Situated in the Regent Park neighbourhood of Toronto, Visions of Science (VoS) works to empower youth in low-income communities by engaging them in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Headquartered in a co-working space dedicated to organizations working toward social innovation, Dr. Eugenia Duodu became the CEO of VoS in 2015 and has overseen its exponential growth since then. She sat down with Canadian Chemical News to discuss how she leveraged her own PhD in Chemistry into a successful and fulfilling career in the non-profit sector.

Eugenia Duodu

Eugenia Duodu, CEO of VoS. Photo credit Canadian Science Policy Centre.

How did you first get involved with VoS and what motivated you to stay long-term?

One day during my PhD I asked myself what my passions were, and the answer was science and research — but also community. I googled “science and community Toronto” and found VoS.

Because of my own background growing up in a low-income community and my personal journey when it comes to representation, I was interested in working with an organization that focused on youth from marginalized communities and populations. I know and have experienced how deep the barriers to success are, and how opportunities like this can change a person’s life — when you give someone an opportunity to succeed, their attitude and life can completely change.

What motivated me to stay was the potential of what VoS could become. Actually, the first time I met the then-Executive Director Francis Jeffers he predicted that I would one day run the organization, which I thought was wild at the time.

What was graduate school like for someone wanting to do community work? Was there ever pressure to stay in academia?

Yes, always! I think every graduate student has this unwritten, unspoken assumption that if you’re here you’re going to be in either academia or industry. A lot of my friends were surprised that running an organization like VoS could be a career. The amount of work I had to put in during and after my PhD to make this work out was huge, but I really believe in this organization and I’m doing what I love.

Many graduate students feel like they have to be in the lab 24/7, we all feel a bit of guilt if we leave early – even for volunteer work. How much support did you have from your research supervisor to spend time on VoS?

I was very transparent with my supervisor [Professor Patrick Gunning, University of Toronto Mississauga] about my goals and passions and he was also very supportive of me. I knew exactly what he needed from me with regards to research and output so I said to him, “Let me tell you about this organization I’m involved with. I’ve re-jigged my schedule so I can come in these other times to get my research done.” He was totally cool with it.

My volunteer work also opened up scholarship and award opportunities for me. Whatever altruistic reasons someone might have for volunteering, it’s also important to be mindful that this is professional development — it’s good for your CV. So I would recommend students take that time to talk to their supervisors to make sure there is time for both research and for things outside the lab.

What did you do to prepare yourself to be CEO of a non-profit like VoS?

I knew right off the bat there were certain things I would have to work on — for example, I knew that I would need to be able to fundraise my own salary. In order to have paid staff like we do now, the organization would need to grow to a certain level to be sustainable. It was still fairly grassroots at the time and didn’t have charitable status yet.

So to prepare myself, I did what graduate students do: a lot of research. I set up meetings with other people who had made this sort of transition (either into non-profits or any non-research position) and asked them, “how did you do this?” I also had to do lots of research into what non-for-profit organizational structure is like and what roles needed to be in place and filled for us to grow.

I helped grow the organization while still pursuing my PhD so that I could transition into the role full-time, but it was a balancing act because I was still in school.

The first thing I did after I graduated was to enroll in a fundraising fellowship with the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP). That taught me the ins-and-outs of fundraising and helped orient me towards a goal of where I, and VoS, needed to be and how to get there.

In total, I ended up taking three courses after coming out (of school): an accounting course at U of T as a continuing education student, the fundraising-for-professionals course, and most recently an executive course at Harvard University called Strategic Perspectives in Not-for-Profit Management.

What is the transition like going from academia to not-for-profits? How does your academic background affect your work here at VoS?

Honestly, there is not a day that goes by that I’m not so thankful for my PhD. Graduate school made me incredibly resilient. The things that phase other people — all the ups and downs — after years of experiments not working and having to write a thesis, certain things don’t bother you as much as they would normally.

My risk tolerance is also higher because of my PhD. I had to do a lot of experimentation during my PhD so I’m OK doing that in this context of VoS. I’m OK with trying new things, building a framework to evaluate it, and then canning it if it doesn’t work or building on it if it does.

I also learned to write well in graduate school. VoS gets positive feedback about how clearly our grants are written, and part of that is because I’m used to having to collaborate on documents with lots of people and having to unify many voices into a single polished document. And receiving criticism is fine because I’ve been through it with reviewers on academic papers.

On the other end of that, are there any habits (from academia) you had to shake that were impeding your day-to-day work?

Working all the time. I think that in academia there is no such thing as “work-life balance.” There’s “work-until-your-thesis-is written” and “work-until-your-defense.”

If you need to go to the lab on weekends, you do that. If you need to stay at the lab until an obscene hour, you do that — it’s whatever gets the work done and that’s how I worked for the first year of this job. I think transitioning out of that was difficult. And because I’m running an organization, I have to set a really good example for my staff. I think that type of work ethic, without any checks and balances, can be really problematic. I had to shake it.

Is there anything you wish you had learned as a graduate student before working in non-profit?

I think finances and management were huge ones I was missing – and I don’t think this has anything to do with my role as CEO. All my friends both in and out of academia need management experience. It’s not just about the grad student that wants to be a CEO – somebody needs to teach graduate students how to manage people.

With all the things you’ve learned that you’ve had to shake, would you recommend a PhD to someone who would want to pursue work in your field.

I feel like they should do a PhD because they want to. All of the things that I need can be learned somewhere else.

Any other advice for students who want to work in your field?

Get involved! Volunteer with the closest derivative to where you want to be and start to see what that looks like. Put yourself out there, offer up your expertise, and show people you have something unique to contribute.

Lastly, what are your proudest achievements here at VoS, and what are some of your future goals for VoS and for yourself?

As CEO of VoS, there are four things I’m most proud of:

Our growth. Being able to expand our reach in so many communities is something I’ve always wanted to do – and we’re doing it.

Our team. It’s not my personal achievement, but I’m so happy that this organization has attracted such good people. I work with really good people and I’m proud of that.

Our fundraising. When I came on, we had $20,000 in operating revenue. And now we have almost a million, it’s been a steep jump. I can honestly say I’ve worked really hard with my team to make sure that it’s happened in a sustainable way.

Our kids. The fact that our youth have stayed. I think our STEM Community Leaders program is our proudest achievement as an organization because it’s a testament to how good the program is that the kids actually stay year-after-year. Some of them are in high school now and that retention is the biggest achievement for us.

In terms of the future, our main organizational goals are to increase our fundraising capacity, expand to 10 more communities over the next two years. We are currently in 24 communities and developing more partnerships.

As a CEO, my goal is see this growth through — both with fundraising and staff development. On a more personal note, my goal for 2019 is self-care. I could be a little better about work-life balance. I’d also like to get into writing a bit more, I’ve been sharing my story a lot verbally so I don’t know, maybe a book is in the future.