Our Booth Success Story and On Board Learnings


VOCEL co-founder Kelly Lambrinatos and Director of Development Debra MichaelsTheirs is a classic Booth success story: Kelly Lambrinatos, in the Weekend MBA Program and a Civic Scholar, met Debra Michaels, in the Evening MBA Program, and Co-President of Booth Social Impact, while at a non-profit Booth-Kellogg social impact mixer in 2017. Kelly was a co-founder of VOCEL, an innovator in early learning programs, and Debra was in development at a nonprofit at that time. Fast forward two years- when Kelly received board approval to hire a full-time director of development, she thought of Debra.

I caught up with the two recently at On Board, Booth’s annual nonprofit board service conference. They shared more background on VOCEL, why they each chose Booth and what they learned from the conference.


Why Booth and how is your MBA adding value to your experience in a non-profit space?

Kelly: I started working on VOCEL in 2012, when I was still full-time with Teach For America. When I began Booth in 2016 we started the VOCEL Child Parent Academy, a two generational parent and tot learning experience. It was designed to intentionally build parent knowledge around optimal child development, social emotional development and inquiry-driven exploration. My co-founder and I made the decision that I would be responsible for business operations and fundraising. It became clear early on that I needed more support from a business perspective. I realized I needed a more formalized education through Booth which would be critical for me to be the most effective leader for VOCEL.

Debra Coming into Booth I knew I wanted to explore how to be a better social impact leader.  I had always worked at the intersection of business and social impact and believed that Booth would provide me with the quantitative reasoning and business frameworks that I needed to make a bigger impact.  My original conversation with Kelly came out of this shared interest and my experience in raising money for entrepreneurial nonprofits. I was enamored by Kelly’s passion for early learning and excited about VOCEL’s plans for scale.  Since joining the team in July 2018, I have leveraged my Booth toolkit- from how to develop entrepreneurial sales to leadership and operations management, to develop VOCEL’s funding pipeline, so that we can expand our early learning programs across Chicago.


What are your top On Board learnings?

Kelly: 1. Finding the right board for you: I’m on the board of VOCEL but I’d also like to join a different board. I learned helpful tactical information on finding the best fit board. It was also motivating to see more than one hundred other Booth alumni interested in giving back through board service.

2. Engaging your board: It’s easy to fall into a trap of reporting on day to day business.  We were reminded to think about the final outcome we’d like from the board and how to plan backwards from there. What’s most rewarding to me as someone working full-time is when I can take something and implement it immediately- I added getting centered around our mission to my board’s agenda for next week.

3. On Board is incredible for the networking. It’s fascinating to see who’s in the room and who’s been secured as speakers and presenters. It’s been a meaningful experience to me over the past few years.


Debra: 1.How do you build donor engagement authentically? There’s a fine line between how you engage people and getting intervening opinions about how to run your organization. But authentic two-way dialogue is critical to engaging donors and developing revenue streams.

2. How do you get your board strategically involved and make them understand that fundraising is part of their job? We learned about how you do not just do good work that feels good, but work that makes meaningful change. This makes it a lot easier for Board members to own fundraising as part of their job expectations.

3. What’s great is the level of conversation I have with the individuals who attend, especially at the Volunteer Fair.  This is the 6th time I’ve attended On Board and it was awesome to meet so many passionate individuals, who are knowledgeable and intentional about how they want to give back.  I loved sharing VOCEL’s work to support young children and families…I’m already looking forward to next year!


On March 8, 2019, the On Board conference in Chicago brought together nearly 300 Booth alumni, students, business and nonprofit leaders to learn about key trends and insights in nonprofit board service. Hosted by the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, attendees of the sixth annual On Board gained insight from faculty into how research and other academic tools can be applied in the nonprofit sector, connected with others looking to make an impact in the social sector, and heard a keynote with Alisa Miller, MBA ’99, MPP ’99, executive chairman of PRI-PRX. As Chicago Booth’s social impact hub, the Rustandy Center works at the intersection of the business and social sectors to distill the best from both worlds and develop people and practices with the potential to improve human life and the planet.


Libby Smoler is a marketing specialist for the Evening MBA and Weekend MBA Programs.

Photo credit: Heidi Zeiger Photography