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In the C-Suite: Michelle Taylor, of United Way

Katie Tabeling
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WILMINGTON — Michelle Taylor has always found herself serving as a leader, from managing a Dunkin’ Donuts on Philadelphia Pike as a 16-year-old to leading the United Way of Delaware today.

CEO Michelle Taylor | PHOTO COURTESY OF UWDE

“When I was charting it, it went back to how that owner trusted me and how I was alone in the store. It wasn’t so much the positions as it was that I always seemed to have the opportunity to influence and to be able to drive change,” she said.

Taylor has served as United Way of Delaware’s president and CEO since 2007. In her capacity, she has led strategies to improve child literacy, college and workforce preparedness programs and launched the Delaware Racial Equity and Social Justice Collaborative.

“Sometimes, people think this looks easy and maybe there are people out there that try to make it look easy. But to get here [in the C-suite] is hard work,” she said. “But there’s also the saying, ‘If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life.’ I believe that, and I do think that’s been my journey my whole life.”

That journey started as far back when Taylor worked at quick-service chains like McDonald’s, where she was eventually promoted to trainer while she was still at Concord High School. But when she was weighing her future at the time, she knew she was good at math. 

While she was studying accounting at Morgan State University, Taylor worked bookkeeping and part-time clerical jobs to pay her way. By the time she was 20, Taylor was promoted to clerical supervisor and bookkeeper and had 15 staff members to report to her. 

After college, she worked for years as a treasury manager for a hospital billing collection service. While her boss mentored her and opened doors for her, she eventually realized her life goals — raising three kids with her husband — were not lining up with the company lifestyle of working 60 hours a week.

“I worked for men, and while I really grew and learned in that role, what I observed is that they all had stay-at-home wives. I really needed balance,” she said. “It was the hardest thing I’d done at that point, because my boss really was my champion. But it was just like it was time for me to leave home, and he’d prepared me for it.”

Taylor found that work-life balance at Delaware Hospice, where then-Executive Director Susan Lloyd was also a working mother. After another six years and getting complacent, she later served as United Way of Delaware’s chief financial officer. 

Chuck Anderson, who served as the nonprofit’s president and CEO at the time, gave her the autonomy to roll out the changes she implemented at Delaware Hospice, and later paved the way for her to be named chief operating officer.

Despite having finance, human resources and programming departments reporting to her, it still was a surprise when Taylor was named interim CEO and president when Anderson stepped down in 2003. She applied for the position full-time, but was told she needed more fundraising and board experience.

After three years of work, she landed the top job.

“That was probably my defining moment, when I didn’t get the job, and I decided to pursue it,” she said. “I never envisioned myself as CEO of United Way Delaware until that point. But I do think I have always been in the people business. It’s about service leadership and being transformative and lifelong learning. The world is forever changing, and the critical roles are not about thinking about today, but thinking about tomorrow.”

In the ever-changing world unleashed by the pandemic, United Way of Delaware was faced with unprecedented need from the community it serves. Hours were expanded to seven days a week and more concierge services were offered to help clients navigate other networks to receive the support needed.

But in the end, United Way of Delaware learned to lean into its existing partnerships and to listen to what the community needs. That’s how it launched learning pods for remote schools and raised more money to buy additional Chromebooks and pay for nine months of internet connection for those who went without it. 

Other services were shifted, like financial coaches who offered assistance. They pivoted away from tips on how to improve credit to how to afford to stay in one’s home.

“Meeting people where they were was a lot of our last year, and this year, I think it’s really about how to further close the gaps,” she said. “The education gap widens for all kids, and we want to work with our school districts, organization partners, the government and parents on how we can help them catch up.”

Some people may think Taylor is always working. She pushes back against that claim and notes, she is just living her purpose.

“Sometimes when people see their work as a job, there can be a conflict. It can be hard to turn off. But I want people to understand why it is: you need to walk boldly and courageously, but do the work.”

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