Full transcript of writer and storyteller Brooke Linville’s TEDx Talk: What Raising 12 Million Dollars Taught Me at TEDxBoise conference. This event occurred on May 5, 2018.
Notable quote from this talk:
“I had spent so much energy managing everyone else’s chaos, fixing everyone else’s problems, that I had no time, no space for me. Perhaps I could learn a few things from Sweet Briar: save myself like I had helped save the school.”
Brooke Linville – Writer & storyteller
I have a confession: I love “A”s. Love their symmetry, their validation, their pronouncement to the world that I am good.
And I was almost always an “A” student, with the exception of a few years in high school, when I aced being in love with boys, at the expense of “C”s in Salinger and derivatives.
Once I graduated from college with honors, I set my sights on acing the curriculum of life: get married, have kids, buy a house, start a business. We all know that narrative.
And I thought I was getting “A”s. My life report card looked a little like this.
Managing Chaos: “A++”. I have two boys: one is on the spectrum, the other started to do frontflips off my headboard about the time he turned two. I had started one business, was helping my husband launch a virtual reality startup, while writing a novel and volunteering at my kids’ school. I had a master’s degree in chaos.
Surviving Trauma: “A+”. My father was diagnosed with stage four Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma when I was 18. My house burned down in a wildfire when I was nearly eight months pregnant. And half my face has been paralyzed, eventually leading to a diagnosis of Lyme disease.
Every time I felt my life was finally on track, something traumatic would happen to knock it off course.
Fixing Others: “A”. When my bachelor father was diagnosed with cancer, I moved in with him, became his primary caregiver, found and enrolled him in the clinical trial that would save his life. I sent my husband to college, tried to teach him algebra, and edited nearly every paper before he dropped out.
I wasn’t just trying to take the final exam in my own life, I was trying to take everyone else’s too.
Guilt, anxiety, suppressing feelings: “A,” “A,” “A”. And I undoubtedly would have continued on that path, lined with “A”s forever, unfulfilled, a life of chaos, knowing that something was missing but never quite sure what.
And then, March 3rd, 2015. That morning, I was scrolling through Facebook looking for a few minutes of distraction. Instead of pictures of friends on vacation and enviable eggs. Benedict though, my news feed was full of gasps and sorrows. The small women’s college I had attended my freshman and sophomore years had announced it was closing that summer. I stared at the screen, unable to believe the news.
Sweet Briar College sits on 3,000 acres at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Central Virginia. Its entrance is one of the most beautiful I have ever driven, full of oaks and lush green, opening to brick buildings that have educated women for more than 100 years.
Before women were a part of NASA, they were educated at Sweet Briar. Before women held office in Congress, they were educated at Sweet Briar. Before women could vote, they were educated at Sweet Briar.
And like my own life, Sweet Briar didn’t look like it was failing, not to the outside: land resources, $70 million plus endowment, reputation. Demand for single-sex education had been declining, but I thought that maybe one day it would go co-ed like so many others before it had.
Never did I imagine that this middle place between adolescence and adulthood would close, especially so abruptly. At first I thought I had to be out of the loop; others had to have known it was in such bad shape. But as the hours passed, it became increasingly clearer that everyone, everyone had been taken by surprise.
The college organized a call that afternoon for the alumnae, which I joined, listening to the then-president discuss the college’s financial troubles: “The school would need to raise $20 million in three months,” he said. “Impossible $2 million a year had been a stretch goal.”
I got off the call a little confused and joined a Facebook group that had been organized to help pool our collective talents to see if there was something, anything we could do to save the school.
I thought maybe there was something small I could contribute. I have an “A” in fixing, remember? After an hour or so of conversation, I announced I was going to build a website, which I did, launching later that night, with several hundred hits the next day and a mention in the Washington Post.
Over the next week, we discussed how to accept pledges, manage communications, and formed a Board of Directors for a non-profit that would handle the legal and fundraising efforts. We named the non-profit after the website, “Saving Sweet Briar”. Saving Sweet Briar became my full-time job.
Alumnae from around the country sent me and my family food so that I could focus on the tasks at hand. I majored in chaos; I was in my element. I can’t raise $25 for Jump Rope for Heart. It’s a true story. And yet, I found myself leading the charge to raise millions of dollars to save a school whose mission I still believed in.
Traumatic circumstances, fixing, even some anxiety. Saving Sweet Briar was an opportunity for me to get an “A” in some of my very best skills. The lawyers that we retained developed a brilliant strategy around trust law. And I asked for money, and more money, and even more than that.
As a web developer and digital strategist, I had studied crowdfunding over the previous few years, noting what seemed to work. I didn’t have PowerPoint or a case for support as I would eventually learn is typical in most fundraising asks.
But what I did have was passion, and Photoshop, and a healthy dose of humor. When the president stated that the reason why high school students didn’t want to come to Sweet Briar was because they were too far from a Starbucks, I asked our base to donate the cost of a latte.
We raised tens of thousands of dollars in small donations as a result. When the finance director told some students that they couldn’t use their class project to raise money to save their school, well, I added a line on the donation form to send him a notification for every donation made in his name.
And when the Board Chair of Saving Sweet Briar testified on the stand that had she known that the school was in such bad shape, she would have donated all of her family’s “cow money,” I developed a campaign and memes around cows, which was wildly successful, given the college’s history as a working dairy for decades.
Saving Sweet Briar became my job. I spent nearly every day running the campaign, matching up donations on a spreadsheet, creating Facebook posts, maintaining momentum while the legal system churned, and doing everything I could to make the impossible happen.
Overcoming Obstacles: “A”. A little over a month after we started the campaign, we had our first hearing. We won a small but notable victory halting the sale of some assets, but we didn’t win our case. So we appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, who ruled that the college could be a trust, which was a crucial distinction and critical for our legal argument.
The case was remanded to the lower court. Two days before that new hearing, with the previously-declared impossible, $20 million in pledges, we reached a settlement agreement to keep the college open. Saving Sweet Briar would be required to deliver $12 million in cash in 60 days. We delivered.
If this was just a story about Sweet Briar, the legal victory would be the climax, with the freshman class from that closure year graduating this next weekend in May 2018, the resolution. But this isn’t just a story about Sweet Briar.
After we delivered the money and turned the keys over to a new board, I rejoined my husband’s start-up as the CEO. I took our small team from Boise, Idaho to TechCrunch’s Disrupt, to Innovation Awards: the Consumer Electronics Show, to Samsung and Disney and Google.
Chaos, managing, doing, fixing: “A”s. On top of trying to raise venture capital for our start-up, I also agreed to help the new team at Sweet Briar continue to raise money online.
Overcommitment: “A++”. And a year after the closure announcement, the Idaho Business Review named me as a Woman of the Year Honoree. I had much to be proud of. And yet, as I stood on that stage, listening to my achievements, I felt like a complete failure. The places in my life that I was acing allowed me to help save the school, run a high-tech start-up.
But I was getting “F”s everywhere else. Boundaries: “F”. Self-care: “F”. Joy: “F”. Support System: “F”. If I didn’t make some institutional changes in my own life, I was going to find myself on the same path as Sweet Briar. I didn’t want to close my doors, shutter my heart, announce to the world that I had failed.
I had spent so much energy managing everyone else’s chaos, fixing everyone else’s problems, that I had no time, no space for me. Perhaps I could learn a few things from Sweet Briar; save myself like I had helped save the school.
I have struggled with the concept of belonging since I was in middle school. I didn’t fit in here, or there, or even over there. If friendship meant truly being vulnerable and risking rejection, well, I’d rather be alone. As it turned out, it wasn’t that I didn’t belong, it was that belonging felt too risky.
I had fooled myself into believing that I was safe alone. But the reality was that without belonging, without friendship, I found myself with no actual safety net, in the same way that Sweet Briar found itself cut off from the people who supported it and could help save it.
If I was going to save myself, I was going to have to start believing that I belonged. I was going to have to trust that the hundreds of alumnae who told me that they supported me and would be there for me were telling the truth. I was Sweet Briar, and Sweet Briar women invited me in.
We believed, rational or not, that not only Sweet Briar could be saved, but that we could save it. Internally, I didn’t believe in myself. For years, I had carried around my negative internal committee: self-doubt, the super critic, who wondered what in the hell I ever did to deserve any of this, and anxiety, that hammered my heart and shook my nerves. I had spent a better part of three decades tearing myself down.
I believe that Sweet Briar’s problems weren’t just that they had lost faith in their support system, its leaders had lost faith in the institution. Nothing, nothing can survive if its leaders no longer believe in it. So, I became the Board Chair of my own life. I may not have been ready to add more positive members to my committee, but I was ready to let go of the negative internal voices that no longer served me or my institution.
Sweet Briar makes a choice to be brave every single day. The new Board, new administration, faculty staff, students, alumnae, all commit, each and every day, to ensuring the school’s survival. And that sometimes means making hard choices, like cutting some beloved programs. But with those choices come new ideas, new growth, new opportunities for leadership. It takes courage to commit to change.
In my own life, I had started to set the foundation for a new support system. I was beginning to believe that I had worth, but I was still afraid. After years of doing, fixing, managing, helping, trying everything I could to save my marriage, I finally found the courage to ask for a divorce.
I could’ve looked at it as failure, or I could see it for what it was: finding boundaries, calming self-doubt, mastering bravery. It was the single most important decision I made on the journey to save myself.
Sweet Briar has to balance its need for sustainability with its identity. It is first and foremost a small women’s college. It will never be a large university or cater to students whose dream school includes a Saturday tailgate at the stadium across the street; and that’s okay. Trying to be everything to everyone, as it turns out, is a losing battle.
For years, I had friends tell me that I was the busiest person they knew. I thought it was a compliment. In the nearly two years since I began this journey of rediscovery, I’ve learned that I don’t actually love being busy. It was a coping mechanism so that I didn’t have to feel anything or actually show up in my life.
Week by week though, that life has become a space that I can fill. I make choices and do things that bring me joy. Because, as it turns out, I deserve joy.
After the closure announcement, the S&P downgraded Sweet Briar’s financial rating to a “C”. After a year of stability efforts, they upgraded their rating to a “B.” In this past year, with increased efforts to restructure the debt and curriculum, they once again upgraded their rating to a “B+,” with an outlook of stable.
There’s still room for improvement, sure. It takes time, vision, being bold to come back from rock bottom. In the years since I stood on that stage accepting the Woman of the Year honor, my life has changed. I’ve learned to say “no”; learned that it’s not necessarily my responsibility to fix everyone else’s problems.
I’ve learned to sit with discomfort, like standing on a TEDx stage, despite the fact that it makes me very uncomfortable. And I’ve learned to find joy even in some of the most difficult moments.
Raising $12 million didn’t just teach me about fundraising, though it did do that; raising $12 million taught me the value of myself. I still love “A”s. But I’m not ready to give myself an “A” in life just yet.
The “B+” though? Yeah, I’ll take it. Besides, “B” is for bad-ass.