The divide between the corporate world and the nonprofit one is wide and deep. However, Linda Saris, the NSTC’s new president and a passionate advocate for disadvantaged youth, found a unique way to bridge that gap and build mutually beneficial connections.
After achieving a bachelor’s degree in Economics and Urban Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, and an MBA in Accounting and Finance from the University of Chicago, Linda spent more than 25 years in corporate finance. Her last for-profit endeavor was a 12-year stint at RSA Security, where she started as CFO and VP of Operations. She was then promoted to the position of senior vice president in charge of the company’s first innovation division.
Linda’s group at RSA had many successes launching technologies for the computer- and internet-security sector, but in the decline following 9/11, RSA closed the division. Ever the optimist, Linda recognized this transition as an opportunity to fulfill a longtime desire to work in the nonprofit world providing educational services after-school for those who could not afford them.
With a unique perspective about the technology and financial skill sets companies require of employees combined with a desire to help young people, Linda identified a need for technology-based middle and high school educational programs. Finding no existing solution, she decided to launch her own nonprofit. Founded in 2002 and originally named Salem Cyberspace, Linda’s nonprofit, LEAP for Education (Learn, Explore, Aspire, and Pursue), now serves hundreds of students each year in the cities of Salem, Peabody, and Gloucester and provides comprehensive after-school services.
Linda and her staff of 14, work diligently to secure grants and donations to fund LEAP’s programs. Their services now include academic enrichment programs in STEM and the arts; English Literacy programs for immigrant youth; college and career readiness; as well as college advising and community service. Linda also began a program that allows students to shadow someone in a field of their interest.
“Many of the kids in the program come from families where their parents are in low-skilled or entry-level jobs, and when you ask them what they want to do, they often name something they have seen on TV, but don’t understand very well,” said Linda. “For example, a student might want to be nurse without understanding how much science is involved. Having the opportunity to do an informational interview, tour a business, or job shadow, opens up possibilities for our youth and provides them with the necessary connections to be successful. ”
Around the same time she was forming her nonprofit, Linda became involved with NSTC as a way to stay connected with the corporate world. “I wanted to make sure I kept up with technology, and my work with NSTC definitely helped me do that.”
But Linda’s relationship with NSTC turned out to be even more important. The connections she has made have allowed her to introduce LEAP students and staff to executives at a number of local high-tech companies, including Analogic, Cell Signaling Technology, and Applied Materials. More importantly, many of these corporations have donated and/or helped her raise money for LEAP thus enabling them to support even more students.
Linda worked on the Programs Committee in the early days of NSTC and later joined the NSTC board in 2010. In 2012, the board president recruited her to develop a STEM special interest group (SIG). “Part of our SIG’s mission is to help train and grow the employee base – starting as young as possible – in order to help bridge the skills gap that so many local companies face when it comes to hiring,” Linda noted. Among their accomplishments, the STEM SIG has awarded scholarships to three North Shore students each year for the past three years. N 2016, the number has increased to four students.
During all her years of volunteering with the NSTC Linda has also grown an appreciation for the connections that can be made not just for LEAP and her students, but also for the North Shore’s technology community as a whole. This July Linda was elected President of NSTC and will serve through June 2017. “The NSTC has been very good to me and LEAP,” she said, “I try to give back as much as I can and will work hard to make NSTC a strong group for networking and information exchange and a player in building a strong technology ecosystem here on the North Shore.”