Rosie Allen-Herring (MBA ’94) steps out of the offices at United Way of the National Capital Area in downtown Washington, D.C., and looks across the street to Strayer University’s Washington Campus.
The CEO of UWNCA takes a moment to reflect on how her life has changed since studying in that same campus 20 years ago. “All those late nights at a desk, reading on the Metro or waiting outside for my husband to pick me up—those are fond memories because they helped me become the person I am today.”
“This was my chance to bring together the breadth and depth of all that I had done...for positive change.”
When Allen-Herring started working on her master’s degree at Strayer University, she was one year into what would evolve into a 21-year career at government-backed mortgage giant Fannie Mae. After starting in asset management, Allen-Herring progressed into the housing and community development division, a move that would set her up for the nonprofit leadership role she holds today.
“I went from crunching numbers to assembling development deals that rescued communities,” Allen-Herring says. “Projects like that can be a long process and require patience to see them come to fruition, but that is when I started to feel energized around community development. I could see how we were bringing a sense of business to the community and a sense of community to the business.”
Allen-Herring was also focused on expanding her skill set so that she could better support those projects. “This was the early ’90s era of business process reengineering, total quality management and [renowned author] Stephen Covey’s highly effective management series,” she recalls. “I needed to stay ahead and learn how to think critically. I needed an MBA.”
In addition to her Strayer University professors, Allen-Herring says she looked to her workplace for support. “I identified leaders at Fannie Mae who were ahead of me in their careers, especially women, and made them a part of my studies,” she says. “I asked them to sit for informational interviews, read my thesis, take surveys and test my theories. They helped me practically apply my classroom lessons.”
After earning her degree, Allen-Herring progressed through the ranks at Fannie Mae before landing in her final role at the organization, leading the corporate philanthropy division for the company nationwide. This initiative brought the external philanthropic foundation into the company as a corporate-giving function. “I worked closely with senior leadership and our more than 7,000 employees, and had an opportunity to stretch my skills and to think about connecting our business with a purpose.”
“As a mother of two girls, I wanted to demonstrate that everything I do has meaning. I give my time to others because I truly care, and because I believe that I can be helpful.”
Allen-Herring’s work at Fannie Mae sparked a passion for bringing together business and community. When asked in 2013 to become president and chief executive officer of the United Way of the National Capital Area, she paused to consider how she could fuel that passion to make an impact. United Way is a respected, global brand; the largest philanthropic organization in the world; and a $4 billion business. “This was my chance to bring together the breadth and depth of all that I had done and to be a convener, a collaborator and a catalyst for positive change,” says Allen-Herring.
A 100-year-old organization that has traditionally acted as a funnel for donor dollars to smaller, deserving charities, United Way is evolving with the help of leaders like Allen-Herring to build capacity of its nonprofit members. The National Capital Area chapter has more than 600 member organizations that benefit from corporate and individual donations to United Way.
“Our member partners are on the ground, in the community, doing the hard work, day in and day out,” says Allen-Herring. “They really understand the needs of the communities and people in the Washington metro region, and I am honored to follow their lead in creating and sustaining a thriving community.”
For a frequent reminder of the work UWNCA does, Allen-Herring spends a lot of time in those communities. “I pull my energy externally—seeing families overcome obstacles, helping a neighborhood come back from desolation, giving people a clear path to success,” she says. “I believe that no matter what role you have, you should know where your work goes when it leaves the door. That’s my hope for our organization—that every single one of us is committed to seeing this region thrive.”
From day one as chief executive officer at UWNCA, Allen-Herring has led with a people-centered, service-oriented leadership style. “I believe that by serving others we can accomplish our goals,” she says. “There is nothing like being valued for your work and knowing why your work matters.”
As a fellow in the Duke University—University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, Allen-Herring studied servant leadership. “The servant-leader model is about being able to motivate, influence and inspire others to do their best,” she says. “I know firsthand the benefits of connecting with leadership and feeling valued for my work at Fannie Mae. It drove me to be better and now I want to create that environment for others.”
Passionate, motivated people in the nonprofit world are not hard to come by, and Allen-Herring relishes the opportunity to tap into those talents. “These are people who get things done,” she says. To harness that energy, she introduced the “three Cs.” “We convene the right people and resources, collaborate with others and hold catalytic conversations around what it will take to have a thriving Washington region.”
Allen-Herring’s own goals at United Way focus on combining her skills in both business and community development to elevate an already widely respected organization. “Ultimately, we want to be seen as a solid business and as good stewards of the resources that have been entrusted to us,” she says. “We want to be a partner of choice when it comes to philanthropy in the Washington metro area.”
Helping others is not a new concept for Allen-Herring. She’s been doing it her entire life. “My parents believed that serving others is the only way to live a full and meaningful life,” she says. “I grew up watching my mother take care of the elderly people in our neighborhood and my father inviting people to our house for dinner. We were always looking to meet the needs of others.”
As the youngest of 10 children, Allen-Herring had much to look up to, and to strive for, when she left the family home in Mississippi to attend Howard University. Today, one of her sisters is also chief executive of a nonprofit organization, another is a judge, and two more are accomplished educators. Her family of over achieving siblings are scattered across the country, but all continue to make their 92-year-old mother proud. “She may not entirely understand what we all do, but she knows we are helping others and that’s all that matters,” Allen-Herring says.
A mother herself, Allen-Herring wants to pass along the giving spirit to her two teenage daughters. In addition to her membership on professional boards including the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the DC Chamber of Commerce, she also serves on the boards of the Washington Area Women’s Foundation and Girl Scouts of the National Capital Region, and she and her husband are leaders at Mt. Sinai Baptist Church.
“As a mother of two girls, I wanted to demonstrate that everything I do has meaning. I give my time to others because I truly care, and because I believe that I can be helpful,” she says.
In her work, home and community, Allen-Herring creates opportunities for others to have a better life. And in doing so, she’s created one herself. “I want to always be excited, hopeful and challenged by what I am doing,” she says. “That’s how I know I’m moving in the right direction.”