by Susan Josephs
As a college student, Nicky Goren took a life-changing road trip to West Virginia, where she came face-to-face with “the most abject poverty I had ever seen. People at my school were creating these shantytowns to protest apartheid in South Africa but here was a real shantytown with no running water and shacks of corrugated iron,” she recalls. “That was the beginning for me, seeing how much needed to be done in my own backyard.”
Inspired to pursue a career in public service, Goren went on to assume multiple leadership roles in government and grantmaking institutions. Today, she channels her passion for effecting social change through the Meyer Foundation, which awards millions of dollars annually to over 150 organizations serving the Washington, D.C. region. Since becoming the foundation’s president and CEO two years ago, the 50-year-old, Washington D.C-based philanthropic leader has been fiercely dedicated to fighting poverty, homelessness and educational and workforce inequality in her own community. “All of these issues are interrelated and you can’t address one without the other,” she says of the foundation’s new strategic plan that “goes beyond individual grantmaking” and promotes systemic solutions to building wealth in low-income neighborhoods.
A collaborative leader “with an open-door policy,” Goren spends her days creating partnerships with organizations and businesses, meeting with and building “a culture of transparency and trust” with her staff, and continuing to work toward finding solutions for the issues in her own backyard, including those related to poverty, race and ethnicity. “The work can be daunting, but it’s also exciting and I believe in our mission,” she says.
"My goal has always been to make a difference in the world, and to see my children become good citizens."
Born to a father from Israel and an Egyptian mother of Ashkenazi background, Goren grew up in California and England and always felt “culturally Jewish.” Educated in French-speaking schools, she loved team sports and found a formative role model in her maternal grandmother, who moved to California in the 1950s as a single mother. “She did whatever it took to make ends meet and there was never a person she turned away for a meal,” she recalls.
At Brandeis University, Goren played competitive volleyball, designed her own European cultural studies major and minored in legal studies, which propelled her to Cornell Law School. Initially unsure of her career path, she found a mentor in one of the law school’s deans, who “said I should find work where I’m intellectually challenged, making a difference and loving the people I work with,” she recalls. “This advice has guided every decision I’ve made.”
Intent on working for the government, Goren served as assistant general counsel in the Congressional Budget Office and as counsel for the Office of Compliance of the U.S. Congress. She then landed at the Corporation for National and Community Service, where she eventually was promoted to acting CEO. Armed with valuable leadership skills, she transitioned into nonprofit management and spent four years as CEO of the Washington Area Women’s Foundation. “Being a CEO was never on my radar but I always looked for opportunities to stretch myself, “she observes.
Married to Andrew Cohen and the mother of Jacob, 16, and Jared, 13, Goren has mentored participants of Brandeis University’s Eli J. Segal Citizenship Leadership Program, is an active member of Temple Micah and sits on the boards of multiple Washington, D.C.-based organizations, including Trinity Washington University and the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers. “My goal has always been to make a difference in the world,” she says, “and to see my children become good citizens of that world.”