What if you could fix one problem from the ground up? What if you had the resources to pour into one community, one school and really make a lasting difference?
That is exactly what Marlene Gordon, vice president and general counsel for Bacardi North America, is doing with the Lynne Mitchell Foundation, an organization she started in December 2012 to honor her mother, who passed away a couple of months earlier.
The foundation is laser-focused on helping underprivileged children from a rural, agricultural community near Southfield in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, where Gordon and her family are from.
The entire project is a love letter to Gordon’s mother, Lynne.
“Her motto was always ‘Don’t just say you love, show your love,’ and it was all about us giving back to people less fortunate than ourselves,” Gordon said. “She had a heart of compassion. That was just part of her DNA.”
Lynne had a son when she was seventeen and Gordon when she was only nineteen, but was determined to get her education.
At twenty-four, she and her husband left their young children with their grandparents and came to the United States. Lynne got her degree in hotel management and came back to Jamaica to manage an Intercontinental Hotel in Montego Bay. A few years later she got a scholarship to Germany to get her master’s degree, so Marlene and her brother moved to the United States with their father.
Marlene has spent more than two decades as a lawyer and worked her way to the top, but she never forgot where she came from.
“My philosophy is ‘crawl, walk, run.’ We want to set a model in this community where we put in a quality school system, and it transforms the community from there.”
“I lived there; I went to school there. I know what it’s like to not have indoor plumbing or electricity, to drink water from a tank. It shaped who I am as a person,” she said.
The Lynne Mitchell Foundation based its goals on the needs of the school in Southfield. Students did not have a way to get to school because it is in a rural, farming community without public transportation, so the foundation implemented a school transportation program.
Kids were coming to school without breakfast and no money for lunch, so the foundation started a school lunch program.
The actual school building was built in 1959 and had not undergone any major renovations since that time, until the foundation replaced the leaking roof, broken windows, and doors. They put in a playground for the infant school, provided backpacks, school supplies, desks, tables, chairs computers, and a functioning copier. The foundation is raising money to build a larger school with actual classrooms, to replace the makeshift classrooms separated by chalkboards, and add in a cafeteria—which they don’t have now.
The foundation also started a scholarship program for students who are gain entrance to high schools in the area to help them with expenses for fees, transportation, uniforms, and books.
“They can’t even dream about a future because they don’t even know what’s possible,” Gordon said.
Over the past three years the Lynne Mitchell Foundation has raised $250,000 and has donated or earmarked it all to this one school.
“My philosophy is ‘crawl, walk, run.’ We want to set a model in this community where we put in a quality school system, and it transforms the community from there,” she said. “If we take this approach one community at a time, we can be a change agent.”
Each year the foundation holds a signature fundraising gala, with all of the alcohol, mixers and event planning help coming directly from its top sponsor—Bacardi.
“Bacardi has been tremendously supportive,” Gordon said. “I feel really proud to be working at a company that comes behind you and says, ‘We’ll be there for you.’”
Gordon joined Bacardi just a month before her mother passed away, and she was immediately interested in starting a foundation. Even though she was a new employee, Gordon said her company was instantly willing to help.
Gordon said it is tremendously important for corporations to be good global citizens. “It’s not just about what you extract from communities, it’s about what you give back. The more you give back, the more you are empowering people and helping them to build a better world. Ultimately, that should be our goal,” Gordon said. “Companies have more of an ability to help because of their size and resources so they should make it a priority. There is so much need out there, and if you have the ability you should step up and lead the way.”
Before Bacardi, Gordon was at Burger King Corporation for fourteen years, working her way up from senior attorney to vice president and assistant general counsel. She went to college at the University of Chicago earning a degree in economics with honors and was awarded a full academic scholarship to Northwestern University School of Law.
“When my parents moved to the United States they weren’t wealthy. Education is a key for people to change their lives; that’s what it did for me. That’s what I want to be able to do for other kids because I had that opportunity, and it changed my life,” she said.
Gordon is focused on empowering women at Bacardi as well. She leads the company’s Women In Leadership program, a company initiative to help the women at the company unlock their leadership potential and grow their careers at the company.
“We all have the ability to lead wherever we are. We all have leadership potential,” she said.
Gordon said she learned how to be a leader from her mother, who was even a pioneer in her death. Lynne died at sixty-five of a genetic condition, amyloidosis, which no one in the family knew was in their genes. Since her death, three of Lynne’s siblings have been tested for the condition, received liver transplants, and are living healthy lives.
“My mom was a leader in so many ways,” Gordon said. “She always told me it was more important to be respected than to be liked, and she emphasized that to earn respect you have to operate with integrity, honesty, and compassion. You get so much more from giving than taking.”