JVS Says goodbye to longtime CEO

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median American worker stays at the same job for about five years.
February 17, 2016

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median American worker stays at the same job for about five years. 

Ever the overachiever, Vivian Seigel has notched nearly 40.

As the longtime CEO of Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) Los Angeles approaches retirement this summer — her last official day will be July 1 — she expressed confidence in her decision and the direction the nonprofit is headed.

“I’m not 65 — I just turned 61 — but everybody always makes the assumption you will work until retirement. But to me, what is more significant are my years as the CEO, my years with the agency, and also my philosophy that, as much as this has been my life … there is also a time in the life and health of the agency [when] it’s good to have new vision,” Seigel said. 

For Seigel, that time is now.

“When I made the announcement [in October], I think I did catch everyone off guard. But the time felt right. I’m proud of what I have been able to accomplish and where the agency is now. But I think there is so much growth ahead of us,” she added, ensconced in her new office in The Federation building on Wilshire Boulevard. (Earlier this year, she gave her more spacious quarters to new CEO Alan Levey, formerly vice president of philanthropy for City of Hope, so he could settle into his role.) 

When Seigel joined JVS in 1977, fresh out of graduate school with a master’s degree in vocational rehabilitation, the agency was only a glimmer of what it is now. Back then, there were just two departments: one for job placement, another for resettlement of refugees. Seigel was one of two women on a staff of about 15 that served fewer than 1,000 clients annually out of a single office. Today, JVS has a staff of 245, a budget of $17 million and serves about 30,000 people a year through more than 30 sites in Los Angeles County. There have been other changes, too: Its client base isn’t solely Jewish anymore.

Seigel, a Beverly Hills resident who has two grown sons with her husband, Jeff, a marine biologist, started her career at JVS as a job counselor. That began a succession of roles with the agency: She ran the immigrant resettlement program, the main office on Wilshire Boulevard, and a teen program before becoming chief operating officer. In 1996, she became CEO.

“It gave me an appreciation of a lot of what our line staff deal with, even though it’s much more complicated now,” she said. “It was a sense of the clients. And I think that is what energized me when I took over as CEO.”

Seigel said she is especially passionate about serving clients with disabilities and particularly proud of the Dashew Assessment Center, which opened in 1992 when she was COO.

“It’s really a state-of-the-art facility,” she said. “If you are a client who sustained a traumatic brain injury, [or] you have a physical disability, you want to be able to see if you can go back to work, and going back to work might mean special accommodations. … It could be you have a visual impairment and you need a very large screen.” 

Seigel also pointed to the 2004 acquisition of Career Planning Center, a nonprofit with a similar mission to JVS. “They had city funding that we at that point didn’t have … That doubled our size overnight. We went from a $5 million agency to a $10 million agency.”

Two years later, JVS embarked on its first major partnership with a large for-profit. Working with Maximus, which offers welfare-to-work services for clients receiving public assistance, JVS received the largest county grant in its history. 

“That increased us again by $5 million,” Seigel said. “It really upped our game.

“They always say nonprofits are no different than running a for-profit. You’re running a business but you’re not producing widgets; you’re working with people. I think it was a wonderful education for all of us. And we still are partners with them today.” 

Knowing that it’s near impossible to sustain an agency of JVS’ size solely on private donations and government funding, Seigel helped develop mission-driven entrepreneurial ventures, such as Community Care at Home. The program trained people, many of whom had been doctors in their native Iran or Soviet Union who were not in a position to pursue the onerous process of getting licensed in the United States, to be in-home nurse assistants. It ran for more than 10 years but was shuttered recently because of increasing costs of running the business.

But it’s when sharing the personal stories of individuals who have been helped by JVS that Seigel really lights up. She recalled a staff member of a political figure who has had a successful 20-year career after she referred him to a career counselor, and the son of one of her first clients who was helped by the JVS scholarship program. (Last year, JVS gave out $644,000 in college scholarship money to 199 local Jewish students.)

She thinks JVS can help even more people in the future.

“I believe JVS has unlimited growth potential because the agency’s core mission is so closely aligned with the economic health of the region and, to that end, I’d like to see an expansion of services throughout Southern California,” she said.

Along with a new CEO, this year sees a new board president for the 85-year-old agency: Harris Smith.

“Vivian is JVS,” said Smith, 60, an accountant. “There’s no other way to say it. She just kind of walks and talks the brand. She has the commitment and energy. Whether it’s the donor community or the governmental community, everyone knows Vivian.”

Seigel’s legacy at the agency won’t end July 1; there’s an endowed scholarship fund in her name, and both her sons and her daughter-in-law are active donors. On Sept. 24, Seigel will be honored at the JVS annual gala. But other than that, she has no big plans for post-retirement life.

“If I consult, I want it to be a short, project-based thing. Otherwise it defeats the purpose of what I want to do. I’d like to give [more] of my time for free … spend time with my family, travel a little bit,” she said.

Her successor, Levey, 61, said she leaves the agency in great shape.

“Vivian has done an incredible job and certainly left a legacy at JVS,” he said. “I think everybody here will always look to Vivian as the person who helped build and transform the agency.”

Levey said he understands that lofty expectations await him. 

“I guess it would be like the person who had to walk behind Michael Jordan or Sandy Koufax. The bar is high and I kind of like that,” he said. “I’m glad she set the standards she set and she has been the face. It makes it that much better of an environment.”

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