by Sue Tomchin
If someone tells you they want to change the world, you might think them a bit idealistic. But that’s not what you think when you talk to Linda Youngentob, JWI’s 2018 Sondra D. Bender Community Leader. Intent on spurring real change, she goes about it deliberately and comprehensively, using wisdom and skills from a career in business and a lifetime of volunteer work.
Through her philanthropic and hands-on involvement in multiple educational organizations throughout Montgomery County, Md., she works to impact the lives of first-generation college students, many from immigrant families, by helping them apply for and succeed in college. With their success and growing financial independence, they can in turn assist their families.
Youngentob is especially proud of a promising Ethiopian student whom she mentored from high school until his recent college graduation. “He now has a lucrative technology consulting career and is able to help his family and community,” she says.
Growing up in Swampscott, Mass., her father ran a paper distribution business, founded by her immigrant grandfather. “I grew up poring over Dad’s Fortune and Forbes magazines and fell in love with business,” she says.
“You’re doing it for other people but, in the end, you have so much more understanding of humanity. Nothing is like reading students’ college essays, where they’re telling their stories. So intimate, human, and incredible.”
At the same time, a passion for community service was taking root. “A friend’s mom made her daughter undertake a community service project every semester. She would include me to keep her daughter company. I probably liked it more than my friend,” says Youngentob.
Later on, in college, grad school, and working at a consulting firm, she always volunteered. “That grounded me and reminded me about the needs of our community and how important it is to give back,” she says.
Her interest in business, she explains, was never about making money, but about having an impact, “by creating jobs that are needed to make the world better.”
That philosophy was not the norm when she went to Harvard for an MBA, after attending Brown University. It was the 1980s and profit at any cost was the prevailing attitude. “I cried myself to sleep and wanted to quit,” she recalls. “However, I decided that if every person who wanted to make the world better left, it would perpetuate the greed. I made it my mission in my classes to speak out for the underdog, the employee, the woman, and the working mother.”
After graduation, she went on to a successful career in telecommunications. A serious bike accident ended up being a wake-up call. She realized she had been under “incredible pressure and expectation that I was supposed to have it all.” She realized she could find meaning in other ways and that she could choose to have it all “over a lifetime, just not at the same time.”
Youngentob decided to live her life in chunks, completely embracing whatever chunk she was in. She quit her job, and immersed herself in parenting and community involvement. She started Mitzvah Day at Washington Hebrew Congregation, a project that spread to other congregations. She was also in the 1995 class of Leadership Montgomery.
The next chunk (and the one she’s currently in) is about “changing the world, one person at a time.” Her primary area of interest is equity and opportunity in education.
Her involvement in the field is deep and multi-layered. “I go from giving money to offering strategic direction to serving on boards to working as a volunteer to getting involved and building strong personal relationships with the clients,” she says. “And then I network across many organizations for more impact.”
Inspired by the late Randi Waxman, who left a career in law to teach underserved students, Youngentob decided to teach at Montgomery College, a community college with a diverse population. She works as an adjunct professor for the Macklin Business Institute, the college’s honors business program, but also is deeply committed to getting to know students and mentoring them long after they graduate.
She serves on the Montgomery College Foundation board and heads its capital campaign, taking on these leadership roles for access, not for accolades. “When something doesn’t seem equitable for my students, people in the administration are more open to listen to me,” she says. Her long-term hope is to “create cultural change to improve the college.”
In addition, she has been involved in many related organizations. She is currently a board member of Identity, the county's largest organization serving Latino immigrants, and formerly served on the board of CollegeTracks, which helps disadvantaged youth apply for college. Each board she joins gives her a clearer picture of the issues and builds connections that increase her ability to have an impact.
A board member of the Community Foundation of Montgomery County and the Tikkun Olam Foundation, Youngentob is a founding member of WE Capital and a limited partner in the venture capital fund Rethink Impact.
She and her husband, Bob, whom she met at Harvard, have three grown daughters. “We’ve been a team and equals,” she states.
“Just one person at a time, you know?” she says of her work. “You’re doing it for other people but, in the end, you have so much meaning and so much more understanding of humanity. Nothing is like reading students’ college essays, where they’re telling their stories. So intimate, human, and incredible.”