degree in fashion design from Drexel University and an MBA from the Johnson School of Management at Cornell University. This Q&A gives an inside look into her journey—from a freshman student at Ivyside to a chief executive officer representing women worldwide.
What is your favorite memory from your time at Penn State Altoona?
I fell in love at Penn State Altoona, not in the traditional sense, but with a group of friends, who have become family. I believe our shared values connected us back then and these same values are what have kept us together all these years. A hard work ethic was definitely one of our shared values. We all came from hardworking, middle-class families. Citizenship was another. Having a good sense of humor was a non-negotiable. To this day, nobody takes themselves too seriously, even though everyone has done very, very well in life. I like to think Penn State Altoona attracts this type of student.
Another memory is that of stepping up to responsibility as a resident assistant. Through this experience, I realized how much I enjoyed coaching, guiding, and mentoring young women. I loved every aspect of the position because of the ways it forced me to reflect on my own behaviors, so as to earn the right to be a role model for the incoming freshmen who were just as naïve and clueless as I was the year before.
What made you decide to attend Penn State Altoona? What were your first impressions of the college?
Throughout high school, entrepreneurship, especially anything to do with sales, drove my passions, and academics were something I had to sludge through, but never really enjoyed. Upon graduation, my focus was on gaining the qualifications and skills I needed to be successful in fashion design and retailing.
Penn State Altoona offered a retail merchandising program and a textile program. I applied to the retail merchandising program, knowing I could take elective courses in textiles. My not-so-good transcripts and not-so-good SAT scores were—at that time—good enough to gain admission to an academic experience that changed my view about academics and motivated me to shift from ‘good enough’ to personal best in my academics. Looking back, it was the intimate and nurturing experience of Penn State Altoona which helped me navigate college life and understand the links between education and opportunities out there in the world.
From day one, Penn State Altoona helped me figure out how I could afford college. This was critical because without this knowledge I would not have proceeded through the application process. I came from a family of five children and college was an expensive proposition. The admission office at Penn State Altoona guided me through the various government grants and student loans for which I qualified. They also suggested I apply for a job working in the dining hall. All of this support coupled with a summer job at the Jersey Shore made a college education a reality. This was empowering
In 1973, the campus with the pond, the bell tower, Ivy Hall, and two dormitories, one for women and one for men, was exactly what I expected a college campus to look like. I remember how it felt to purchase my first pile of heavy text books at the bookstore and carry them in my arms back to my dorm room and line them up on the desk that was now mine. That was significant because those books were symbolic of my place in my new world. I was a college student. I had arrived. I remember drinking coffee, like everyone else, but not really liking it—not like I do today, that is. I remember queueing up at the end of the hall to make a call on one of the two payphones and feeling bad for the girls who were crying while talking to their parents because they were homesick. I remember having to wear a green smock and hairnet when I worked in the dining hall and blushing a lot on my first day when I was put on ‘chicken duty’ and had to ask everyone to make a choice between a leg or breast.
I saw Penn State Altoona as a new beginning. So much so, I told everyone my name was Natasha. Natasha Latsko. My fake identity lasted for about a week. I think I got away with it because I was the only six-foot-tall female on campus. Why wouldn’t I have a name like Natasha?
I remember how grateful I was to find out Penn State Altoona was so inclusive. I grew up in a white, Christian neighborhood, so being able to learn and engage with students of different color, ethnicity, and religion was fascinating and a privilege.
What was your first job after graduating from Drexel University? Moreover, what did you consider to be your “dream job” at that time?
After two transformational years at Penn State Altoona, I made the hard and emotional decision to not proceed to University Park with my friends. After taking all of the retail merchandising and textile courses Penn State Altoona had to offer at that time, I knew I had to transfer to a university which offered an accredited fashion design major. Drexel University accepted me into their fashion design program and I knew it was time to break worlds once again and grow in new ways.
Drexel University’s close proximity to New York City gave me just enough of a taste to know that New York City was where I was heading next. Although I mastered the technical skills of fashion design at Drexel, I also honed marketing skills. My dream job was to be a buyer for Bloomingdale’s, and I set my goal on their executive training program. I still have the job offer letter from Bloomingdales, with its annual starting salary of $8,500. It was the beginning of a new chapter, as I was to spend the next five years learning how to run a profitable business for the store which truly was like no other store in the world. I loved my job as the store’s Intimate Apparel Buyer, but knew there was still a new world ahead of me, and this meant pulling up my socks again and going back to the academic world. This time, it was for the MBA, and Cornell University offered me a full scholarship for an MBA in finance.
The years that followed were a whirlwind of opportunities, experiences, and privileges. I relocated to Paris, shopped in Florence, and found myself thriving in a career in consulting which took me around the world multiple times.
I reached a point when the question ‘how to give back’ started to gnaw at me. How lucky can a girl get, really? The time had come to go from the Concord to flying coach—to go from Gucci to The Gap. I woke up one day and realized something was missing, and I found it in giving back, and I never looked back again.
Today, the Global Give Back Circle is the largest gender-based mentoring, employment-readiness, and college education program for at-risk girls in Kenya. Its model has been replicated in Rwanda, South Africa, China, and India. Fourteen-hundred girls have been matched with 1,400 mentors from all over the globe. Twenty-one private sector companies have women mentors in the program, with Microsoft having more than 200. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), The Wilson Center, MasterCard Foundation, Ford Foundation, and the Clinton Global Initiative have provided resources to ensure that more than 800 girls are either in college or graduates with jobs in STEM, business, agriculture, education and so many fields where empowered women are making a difference.
My private sector life taught me very little about the development world but it did teach me how to design a strategy, build a brand, market with commercial intent, and manage toward sustainability. Most importantly, it taught me the value of a differentiated customer experience and importance of customer involvement. The Global Give Back Circle is one huge circle of involvement between girls and mentors, mentors and mentors, private sector companies which employ mentors as well as the institutions, local community organizations, and government agencies supporting the education of the girls.
One of my great mentors believed that once you have the right strategy, everything else is a mere detail. She was right. Our mission is to “harness the time and talent of women globally through a mentorship program designed to help at-risk girls continue their education and embrace economic freedom.” The strategy is simple: everyone involved gives back by placing the girls in the center of a circle of empowerment and providing the support they need to make the transition from poverty to prosperity. In return, the girls implement Give Back Commitments, designed to lift their communities as they rise up. The circle propels itself organically through give back. Not nuclear physics, but simple wisdom by Confucius, “Involve me and I will understand.”
Since you founded the Global Give Back Circle in 2006, how has your life changed?
I like to believe this experience has helped me to be less judgmental. It has definitely been a humbling experience, and in the same breath, an empowering experience. I would be lying if I did not say it is also a terrifying experience, because success carries a huge burden of responsibility to maintain sustainability. In this case, a negative turn in sustainability is not linked to a drop in profit margins, but rather an at-risk girl falling back into the throngs of harmful cultural practices, like female genital mutilation or becoming a child bride.
For those who have experienced the high that comes from giving, you understand that you are actually doing it because it gives you oxygen. It brings you joy and connects you to the world. It keeps you grounded and humble. It is addictive because it is so fulfilling. Most important, it helps you understand your purpose in life.
What part of your job as chief executive officer of Global Give Back Circle do you find most satisfying? What is most challenging?
Every time I receive a letter from a mentor explaining how her life has changed by mentoring a girl in the program, I am inspired. Every time I receive a letter from one of the girls, now a young woman, exuberant because she is finally a surgeon, an engineer, a consultant with KPMG or Deloitte, a teacher, a coder, etc., I am inspired. When I watched former First Lady Michelle Obama talk about the Global Give Back Circle at the World Bank Summit, I was inspired. These inspirations are now a constant. They have become a movement which takes my breath away.
My greatest challenge is that of not having enough time. Time is the one resource I wish I had more of.
Looking back on your career so far, what would you consider to be your biggest accomplishment?
Having the privilege to leverage all I have learned and all I have experienced to evidence an impact in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for women and girls is an accomplishment I am most passionate about
If you could give advice to a current Penn State Altoona student, what would it be?
If you are looking to give back, take it as seriously as you do all other important decisions in your life. Really dig deep to understand the issues you are most passionate about, and then think about how your giving back can have an impact. Visualize the level of impact and kind of impact you wish to make through giving back. Ask yourself it is doable, and if not, what other resources might you need. If you are passionate about it, others will follow your lead. When your passions govern you and your values are your compass, you are unstoppable.
Decide if you are looking to implement a project or a sustainable program. And, if you decide you are passionate about a sustainable program, take your time. Focus on something you are uniquely qualified to do, something which comes naturally to you, something which leverages all of your skills and networks. Listen, watch and listen, and then give back.
The Global Give Back Circle is always looking for women wishing to give back as mentors. If you would like to become a part of the Mentor Circle, please go to the website.