Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation President and CEO Michelle Foster had not intended to go into philanthropy.
“I took the scenic route, I guess,” she said from her downtown Charleston office.
Foster was born in Guyana on South America’s northern Atlantic coastline, where her mother had been an educator and her father was the chief financial officer at the general post office. The family moved to New York City when Michelle was 17.
“My mother’s first job in Brooklyn was at a child care center,” she said. “For the first couple of years, my father worked temp jobs to support the family and save for a home.”
But, she said, “We thrived despite our meager surroundings and we became naturalized U.S. citizens. Becoming citizens was critical. It meant that we would have the right to vote and be a part of the democratic process in our adopted homeland.”
Foster went to City College of New York, where she studied chemical engineering. Prior to graduation she was recruited by BP Research and moved to Cleveland. She was later recruited by Union Carbide and moved to Charleston. She had intended to pursue an engineering career, even earning a master’s degree in engineering management, but that isn’t how it worked out.
“While working there (at Carbide), in 1993, I started volunteering at Ferguson Baptist Church. Something happened, and I really found my passion,” she said. Foster soon took a leap of faith and left engineering to pursue non-profit work.
Starting out small at first, Foster became more and more involved in the local community and community service. She gave life to Kanawha Institute for Social Research &