Pickett-Erway’s passion for the greater Kalamazoo area comes naturally. A self-described “local gal,” she grew up in the Pine Lake area. Her father, Robert Pickett, worked for GM; her mother, Catherine, is a phlebotomist at Westside Family Medical Center and a homemaker. Pickett-Erway was a cheerleader and played softball as a kid and graduated from Delton-Kellogg High School. She went to Western Michigan University and married a guy from Battle Creek. You don’t get much more local than that.
Ironically, though, the path that led this former small-town girl from the softball fields of Barry County to the corner office as CEO of a nationally recognized community foundation with more than $313 million in assets started in Nicaragua.
After high school, Pickett-Erway earned two social-work degrees from WMU: a bachelor’s in 1995 and a master’s in 1999. It was during those college years, she says, that she developed her “social conscience.” A Habitat for Humanity International project took her to Nicaragua, where she helped rebuild a hurricane-ravaged community and “learned to give back,” she says. “I wish it had happened sooner,” she adds.
As a result, Pickett-Erway changed the focus of her social-work studies from the traditional counseling and casework track to policy, planning and administration. “I’m more of a strategist than a tactician,” she says.
Those skills came into play in one of her first jobs, as a community organizer in the mid-1990s, when she helped residents of some of the city’s most-challenged urban neighborhoods define their needs and build their skills. The neighborhood housing program where she served as project director would later evolve into the Building Blocks program. This program, affiliated first with Kalamazoo College and now with the WMU School of Social Work, brings college students and volunteers together to refurbish house exteriors and do landscaping in low-income neighborhoods.
Other influences on Pickett-Erway’s ultimate career were the jobs she held while in high school and college. “I was one of the best waitresses the Plainwell Chicken Charlie’s ever had,” she says proudly. From that and other food-service jobs she held, Pickett-Erway developed “a deep respect for anyone who has ever worked in restaurants,” she says.
For several years in college, she worked for the employment-services company Manpower, interviewing and testing job seekers and aligning them and their talents with the needs of employers. She learned then, and still believes firmly, that people are an employer’s most important resource.
The Intern Who Never Left
It was her graduate-school internships, however, that landed her at the Kalamazoo Community Foundation. After internships with the Michigan League for Human Services in Lansing, which gave her a taste of policy analysis and advocacy, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, she came to the Kalamazoo Community Foundation in January 1999. At the time, recalls Pickett-Erway, the Community Foundation Board of Directors was exploring the proactive side of grant making, and her internship duties were part of that exploration. “I got lucky,” says Pickett-Erway. “It was unique for an intern to work at that level.”
There were two tangible results of her internship: The board adopted a policy of involving community leaders in its grant-making work, and Pickett-Erway got a job. The foundation brought her on first as an independent consultant and then as a part-time program officer. The part-time job turned full-time in 2001. “I’m the intern who never left,” she says, laughing.
By 2006, Pickett-Erway had become the foundation’s senior community investment officer, supervising the staff and assisting with the leadership of her department. When Olivares introduced a new operating model to the foundation, she was invited to assume the leadership of strategic planning. In January 2011 she was named vice president of community investment. A few months later Olivares announced his intention to leave the foundation to become president of his alma mater, Aquinas College, in Grand Rapids.
“We were fortunate that (board member) Don Vander Kooy stepped in as interim CEO,” says James of the period without Olivares. “That gave us some breathing room.” The search committee, which consisted of the entire board, began a national search. “We looked at some fine candidates,” says James, “but they lacked the knowledge of and passion for our community.” It was Vander Kooy who suggested they revisit the concept of hiring from within.
Pickett-Erway didn’t even consider applying for the top job; she had been vice president for such a short time. “I had so much to learn,” she says. “I was waiting for a perfect alignment of the stars. I had nestled into the vice president role.” Having just entered her 40s, she felt she had plenty of time for future career moves, and, like other foundation staff, she was excited to see who the new CEO would be.
When she was approached by the board about the job, Pickett-Erway had reservations. She wondered if they were settling for an easy choice by going with an internal candidate. But she soon learned that the board was not about to compromise its standards for a leader just to hire from within. “They still put me through the wringer,” she says.
“We put Carrie through a talent testing, and she hit it out of the ballpark,” James says, noting that the board was impressed by Pickett-Erway’s leadership abilities and knowledge of the community. In March 2012, Pickett-Erway emerged from the process as the first female president and CEO in what was then the 87-year history of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation. Her immediate reaction to her new job, she says, was “to pinch myself for my good fortune.”
It’s a feeling of good fortune she hopes the rest of the foundation staff shares. “Having relationships with my colleagues was an advantage because I know their talents,” she says. “No one had to show the new boss they were capable. I already knew that. We have an incredibly talented staff.”
The board’s decision to promote Pickett-Erway is a decision that the community also seems to have given a thumbs-up. “I’ve heard from the community that they love the fact that I’m local,” says Pickett-Erway. “I already know what we have here.”
Having seen Pickett-Erway in the CEO’s shoes for nearly a year, the foundation’s board remains enamored of her talents. “She just shines,” says James. “She’s a gem. Thank goodness we didn’t miss this.”
The Kalamazoo Community Foundation is acknowledged as one of the most successful community foundations in the nation, and Pickett-Erway attributes much of that success to its long-term stability. The organization has had only four CEOs in its history, with the shortest tenure being that of Olivares, who served for three years. Many of the foundation’s 30 staff members have been with the organization for years and even decades. “This lets us keep the momentum going and makes for continuing improvement,” Pickett-Erway says.
Pickett-Erway, a relatively young CEO at 43, is deeply entrenched in her community: Her parents still live in her childhood home, while her sister and brother also live in the area. In 1995, Carrie Pickett married Steve Erway, a Battle Creek native and engineer at Denso Manufacturing. Their children, Lucas and Grace, attend Kalamazoo Public Schools.
It is her children, says Pickett-Erway, who give her great confidence in the future. She describes Grace, a seventh-grader at Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts, as so creative and talented that “half the people I know will be working for her someday.” Lucas, a junior at Loy Norrix High School, is not only a great swimmer, says his mom, but an emerging leader and “brilliant.”
“Lucas and Grace care about this community, and at such a young age. They inspire me to think about my own leadership ability,” Pickett-Erway says.
As a busy wife, mother and CEO, Pickett-Erway has little spare time, but she does manage to work in a few of her own passions. She competed recently in a triathlon, for example. She and her friend Sam Lealofi have been walking, running and talking partners for several years, using the time as a stress reliever. The exercise helps put office problems in perspective, says Pickett-Erway. When she’s running, her only goal is to get up the next hill.
Challenging themselves to complete a triathlon seemed a logical next step for the friends. It was also a good personal goal for Pickett-Erway, who has been involved with Girls on the Run, a character-development program for girls in grades three through eight that uses running to help them develop confidence and healthy lifestyles. The pair chose to participate in the Girl’s Best Friend Triathlon, which was held in August in Kalamazoo County’s Prairie View County Park and was similar to Girls on the Run in its lack of competitiveness.
“Everyone we passed — or were passed by — told us, ‘You’re doing great!’” recalls Pickett-Erway.
Pickett-Erway indulges another passion each fall: college football. She says she goes to all of WMU’s home games and is a huge University of Michigan fan. But she admits, risking the wrath of the Buckeye State, that with one exception — Ohio State — she’ll root for any college team. It’s no surprise that Pickett-Erway, with maternal ancestors named Fitzpatrick and paternal ones named O’Conner, even occasionally cheers for Notre Dame, unless, of course, the Irish are playing against Michigan.
Pickett-Erway also serves on the boards of Kalamazoo County Ready 4s, an early care and education program that aims to prepare every child in the county to succeed in kindergarten, and the Local Initiative Support Corp. (LISC), which helps residents transform their distressed neighborhoods into healthy communities.
Whether through working with the foundation or through other experiences, Pickett-Erway has become convinced that “there is something very special about this community.”
Perhaps it is the community’s size — “It’s not too big, but it’s big enough,” she says — that allows the foundation to create collaborations and partnerships that fully represent the area. “That’s harder to do in larger communities,” she says. In addition, the most vulnerable families in Kalamazoo are easily visible. “They’re not hidden or isolated.”
Also distinguishing Kalamazoo is its culture of giving back, which has seen many families and individuals giving their money and leadership to the community for generations. “There’s less of a need to take credit,” says Pickett-Erway, using the Kalamazoo Promise scholarship program and the legacy of W.E. Upjohn as examples.
“Taking care of our neighbors is part of our ongoing culture. Each generation has refused to let that go away,” she says, noting that such dedication to caring for each other is “ intentional . . . and it must continue to the next generation.”
Even with its legacy of stability, the Kalamazoo Community Foundation has changed over the years, alongside the community and society as a whole. The foundation, says Pickett-Erway, has evolved in its understanding of diversity and equity. Diversity, she believes, is a different concept than it was two or three generations ago. Today, “diversity” includes not only race but also other socio-demographic factors such as sexual orientation.
The old concept of foundations, says Pickett-Erway, was “money in, money out,” with grants given to nonprofit organizations known for doing good work. Today, grant giving is much more intentional. Community foundations are taking a look at their communities, identifying people who have been marginalized and targeting grants to programs that can help them.
The Kalamazoo Community Foundation, in that vein, has targeted racism in the community. Among its efforts to address the issue, the foundation has funded a summit on racism, become involved with the Race Initiative of Southwest Michigan and supports the Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality (ERAC/CE) program. As a result, the YWCA of Kalamazoo presented the Kalamazoo Community Foundation with its first “On the Journey” Award in 2011, recognizing the foundation’s efforts to end racism.
Looking ahead, Carrie Pickett-Erway sees challenges for the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, as both the community and the social problems it faces become more complex and more systemic. Deep-rooted problems like poverty, she says, can’t be solved by treating the symptoms instead of the causes.
She points to the foundation’s involvement in the Learning Network as an example of the kind of broad-reaching programs that are needed to solve such systemic problems. Three years ago, the foundation designated education as its No. 1 priority. In keeping with that, the foundation is part of a local collaboration working to prepare every child in Kalamazoo County for school and college. The program has become one of the most important initiatives that the Foundation is involved with, says Pickett-Erway.
“When young people are educated, they can be contributing citizens.” And that, she says, is what makes a community vibrant.