Robert Phillips, President and CEO of Social Interest Solutions, Gets Personal
Interview conducted by MDC Consulting
You’re a product of the San Francisco Bay Area. Can you tell us a little about your childhood?
I grew up splitting my time between Oakland and Richmond, California, and one thing I always had was community. In both places, although the blocks were split into Chicano, African American, and white sections, all of my neighbors were long-time residents. I knew them and their families.
My grandparents moved from Louisiana to California in pursuit of a better climate for my mom’s health and a job for my grandmother. My grandmother worked at Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond and she drove a forklift at the Del Monte Cannery in San Leandro. My grandfather sold insurance for Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company.
Like them, everyone in my neighborhoods went to work every day regardless of who they were. I didn’t know about stay-at-home parents until I went to college. People either worked a public-sector job or a factory job.
The fact that everybody worked created stability in the neighborhood. It also forced all of the kids to be latchkey kids, who looked out for themselves after school. That meant it was easy to get in trouble.
Growing up in these communities, I learned that opportunity isn’t always a choice. I didn’t buy into the dominant belief that success is purely the result of your ability to bootstrap your way to success. I knew lots of folks who barely encountered people or information from outside our 12 blocks. As a result of their circumstances and the things they were exposed to, they saw the world differently, through a lens of limited opportunity. I learned that nurturing and community is important, but I also learned that people need access to new environments, resources, and information — and to people who can show them different ways to be successful in life. We all need help; no one gets there alone.
When you finished high school, you had to make a decision: What would you do next?
Yes, my family and I decided that if I was to be exposed to these new worlds, ideas, and resources — and not be limited by where I was from — I should go to college and go away to do it. I was accepted to Morehouse College, one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HCBU), in Atlanta. This institution had produced leaders my mother admired like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; the Reverend Frederick Douglas Haynes, Sr. and Dr. Howard Thurman, two legendary San Francisco ministers and civil rights leaders; and my benefactor at Morehouse, Dr. Richard Caesar.
Going to Morehouse was one of the best decisions I ever made. I became part of a vibrant community of African American men who were educated, independent, self-aware, and perseverant. They knew their worth even if others outside the Morehouse community didn’t, and they had a commitment to community that they held sacrosanct.
Because we were all African American, we saw each other for who we were, for better or worse. Morehouse allowed me to realize who and what I was without the encumbrance of race. We were pressured to be, and do, our best. And it was Morehouse that convinced me I was capable of doing anything I set my mind to.
What life experiences led you to where you are now?
There were four key moments that brought me here. Going away to Morehouse was one. While at Morehouse, I worked on the campaign of Georgia Senator Wyche Fowler, Jr. and got the wind of politics in my nose. At the time, people told me that if I wanted to be in politics, I had to learn about campaigns and if I wanted to learn about campaigns, I should work for a place that knows how to do them well: the labor movement. So I went to work for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — my second defining moment.
That wasn’t my first exposure to the labor movement — my mom was a member of SEIU and my grandmother was a Teamster. But I had never thought of organized labor as an effective and supportive institution for the communities I cared about. MY SEIU experience was formative in a way similar to my Morehouse experience; there was an understanding that we had to push ourselves to excellence, to do better for folks who work for a living and not for personal gain.
Working in the labor movement taught me how to help people help themselves and how to develop leaders across cities, counties, and states. It broadened my perspective of what collective action meant and helped me define authentic leadership as the ability to help folks see what you see. I learned that being a leader is an honor and privilege that is not easily given but can be easily taken away. I also learned that leadership demands hard work and continual improvement.
My third evolution was working with Angela Glover Blackwell at PolicyLink. She was the first person I heard talk about intersectionality, experience as expertise, and the importance of recognizing that a community usually knows best what it needs to thrive and will thrive if it has the right tools.
Finally, my fourth experience was as a patient, which changed the way I see health and systems. Before I got sick, I thought supportive systems, like the health care system, were supposed to partner with people throughout the entire process. In fact, these supportive systems aren’t structured that way at all.
There are lots of resources that theoretically are there to help people navigate and manage their difficulties like poverty or illness or homelessness. But the system provides resources like income support, housing assistance, in-home care, or transportation assistance in ways that are so fragmented that far too many people are unable to make use of them.
Who has been the greatest influence in your life?
I have two: my mom and my grandfather.
Mom was the only person I knew who would read a book a week. She grew up in an era when television was young so you couldn’t veg out on it like we do today. She also had a congenital heart condition that isolated her, so she used books to entertain herself and keep her company. Later, when I had to adjust to my own illness, reading was something she and I bonded over.
My grandfather grew up as the son of a white landowner and a black sharecropper. Because of his father’s privilege, he was the only person in our family at that time to get a college education. He was a highly principled man, and I wanted to be like him.
What do you see as the link between creating positive change in the world and building a strong company culture?
People need their work to have mission and meaning. Your culture will either drive that meaning or not. If an organization doesn’t think about culture and how people bind themselves to what they do, it fails to acknowledge the true value that both employees and clients bring to the company.