Keeping Up With Yvette Jones

Tulane University’s former executive vice president for university relations and development is doing what she enjoys most in her newest endeavor–helping purpose-driven enterprises grow and achieve their full potential.

“I can talk on Tuesday at 12:30. I’ll be downtown in between meetings. Why don’t we meet somewhere we can grab a quick lunch?”

Yvette Jones (MBA ’95) retired from Tulane last July, ending a remarkable 36-year career with the university, but since then the former executive vice president for university relations and development hasn’t exactly been enjoying the life of leisure. In fact, she’s as busy as ever.

In August 2016, just weeks after saying goodbye to friends and colleagues at Tulane, Jones quietly began doing consulting work for Children’s Hospital of New Orleans, which was then just beginning to prepare for its first major capital drive. As a primary architect of Tulane’s historic “Promise and Distinction” campaign, the largest university fundraising effort in Louisiana history, Jones was well versed in the requirements for starting a campaign. Just as importantly, she believed in the hospital’s mission and enjoyed working with its executive team. What began as a few odd hours soon grew to two days a week. Before long, other organizations were calling her with requests for assistance.

“I’m probably out of the house three days a week, and if I’m not with one client all day, then I’m going to different clients and meeting with them,” she says over lunch at the New Orleans BioInnovation Center, where she serves as a board member. “This morning I did a session with the New Orleans Culinary & Hospitality Institute founders, and this afternoon I’m meeting with the New Orleans 2018 Commission.”

Jones is currently working with eight clients. They run the gamut from Children’s Hospital and St. Augustine High School to NOCHI, Bayou District Foundation and the 2018 Commission, the civic group responsible for planning New Orleans’ 300th anniversary celebration. The needs of her clients vary Some are looking for help with visioning and strategic planning. Others are interested in board governance. Almost all are seeking fundraising guidance, an area in which Jones is more than happy to help.

“The thing I like best is helping people understand what fundraising is about,” Jones explains. “It’s about relationships. It’s about selling a really good story or organization — something of purpose. Most people think it’s just asking for money. For me, it’s about educating people to the importance of philanthropy and what it should mean for both the giver and the recipient.”

Jones employed that approach to spectacular effect in her career at Tulane, where she worked alongside three presidents to help realize some of the most significant projects in university history. Yulman Stadium, the Hertz Center, Greer Field at Turchin Stadium, the Lavin-Bernick Center for University Life, the Woldenberg Art Center, and the soon-to-be-completed Goldring/Woldenberg Business Complex are just a few of the major capital projects Jones helped steward at Tulane.

But her success as a fundraiser has to do with more than just a good story. It’s also a reflection of the storyteller. Jones’ combination of intellect, understanding and enthusiasm — not to mention her irreverent sense of humor — earned her the respect and admiration of colleagues both within and without the university. Her most celebrated accomplishments may have had to do with fundraising, but she was equally adept at mentoring staff members, navigating city and state politics, and resolving
thorny administrative issues.

“What I think has made me successful is I do care and I have a high level of empathy for where people are coming from,” Jones says. “It’s no different now than when I was at Tulane. I really want to know what people are thinking and try to engage them and make them feel that they are empowered to do the things they’re doing.”

“Yvette has a very unusual combination of kindness and purpose,” says Josh Densen, executive director of Bricolage Academy, a New Orleans charter school whose board Jones serves on. “Often the people who are very deliberate and driven can run roughshod over others and not operate with a level of empathy or kindness, but Yvette is able to do both very, very well.”

“She’s able to facilitate what could be difficult situations for other people,” adds Aaron Miscenich (MBA ’91), president of the New Orleans BioInnovation Center. “She’s very personable, but at the same time she knows how to operate in circumstances that could be stressful.”

Philanthropist Bill Goldring (BBA ’64), who worked with Jones on multiple projects over the years, says Tulane was more than just a job to her.

“She not only talked the talk, she walked the walk,” says
Goldring. “She’d go to all the basketball games. She’d go to all the football games. She didn’t have to do that. She did it because Tulane was in her heart. She was just real and genuine in everything that she did.”

Alicia Franck, vice president of development at Children’s Hospital, echoes that sentiment. “She’s got the requisite business skills, she’s an accomplished speaker and she’s a strategic thinker, but I think at heart, what makes Yvette Yvette is that she’s just a gold soul,” Franck says. “She is an authentic person of great integrity. You feel welcomed and valued in her presence. And that’s unique.”

CONSULTING HAD ALWAYS BEEN something Jones hoped to do following her retirement from Tulane, but that doesn’t mean she spent a lot of time preparing for it. “You’re supposed to have a business plan,” Jones laughs. “My business plan was, if I really like my client and I really like what they’re doing, then it’s an easy thing for me to end up working with them. None of this has been through marketing. I’m not out there pitching. It’s really all been through word of mouth and lots of different connections across the city.”

One need only look at her resume to see a sampling of those connections. In addition to Bricolage Academy and the New Orleans BioInnovation Center, she serves on the boards of the Louisiana Audubon Society, Friends of New Orleans, the Louisiana Women’s Forum, Metairie Park Country Day School, and the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University. Most recently, she accepted Dean Ira Solomon’s invitation to serve as chair of the Tulane Business School Council, the primary external advisory board of the A. B. Freeman School of Business.

“Yvette has been an integral member of the Business School Council for over 15 years” says Solomon. “I think it’s wonderful that even as she transitions to another phase in her career, she will be able to continue and perhaps even enhance her connection to the Freeman School.”

Jones’ connection to the Freeman School goes back more than 20 years. A 1995 graduate of the Freeman School’s executive MBA program, she credits the business school with helping her to become the professional she is today.

“What I learned in the MBA program not only helped me in my work at Tulane, but it really prepared me for this new chapter of life and career,” she says. “It gave me the confidence to try new things and to move outside of my comfort zone.”

It was former Tulane President Eamon Kelly who first encouraged Jones to move outside her comfort zone. After serving a number of different roles in his office, culminating in executive director and chief of staff, Kelly asked Jones to get an MBA so he could make her a vice president. Jones got the degree, and in 1996 Kelly promoted her to vice president for finance and operations. Two years later, he named her senior vice president for planning and administration. In that role, Jones was responsible for human resources, information systems and services, research administration, government relations, university communications and public relations, and institutional planning and budgets.

In 2002, Kelly’s successor, Scott Cowen, named her senior vice president for external affairs. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Cowen appointed her chief operating officer, a role in which she helped lead the university’s recovery in the wake of the disaster. In 2010, Cowen promoted her to executive vice president for university relations and development.

While Jones’ titles and responsibilities changed over the years, what remained constant was her leadership and unflagging devotion to the institution.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone love and care for Tulane University as much as Yvette,” Goldring says. “Tulane was always in her heart, mind and body.”

Following the announcement of her decision to retire, President Mike Fitts surprised Jones by awarding her the Tulane President’s Medal in April 2016 in recognition of her extraordinary leadership and service to the university over the past three decades.

More recently, in March 2017, Presidents Fitts announced plans to dedicate the space in front of McAlister Auditorium in her name. The McAlister Plaza in Honor of Yvette Jones will feature benches, a fountain and landscaped greenery and serve as a lasting tribute to Jones’ service to the university.

“There is no problem, big or small, that she hasn’t solved,” Fitts said at the ceremony announcing the project. “I was blown away by her strategic brilliance, her unflappable ability to respond to crisis, and also her warmth and humor. I am pretty sure she has personally mentored every person in this university.

“Perhaps most incredibly,” he added, “she seemingly knows every alum of Tulane by name, as well as the names of their children and whether those children might come to Tulane themselves some day.”

RETIREMENT HASN’T BEEN ALL WORK. Even with her busy consulting schedule, Jones says she works fewer hours than she did at Tulane, a change that’s given her more time to spend with family, including her soon-to-be 5-year-old grandson Jack as well as the latest addition to the Jones household, an adorable golden retriever puppy named Stella. When she occasionally does have to put in long hours for a client, she spends her time doing the things she enjoys and avoiding the things that used to keep her awake at night.

“The part I really loved about my fundraising job at Tulane was the fundraising, the actual relationship building and interaction with people,” Jones says. “A lot of what I ended up having to do was manage some crisis that happened internally. What I find enjoyable now is I manage me. In some of the organizations I’m working with, there’s a lot going on politically. I can observe and go home. That’s kind of nice.”

In the summer 2016 issue of Tulane magazine, Jones said one of the things she hoped to accomplish in her post-Tulane life was find out who she really is. Nearly a year into this next phase of her career, is she any closer to discovering the real Yvette Jones?

“It’s really interesting,” she says. “What I’ve been happy to discover is I am who I’ve always been: I really like helping solve problems and helping people find ways to resolve issues. That’s
what I liked most about the work I did at Tulane, and that’s what I’m doing now.”

And for the time being, she’s happy to let her new career grow organically and see where it takes her.

“I never had a plan at Tulane, and that worked out pretty well,” she says with a smile. “I’m hoping that applies here, too.”

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