Leya Simmons is one of our heroes — a passionately articulate advocate for causes that share her commitment to advocacy, social justice, the arts and wellness. She also happens to be the co-founder and CEO of a tech company for non-profits. Leya’s the proud mom of five kids, and is currently running for a seat on her local School Board.
Share a bit about your career and the pivots over the years:
I studied government as an undergrad and did graduate work in art history. I was about to go to law school when I was suddenly pregnant with my first son at 24. So I backed out of school and instead began the process of opening an art gallery, where I could be (more) in control of my schedule. After ten years I left that career while moving through a divorce. I had worked with several arts-based nonprofits while owning the gallery and worked on the Obama campaign as a volunteer and fundraiser, so I had also made contacts in progressive political fundraising. I worked in nonprofit fundraising for nine years, and, along the way, the idea for BetterUnite was born. So now I’m a tech entrepreneur! That still sounds weird.
You have been involved in non-profits for a long time. What inspired you to volunteer and take action?
I’m from a small town outside of Dallas and rather humble beginnings, so volunteering and giving money was not something I was raised with. The arts world can be quite philanthropic and I was attracted to that work. In addition… kids! There are lots of ways and places to volunteer your time with preschools and elementary schools and I enjoyed giving my time and organizing events and fundraisers. Then… Obama! I became active in progressive politics because I was very inspired by (and had the opportunity to meet) both Michelle and Barack Obama in 2007-2008. I guess the rest flowed from there.
Can you tell me the story behind BetterUnite and how it came to be?
I was the board president of a tiny nonprofit. We had a $50,000 annual budget and no full-time staff. We had no fundraising strategy or real organizational structure and were running out of money.
I complained about this ad nauseam to my husband, who is a software architect. The idea for BetterUnite, an affordable alternative to large fundraising platforms, was his answer.
In this time, I was working and having an actual baby and I was really hesitant to go into business with my husband.
But he eventually convinced me that it was inspired by my problem so I claimed my place as co-founder. It has been really easy to get excited about BetterUnite since then!
How do you encourage/involve your children with giving back to the community?
One of the nice parts about being a 24 year old mom with no real support system (my family lives in Dallas and I didn’t have a resource like Hello My Tribe in my world in 2000) is that I took my boys with me to do pretty much everything. We took food to Ronald McDonald house and to our first responders and they always participated in fundraising events we had in the gallery.
How do you balance motherhood and entrepreneurship?
Not very well! I sometimes think I’m doing lots of things ok and none of them particularly well. Mostly, I try to do the next right thing, as best as I can tell what that is, in both worlds.
I’ve come to an understanding that I will default to doing stuff for the kids over work. My husband and co-founder is the opposite. So we find balance together in that regard.
What challenges have you faced on your motherhood journey? And on your entrepreneurial journey?
This is such a vulnerable question! Motherhood is so hard and filled with uncertainty (that I’m guessing never ends). I’m an alcoholic in long-term recovery and that journey is entwined with my motherhood journey. I am and always have been a very devoted mom, so not being able to not drink despite knowing what it was doing to my family was devastating and the height of powerlessness. I still struggle with that shame and some grief around what I missed with my older boys in that time.
Getting a divorce was a close second. I never expected the animosity or turbulent turn that it ended up taking, and it was truly hard and took a significant toll.
Entrepreneurship has challenges, but, for me, they’re far easier than motherhood.
Favorite daily tools to keep you moving along?
Yoga (lots of yoga), meditation, a strong community of women supporters that I can reach out to at any time, and a great therapist who is a text away.
How do you feel becoming a mother first time around and second time around has changed you personally and professionally?
I don’t really know what it’s like to be an adult and not be a mother, which is good and bad. Having my first boys right out of college, we kind of grew up together (especially as we moved through some traumas and big life changes). This time, I trust myself a lot more and I know that I have the tools to handle what comes. Professionally, this time, I’m making more of a commitment to my work and placing more value on that time and what it does for me as a mom. When the professional part of my brain and life are active and challenged, I know that I show up as a better mom.
What excites you most about BetterUnite?
The potential it has to make such an impact on small and mid-sized nonprofits. That’s always where my heart has been – I see so much amazing good come from small organizations with huge missions and faith-based ministries all making a profound impact. I am so happy to be a part of an answer to the problems of a few people making a big difference.
Edited by: Cat Nunnery