Kellogg World Alumni Magazine, Winter 2004Kellogg School of Management
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  B. Diane Williams '94

Alumni Profile: B. Diane Williams '94 (EMP-29)

Path maker
Helping those who have 'made bad decisions’ find their way back into productive society allows B. Diane Williams '94 the satisfaction of making a difference

By Deborah Leigh Wood

Eight years ago, Ameritech made a loan it couldn’t collect on. But in the long run, society benefited.

Ameritech’s “loan” was B. Diane Williams, one of its top managers, who was sent to assist the Safer Foundation, a Chicago nonprofit that helps ex-offenders obtain jobs and re-enter society. In 1996, Safer’s president and CEO died, and Williams, who had been on Safer’s board for 10 years, was appointed to replace him.

Like the ex-offenders who come to the Safer Foundation, Williams sometimes reflects on her past. Unlike her clients, it is with gratitude. Williams, who earned her MBA from the Kellogg School’s Executive MBA Program in 1994 (EMP-29), says her corporate experience has given her the skills to run a successful, fiscally responsible nonprofit.

As president of the Safer Foundation, Williams oversees 30 employees who work in the organization’s no-frills office at 571 W. Jackson or at one of 14 other sites throughout metropolitan Chicago and the Quad Cities.

On a recent morning, the waiting room at Safer is packed with clients who have appointments with counselors. The room will stay packed all day as clients come and go.

“In 2000, 4,300 people with criminal records knocked on our doors,” Williams says. “Last year it increased to 8,300. But our resources didn’t double. We work with anyone who can give us funding --- government, foundations, individuals, legislators.”

As a former board member, Williams had some sense of who Safer’s clients were, but, she says, “it wasn’t at all clear until I worked here how many clients Safer serves or what they need.”

Perhaps Williams’ biggest revelation was that “Safer’s clients look like people you know. The media would lead you to believe they all look like Willie Horton, but that is simply not true.”

Growing up in several Chicago neighborhoods, Williams was surrounded by two distinct groups: those who would wind up in prison, like her clients, and those who would rise to top management, like herself. Williams says she became one of the latter because she immersed herself in reading.

“Reading is a huge part of what allowed me to think differently,” she says. “Through reading, the world was always bigger than my neighborhood.”

As head of the Safer Foundation, the world is her neighborhood. She travels extensively throughout the United States and abroad as a consultant to groups who are trying to set up similar agencies.

The organization has been a model for integrating ex-felons back into society through job and life training programs. It was established in 1972 by two former priests who chose its name because they wanted to make the community a safer place by helping ex-offenders find meaningful employment. The foundation’s tag line is “A Road Back for Offenders.”

Williams frequently flies to Washington, D.C., where she serves on the advisory board of the National Institute of Corrections of the Department of Justice. She was appointed to this three-year position by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Williams says she views her clients “not as bad people, but as people who made bad decisions.” She says it’s difficult to separate work and personal life as head of an organization that requires “leadership with a mind and a heart.” As a child of the '60s, she says, “I knew that I would eventually work in the not-for-profit arena.”

Before she arrived at Safer, Williams says she blamed the corporate world for the stress that jolted her awake at 3 a.m., worrying about things she had to do.

“I still wake up at 3 a.m.,” she says, “but now I see somebody’s face and ponder how we can help that person succeed. It makes me work even harder.”

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University