The Motivation and Inspiration Behind Her Career Path

When she was 16 years old, Emily Schaffer’s heart suddenly stopped beating. Before her doctors could treat her life-threatening condition, it stopped four more times.

Emily Schaffer as a child.

It turns out that Emily was born with an undiagnosed heart defect. She spent months in the hospital fighting for her life while her medical team tried different medical interventions. And each one brought a new set of complications.

Terrified she would die, Emily made a promise from her hospital bed that ultimately changed her life. “I decided then and there that my life will have meaning… that I will do things to make the world a better place,” she stated.

Fortunately, Emily’s health problems stabilized. And her heartfelt promise became a driving force in her life.

A Bay Area native, Emily grew up in Los Gatos, which was, back then, a small, middle-class town outside San Jose, California. Her father was a accountant for a local amusement park and her mother a music teacher in the San Jose Unified School District, where, because local funding was tight, she was laid off every summer, unsure if funding for her position would be identified before the start of the school year. “Overall, I had a happy, stable life,” Emily recalled.

Emily working on a computer in college.

The backdrop of her childhood was the Silicon Valley in the 1980s, with profound technological revolution all around her, like the launch of the Apple’s first PC and the rise of Cisco, eBay, and PayPal. “I remember watching some families catapult into wealth while others, like mine, were isolated from it.” In college, she acutely felt like an outsider as she was turned down for multiple internships. Working as a temp across the street from eBay, she recalls her discouragement: “All I could think was how do I get inside there. I knew, even as a middle-class kid with two parents who went to college, I had no shot at getting on the inside without a connection.”

Emily accompanied by parents for her college graduation.

Armed with a college degree in Quantitative Economics, one of only a few women in a male-dominated major, Emily set out to fulfill her promise to change the world. She chose a position with Teach for America, so she could help kids in disadvantaged communities. Emily’s mom was dismayed by the thought of her daughter struggling with the economic hardships she endured as a teacher. But Emily knew it was the right path for her.

Emily was assigned to teach elementary school in Compton, a lower-income neighborhood in Los Angeles. While she worked hard to make a difference for her students, she was also deeply concerned about their futures. “I could literally look at the middle school my fifth graders were heading into, and I knew the system was not set up to help them lead successful lives,” she explained. To create true change for young people, she knew she needed to expand her scope beyond the classroom. Intrigued by the field of social entrepreneurship and its grass-root approach to solving societal problems, Emily went to work for a Bay-Area nonprofit, where she helped workers in low-wage jobs get employer-funded career training, so they could get better-paying positions.

Looking at how her organization was bridging the gap between the “have’s” and “have not’s,” Emily grew increasingly excited. “I kept thinking I could do this. I could build a solution that could work.” Realizing that this was her life’s calling, she also knew in her heart that she wanted to lead this change herself. Based on what she knew about her current organization, she set her sights on becoming an executive director.

Emily was sure she wasn’t ready for this type of job. Not yet, anyway. So, she began looking for ways to gain the skills she would ultimately need. She proactively took on new projects beyond her current role, learning more about things like grant writing, maintaining program quality amidst growth, and managing corporate partnerships.

During this time, Emily and her husband welcomed their first child into the world. While her heart was filled with love for her baby, she also was ready for more. While on maternity leave, she helped a colleague by taking on a seven-week, part-time instructor role with Year Up Bay Area, an organization that was helping young adults reach their full potential.

The experience was life-changing. Her students wanted to change the world, just like her. And they, too, were overcoming barriers as outsiders looking in, challenges far greater than any she had ever faced. Emily knew she had found an organization where she could pursue her calling. And she moved from her temporary teaching role to a Director of Program position.

Year Up Bay Area’s San Jose campus’ Ribbon Cutting.

Those initial seven weeks turned into eight years as Emily worked diligently to break down barriers for young adults. One of her very first projects was helping Year Up Bay Area expand from a single campus in San Francisco to a second in San Jose. This milestone was an epic moment for Emily. By bringing Year Up to her local community, she was directly helping those on the wrong side of opportunity. “It was empowering to be able to address the things that I saw and felt as a young person,” she said.

As Year Up Bay Area grew quickly, Emily continued her quest to become an executive leader. Her Executive Director Jay Banfield took Emily under his wing, supporting her goals and helping her build skills she would need, like how to manage a revenue line and a portfolio of donors. She also turned to Ronda Thompson for mentoring, one of Year Up’s first executive directors promoted from a program role. “Ronda helped me realize that you really have to own your position as a decision maker, defining the vision and helping engage others to get on the path,” she explained.

By the time Jay moved on to a new role at Year Up, Emily had been honing her skills for years and knew that this was a role she wanted to pursue. When the Executive Director position was posted internally, she applied very quickly and enthusiastically. She knew she could always do more to prepare, but she also knew that she possessed the core capabilities and passion to take YUBA to the next level.

She worked her way through layers of interviews, each time getting the green light. She also had a very positive interview with YUBA’s Board of Directors, who were impressed and had confidence in Emily. “Given the importance of the role, the Board felt it was important to not only be very confident in Emily (which they were), but also to compare Emily as the best internal candidate to an external comparator to know that they were making the absolute best choice for our young adults,” says John Bradley, Year Up’s Chief Operating Officer. This perspective was aligned with Emily’s thinking as well. While she believed that she was the right candidate, she also wanted to know that when she got the nod that it was fully informed and that the Board was clear in its choice across the internal and external field.

This was still understandably a difficult time for Emily. “I felt the whole range of emotions. I worked so hard for this. It was so close. Everyone said yes, but there was still this other hoop,” she recalled. At the same time, she was confident in her skills, and knew that no one else could be more committed. She also agreed (in her head and in her heart), however that if somehow a look externally identified a better leader for  YUBA, that person ought to have the role.

While the search was conducted, Emily was asked to step in as Interim Executive Director, taking on this new role while still doing her program role. As she worked to take up the challenges with this daunting task, her business coach gave her a nugget of advice she still trues back to: “Don’t ever just take the set of things you’re given because that’s what you’re given. This is the time to lift questions up and really imagine what an ideal scenario might look like.”

Emily Schaffer speaking at Year Up Bay Area’s 2018 Decade Up event recognizing the market’s 10-year anniversary.

Leveraging this wisdom, Emily designed a hybrid of the two roles that worked. And she was ultimately selected for the Executive Director position. After 10 years of hard work and determination, Emily was finally able to lead change for the young people she so wanted to help.

While Emily was driven by a promise made on her hospital bed, she knows inspiration can come from anywhere. “Just set your sights on where you think you might want to go. At least you’ll get on a path that will bring you closer,” she said. “And don’t be afraid to think two to three roles ahead, so you can build your skills for the next job down the line.”

And while you’re striving to move forward, Emily believes it’s important not to overlook the journey along the way. “Challenges are hard in the moment. But when you can look for a way to push your edge, you’ll find an opportunity to learn and grow.”


To learn more about working at Year Up, visit our careers page.