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Becoming an Executive Director | An Interview with Julia Kang

Nisha Kumar Kulkarni profile image

Nisha Kumar Kulkarni

A portrait of Julia Kang.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all formula for landing your dream job, following the lead of your peers can help you discover how your unique mix of passion, determination, experience, and know-how can usher you to fulfilling opportunities.

One such story to inspire you is that of Julia Kang, executive director of the nonprofit Top Honors. In this piece, Kang discusses her leadership experience, how being a volunteer has shaped her career, and how to leverage your experiences to secure your dream job.

From volunteer …

For Kang, the path to nonprofit leadership started with a volunteer position that she held while working in the private sector.

“When I first moved to NYC, I … landed at a well-established youth program for urban children,” Kang describes. “That experience as a volunteer [tutor] … directly fed my experience at Top Honors. Not only did I [learn] what makes volunteers tick … but also what kind of staff personalities are best suited to rally volunteers and students. I didn’t know at the time that I was headed to work [at a] nonprofit, but this was a big learning experience for me, this single two-year volunteer stint.”

… to executive director

It was because of that rewarding volunteer experience that Kang joined Top Honors—an organization that offers one-on-one math tutoring and mentorship to middle school children—as a volunteer and part-time staffer in 2009.

Kang went on to support Top Honors in their efforts to become an even more efficient organization by improving protocols and processes—including building out the volunteer program—and creating a website for donor and participant engagement. She wasn’t actively looking for a new or bigger role, but she couldn’t deny how her sessions with volunteers and mentees became the highlight of her week.

“When the time came that [Top Honors] was ready to invest in an executive director, I was lucky that I was still so enthusiastic and had invested a lot of [myself] into the work,” Kang states. “That I eventually [became executive director and the organization’s first full-time staffer in 2014] isn’t surprising in hindsight, but it was completely unplanned because [Top Honors] had relied on a part-time staff model since its inception in 2002.”

In her role as executive director, Kang is the chief staff member who answers to the board of directors, and is responsible for overseeing its directives and goals, including operations, fundraising, and advancement opportunities.

Because her mandate is so demanding, Kang doesn’t really have a typical day. “My days usually run late, as most of my in-person meetings tend to be in the evenings with volunteers [who have day jobs]. I spend a lot of time on the phone connecting with friends of the organization. Some days are research-heavy while we’re building out infrastructure on HR policies, others are reviewing new grant opportunities, and some are working with our board to execute our five-year-plan. There’s never a dull day.”

A moral obligation to step in and help

Being a volunteer put Kang squarely on the path of nonprofit professional and leader, but she doesn’t deny that her studies also had a role to play.

“I studied classics and psychology,” Kang elaborates. “I am happy to have a basic understanding of human behavior. Perhaps if I had studied sociology or policy, I would be better informed about the social stratifications and challenges of the marginalized, at least in a more formal academic way, but I don’t know that that’s any more helpful than connecting with people and listening to their stories.

“I studied classics because I love stories. There was a lot of … contextual framing around a society’s value set. [And] isn’t that what so much of our work in charity circles is about? Holding ourselves to a standard set by our society’s moral obligation to step in and help?”

Wanted: more volunteers

In the spirit of stepping in to help, a key challenge faced by Top Honors is not having enough volunteers. “I think this is true of all volunteer-driven organizations—we don’t have enough volunteers to meet demand.” For Top Honors, this means finding eligible, high-quality tutors who are ready, willing, and able to meet a weekly commitment for the entire school year.

In a place like NYC, there are millions of potential volunteers, but they just don’t know about Top Honors yet. “We have not spent a dime on marketing and recruitment of new tutors. It is time that we get the word out there for good New Yorkers who are looking for a meaningful volunteer partnership.”

Kang expands: “Part of [the] culture [that] puts charities at a disadvantage [is] we often scrape by or do without many of the resources that for-profit businesses quite readily invest in. Because of that, I often ask myself, ‘What and how would we accomplish X if we had the budget?’ And then we find a way to make that happen, with or without the financial resources.”

Becoming a leader

There’s never a dull day for Kang and it is for that reason that she recognizes the importance of everyday leadership.

“I learned early on that being a leader means modeling behavior that you want to see in the culture around you,” Kang reflects. “I make an effort to find every way to empower staff, by encouraging them to take an idea that they seem excited about and run with it.”

And leadership is not just confined to the corner office or boardroom. Even a volunteer can nurture leadership skills. One way is by deliberately being around people that you admire and want to emulate.

Another way to hone your leadership skills is by working to achieve your goals. Kang advises: “Identify what you want to get out of [your volunteer role] early on and know what goes into it. Then follow through. I cannot emphasize this enough. Following through is what sets apart the most effective champion volunteers.”

Because Kang couldn’t foresee the path that her career would take, particularly how volunteering would change its course, she sees everything as an opportunity. “Your path may not be how you envisioned it. Be open to new experiences, to forks in your road, and trust that every failure you make along the way is an opportunity for growth. Learn from your failures and apply those lessons to grow your future successes.”

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Nisha Kumar Kulkarni profile image

Nisha Kumar Kulkarni

Nisha Kumar Kulkarni is a writer and creative coach in New York City. She helps women living with chronic illness and mental health challenges to pursue their passion projects without compromising their health.

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