As a college undergraduate, Heidi Kirschner focused on math and computer science. “But after I got a job, I realized I didn’t want to just sit at a computer and program all day,” she says. So she opted for grad school and got an MBA with emphasis on finance and marketing. “I was later hired by Alcoa and eventually became director of distribution sales for the Americas,” she says. Moving up the ranks was sometimes a challenge, she recalls. “I came up through a very industrial company, so there weren’t too many women back then. I remember at my first job, some people were aghast. ‘She’s a girl, a female!’ they would say.”
But with two very young sons — they’re now ages seven and 10 — she began to feel that her long work hours and frequent travel meant she was missing out on large chunks of their childhood. “I didn’t want to look back when my kids were going off to college and think, ‘Where did the time go?’ ” she says.
Hence, Kirschner extracted herself from the corporate world. In January 2011, the president and CEO position at the Kingston and Ulster County YMCA (of which she was a board member) became available; she snatched the opportunity and hasn’t looked back. She now heads a staff of about 25 full-timers, with up to 190 employees during summer camp programs. Besides the new responsibilities, an added bonus is that her workplace is a whopping three miles from her Kingston home. “I get mad if I get stuck behind a bus every now and then, and it forces me to be 30 seconds later,” she sheepishly admits. “I’m spoiled.”
Serving at the helm of a nonprofit has certain similarities — and differences — to working for a big company, especially regarding finances. “In business there’s always that charge to make the dollars and profit,” she explains. “But in a not-for-profit, that charge is there, but it’s for survival.”
Kirschner points out that though the Y she heads is part of the national YMCA, it is still a unique and independent facility. “We’re not funded by the national organization,” she says. “We’ve got to bring in funds too in order to function.” To that end, Kirschner focuses her efforts on raising membership, with holiday promotions (“the gift of health in the form of gift certificates, so to speak,” she says) and a campaign to push membership above 2,000 by January.
Kirschner finds her work rewarding when it has a beneficial impact on individuals. “When you go through the grind of thinking ‘Are we going to make it this month?’ and then see someone who has been positively affected by what the organization is doing for them and their family, then you realize it’s worth it,” she claims. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve experienced six or seven of those instances. That’s what makes it great.”