Shari Runner, President & CEO, The Chicago Urban League


What qualities make an effective entrepreneur or leader?

It takes a lot of grit and “stick-to-itiveness.” You are probably not going to succeed on the first try. You have to be passionate about what you are doing. An entrepreneur doesn’t work anywhere near 9 to 5, or 60 hours per week, as most people in a corporate environment would.

The second quality is creativity. Think about new ways of doing things and how to innovate. What do you bring to the table that’s not already there? Being able to take and deal with risks is one of the biggest things that scares would-be entrepreneurs away. Especially when you have a family, mortgage, or responsibilities that you have to stick to. Starting and running a business involves huge risks. Factor all those components in, and decide if those things are for you.

To lead well, you have to love what you do. Leading is not following a set of steps—it’s modeling behavior. It is thinking about what needs to be done that is not being done. It is about making sure that people around you respect each other and themselves. People who are leaders have an aura. They don’t know that in any given moment they’re leading. They know they have to take a risk and go some places people may not expect.

You started your career in banking and now work at a nonprofit. What inspired you to leave banking?

I have had a very diverse career path. Most people are going to engage in five careers during their lifetime. At some point, I realized an entrepreneurial spirit was a part of my personality. I left banking to open my own store, which stayed open for three years. It is very difficult to succeed in entrepreneurism. My store was unique—one of a kind—and something I was passionate about. After it closed, I went back to banking for a little while and then I started having children, which changes things a little bit.  

What advice do you have for leaders trying to diversify their organization?

They should look at people with skillsets they might not always anticipate entry-level employees to have. Once those employees come on board, the leaders should make sure the environment is conducive to supporting those people as much as it is to supporting all the other employees. It’s a matter of desire and of making sure they invest in doing that. It is important.

It’s very well known that diverse businesses always do better. Why is that? Diversity brings innovation, and innovation increases profits. If you are a monolithic organization, you won’t have the opportunity to bring other ways of thinking into the mix, and that is really important.

How do you motivate your staff?

I think understanding the pressure we’re all under and letting people know they are important and critical to the work we do is key. I respect them in the roles they play, their feedback, and their knowledge. We are a nonprofit organization. We don’t pay our people a lot of money, so we have to keep coming back to those things.

How do you handle failure?

The first year I was here we didn’t have great financial results, and that was really discouraging. We worked really hard and did excellent work to raise money. It took a lot of reflection to figure out why that happened and how to make changes in order to resolve those issues. You cannot keep doing the same things. You have to recognize when there’s a need for making an innovation, changing things, and trying things. That’s the key. You cannot get stuck doing the same things over and over again. You cannot say, “This is the way we have always done it.”

What advice do you have for individuals who work for companies that are hesitant to innovate?

Leadership doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in charge of the organization. You can try to do things and model behaviors that show a difference from what the norm is. If that variance works out, you can continue to drive toward whatever goal you are trying to achieve or whatever change you are trying to make to improve your working environment. That is key and critical. If you are in an organization where that’s not going to happen, then you have to recognize it and be willing to say, “I will make a change.”

How do you balance your work and personal life? What would you tell leaders who have difficulty finding that balance?

Cellphones and computers are great tools, but there are times when you have to turn them off and walk away from them. You have to pay attention to your family and make sure they also turn those devices off. Make time for conversation and check in to know where people are. That is crucial.

The other part is you have to sleep. Sleep is really important to functioning well. No one is irreplaceable, and without good sleep you’ll ruin your health. If you aren’t healthy and you cannot function or think, you are ineffective. There is no alternative. You have to, at some point, walk away from your work and say, “It will be there when I get back.” One of the things about cell phones is if everything is falling apart, and you are checked out for a while, your co-workers will find you. They will figure out a way to get ahold of you if something is truly important.

What do you look for in a new hire?

Passion is infectious. When you display passion for your work, you attract people to what it is you’re doing. I think you also have to recognize that a person with 20 years of experience versus someone who’s new will come to the job with totally different perspectives. I think those are important things for us as leaders to respect.

If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger self?

I would have not been so impulsive, but that’s just part of my nature. I reacted a lot to things going on around me. That’s something I now tell my children: don’t overreact to something happening right now. Give it time to gel. Think about it. Then move forward.


Interview By Rubai Soni & Benita Zepeda

Fast Facts

Chicago, IL
President & CEO
Previous experience
Currency trading and education
Boards and other affiliations
Bright Promises Foundation, Urban Gateways, Museum of Science & Industry / Black Creativity exhibition
BA, Wesleyan University
MBA, The University of Chicago Booth School of Business

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