A Gift for Good
If there’s anyone who knows how much Dorri McWhorter (BBA ’95) always wanted to do good and do business, it would be Santa Claus.
McWhorter, CEO of YWCA Metropolitan Chicago, had those goals clearly spelled out in a childhood Christmas wish list. She didn’t ask for the latest popular toy or anything that could be wrapped and put under a tree. Her requests were a little different.
“Number one was to let everyone in the world today be okay,” McWhorter says of her long-ago letter to Santa written when she was 11 years old. “Two was to give me proof that he was real, because I was starting to get a little pushback by that time. And number three was to make my parents let me be their accountant for a month.”
The first wish shaped the mission she still has today, the third one helped send her on her career path, and that second one she eventually figured out on her own. Put them together and it’s clear the childhood version of McWhorter isn’t all that different than the passionate leader who is now helping to make lives better for people in Chicago and beyond.
Getting down to business at the YWCA
McWhorter became CEO in March 2013, after spending nearly eight years on the board of directors. Hers was a business background as a partner at a leading accounting firm, not a nonprofit one.
“Business is one of the most effective ways to do good,” she says. “You have to do business because you can’t monetize your ideas any other way. How do you keep moving? If you don’t have any intersection with business, your project won’t move.”
Some of the lessons she took from the Wisconsin School of Business helped McWhorter keep the YWCA moving ahead with its mission to eliminate racism and empower women.
“The rigor of my education prepared me to take on anything,” she says. “I had that great educational foundation that allowed me to solve problems and connect the dots. It’s been critical to any success we’ve had now and to help us connect with other business leaders and say, ‘This is why this matters.’”
Until taking the top job at the YWCA, McWhorter had her feet planted firmly in the business world and remains a certified public accountant. After graduating from the Wisconsin School of Business, she took a job with Arthur Andersen in Chicago.
“Andersen was a very civically engaged business, so we attended many community events,” McWhorter says. “Andersen bought tables, and we were expected to go. That was really exciting, and I gravitated toward it.”
She also participated in the company’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program.
“This notion of business and volunteering always went together for me,” she says.
She also did management consulting work and in 2008 became a partner at Crowe Horwath, one of the largest public accounting, consulting, and technology firms in the U.S.
A new vision for what’s possible
A sense of public service wasn’t something that was drummed into her by her parents, McWhorter says, just something that was always there.
McWhorter was born in Englewood, a low-income neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. Her mother was young and single with two children, when she moved her two daughters to Racine, Wis.
—Dorri McWhorter (BBA ’95)
CEO, YWCA Metropolitan Chicago
“She clearly made a deliberate choice to impact our environment and move us out of Englewood and the Robert Taylor Homes public housing project to Wisconsin,” she says. “As I reflect back on that and think about my great childhood, I think about what is also possible for all these single moms who have young children and are trying to do what is best for their family.
“Now I’m sitting here on the other side saying, ‘It’s possible; we should make it happen,’” she says.
McWhorter is doing that not just by changing the business model of the YWCA, but making it clear that the organization should have one.
“Not for profit is a tax status, not a business model,” she says. “We do everything from computer training to sexual assault counseling. What business model exists for that?”
When McWhorter took over the YWCA, it was in the red, and she led the successful turnaround. The services were good and effective, McWhorter believed, but she also felt the organization needed to redefine its assets in order to be able to sustain itself.
“Yes, we have amazing programs and services, but the reason we’re a not for profit is we’ve proved those things are not supported in the marketplace,” she says.
Creating innovative partnerships
That’s where partnerships come in, McWhorter says. Business partners might lend a hand in some way, but the YWCA can help them, too. Case in point is a recent Drive to Thrive partnership with the ride service Uber. The company had announced an effort to hire more female drivers and launched the program in partnership with YWCA in Chicago.
Women with children like the potential flexibility of a job driving for Uber, and the program has a goal of recruiting 5,000 women in Chicago. Since the partnership launched in June 2015, more than 16,000 women have signed up in Chicago. In addition, Uber provides discounted rides for women in YWCA programs who are going to job interviews.
The YWCA also launched YShop, an online platform for selling a variety of products, not necessarily those affiliated with or bearing the logo of the YWCA. A portion of the profits go to the organization.
“I want us to be the Amazon of cause marketing,” McWhorter says.
McWhorter is also ambitious in trying to get businesses to rethink their philanthropy beyond writing a check. She’ll pitch a potential partner on ways they can collaborate together, such as finding a way to create jobs in neighborhoods.
A new approach to leadership
McWhorter’s three years with the organization have been transformational, says Karen Tulloch, president of the YWCA’s board of directors and vice president of corporate human resources at Illinois Tool Works.
“Dorri has provided extraordinary leadership,” Tulloch says. “Her vision and passion have reinvigorated and strengthened the organization. She has thoughtfully cultivated key stakeholders, created strategic partnerships, and further developed programs and services that advance the work of the YWCA.”
With McWhorter as CEO, the organization invited men to serve on the board of directors for the first time in its 140-year history.
“We’ve been doing it by ourselves,” she says of a board comprised of only women. “But why should we?”
Leading by example
McWhorter’s way of doing good extends beyond the YWCA. She’s also on the Mayor’s Commission for a Safer Chicago, a member of the board of directors for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, and has served on boards for the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Illinois, the Chicago Child Care Society, and the Chicago Architecture Foundation.
—Dorri McWhorter (BBA ’95)
CEO, YWCA Metropolitan Chicago
She recently joined the Wisconsin School of Business’s Diversity Advisory Board, and looks forward to working to help students connect with people from different backgrounds at the School. She remembers the first time she understood the benefit of expanding one’s horizons—when a college roommate took part in the Semester at Sea program and came back strongly influenced by the people she had met from all over the world.
“My experience at Wisconsin opened my eyes to how we need to connect with people and get different experiences,” she says. “People only have perspectives based on what their personal experiences are. If you want to have people understand different perspectives, you have to diversify the experience.”
Just good business
McWhorter is also trying to change people’s perspectives about what business is and what business can be, as well as how people can do good beyond philanthropy.
Santa Claus might not have given her the gift of making everybody okay, but McWhorter is using her desire for the greater good and her business acumen to get it done in her own way.
She tries to get others to see things that way, too.
“People flock to this industry to do good,” she says of the nonprofit world. “I challenge people to look at where you are and see where you can do good. If you’re doing finance, doing accounting—there are lots of ways to do good that don’t involve working for a nonprofit. It’s all about creating a better human experience for everyone.”