Dr. Michelle Foster: Thinking Outside the Box
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 & Action, Inc. (KISRA), a faith-based organization dedicated to strengthening families in the areas of health, education, asset development, and learning.
“I just started learning about community programs and what was needed in the community,” Foster said.
When she needed a grant, she learned how to be a grant writer. “I learned the ropes and learned about the non-profit world,” she said. This ultimately led to her completing a doctorate in community economic development.
KISRA began in the basement of Ferguson Memorial Baptist Church. “I grew KISRA from nothing to over 60 employees and a $4.2 million budget,” Foster said. The organization now serves over 2,000 people a year throughout West Virginia.
In 2015, Foster was asked to consider leading the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation. After much prayer, she agreed to an interview. Her application was one of 109 received by the foundation.
In 2016, Foster was tapped to be the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation’s next CEO. “We want to go to the next highest bar possible and we’re very excited,” said Charlie Loeb, a local attorney who chaired the foundation’s search committee. “I think we found our leader.”
Under Foster’s leadership, the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation has implemented an impact measurement framework to better understand the social return on the foundation’s community investments. She continues to expand the foundation’s role in the community.
Foster attributes her out-of-the-box thinking to the fact that she did not have a background in social work.
“It’s made me more entrepreneurial,” she said. “I am not fazed by challenges.
“I think my background gave me the tenacity I needed to grow KISRA,” Foster said. She has brought that same tenacity to the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation.
She credits her parents and her upbringing with her strong work ethic.
“My experience has taught me you can achieve anything you set your mind to,” Foster said. “As a minority, yes, it’s harder. But it can be done.
The motto of Foster’s high school in Guyana is “faithful and everywhere useful.” It’s a message she took to heart.
“My philosophy in life is, I have been blessed, so I have to be a blessing to others,” Foster said. “I’ve got to be useful in everything I do.
“That’s my life,” she said. “Always going above and beyond the call of duty for someone who is in need.”