2019 Nonprofit Conference

The Arc of Innovation

Timeless Lessons from Thriving Nonprofits

May 2, 2019

Hyatt Regency O’Hare

9300 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., Chicago, IL 60601

In celebration of its 20th anniversary, the Axelson Center for Nonprofit Management is holding The Arc of Innovation: Timeless Lessons from Thriving Nonprofits on May 2nd, 2019 at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare. Gathering almost 500 nonprofit leaders from across the Midwest, this conference will look forward and backward, drawing on the timeless lessons and tested innovations of thriving nonprofits and their leaders. The plenary speaker at The Arc of Innovation will be Vu Le, executive director of the Rainer Valley Corps and author of the well-known blog, Nonprofit AF.

Additionally, the Axelson Center will present our annual nonprofit management awards—the Alford-Axelson Award for Nonprofit Excellence and the Excellent Emerging Organization Award—at the conference luncheon. And back by popular demand, our “Ask a Funder” sessions will allow for nonprofit leaders to sit down for quick one-on-one conversations with foundation representatives.

The Axelson Center has been working consistently at the cutting edge of nonprofit management education for 20 years, and The Arc of Innovation will include both comprehensive trends and practical takeaways for organizations and leaders looking to help their organizations thrive. Be sure to register today!

Keynote Speaker

Vu LeVu Le

Executive Director, Rainier Valley Corps

Vu Le (“voo lay”) is the executive director of Rainier Valley Corps (RVC), a nonprofit in Seattle that promotes social justice by developing leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities. RVC’s flagship program recruits cohorts of emerging leaders of color and sends them to work for two years at local nonprofits led by communities of color. RVC provides them with ongoing training, along with a living wage, medical benefits, and an education bonus upon completion of service. RVC incorporates principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion into leadership development and capacity building. Known for his pointed observations delivered with a sense of humor, Vu has been featured in dozens, of not hundreds, of his own blog posts, found at NonprofitAF.com, formerly NonprofitWithBalls.com

Conference Details

8:00 – 9:00 am Registration
9:00 – 10:15 am Vu Le Keynote Presentation
10:30 am – Noon Breakout Sessions and Ask a Funder (see tabs below for details)
12:15 – 1:30 pm Awards Luncheon
1:45 – 3:00 pm Breakout Sessions and Ask a Funder

Ellen Alberding, President and Board Member, The Joyce Foundation

As president and board member of the Joyce Foundation, Ellen oversees the charitable distribution of $50 million annually from assets of $1 billion. Under her leadership, Joyce has gained national prominence with a grant portfolio rooted in the core belief that communities are stronger when they share benefits broadly. The Joyce Foundation funds the development and advancement of policy reforms to address racial equity and economic mobility for the next generation. It invests heavily in research to gather facts and data so that proposed policy solutions are based on solid evidence.

As chief executive of Joyce, Ellen is active in the regional and national policy arena. She is one of the founders of the Partnership for Safe and Peaceful Communities (PSPC), a funder collaborative investing in community-based strategies to reduce gun violence in Chicago. Ellen is a founding board member of Advance Illinois, which advocates for public education reform. She was also a founding board member of Skills for America’s Future, which works to meet the needs of business and improve employment opportunities for community college students. She served as Vice Chair of City Colleges of Chicago and is a former member of the National Park Foundation board. From 2010 to 2016, Ellen was a board member of the Economic Club of Chicago.

Ellen holds a bachelor’s degree in English with honors from Brown University, and an MBA from Northwestern University.

Greg DiDomenico, President & CEO, Community Memorial Foundation

Greg serves as president and CEO of Community Memorial Foundation. Established in 1995, Community Memorial Foundation is a private foundation focused on measurably improving the health of people who live and work in the western suburbs of Chicago. During Greg’s tenure the Foundation has become a regional leader in philanthropy launching new initiatives that include a Leadership Institute focused on strengthening grantee capacity and a Regional Health and Human Services Agenda rooted in a collective impact strategy that improves positive local health outcomes.

Greg joined the Foundation team as vice president in 2009 after serving as executive director for a number of years at local nonprofits. He also held leadership roles in his native Pennsylvania where he coordinated community mental health services in Montgomery County.

Greg serves on several community boards and advisory committees, including Forefront, the Chicago Zoological Society, Village of La Grange Community & Economic Commission, DuPage County Continuum of Care Grants Funding Committee and a past board president of the West Suburban Chamber of Commerce and Industry.  In 2012, the Young Nonprofit Professional Network of Chicago honored Greg as its inaugural Nonprofit Mentor of the Year. Currently, Greg is co-leading Forefront’s Mission Sustainability Initiative Grants Committee- a funding collaborative aimed at strengthening the nonprofit sector through strategic partnerships.

Helene D. Gayle, President & CEO, The Chicago Community Trust

Helene D. Gayle is President and CEO of The Chicago Community Trust, one of the nation’s leading community foundations. Previously, Helene was CEO of McKinsey Social Initiative (now McKinsey.org), a nonprofit that builds partnerships for social impact. For almost a decade, she was President and CEO of CARE, a leading international humanitarian organization. An expert on global development, humanitarian and health issues, Helene spent 20 years with the Centers for Disease Control, working primarily on HIV/AIDS. She also worked at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, directing programs on HIV/AIDS and other global health issues.

Helene serves on public company and nonprofit boards including The Coca-Cola Company, Colgate-Palmolive Company, the Rockefeller Foundation, Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, New America and the ONE Campaign. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the American Public Health Association, the National Academy of Medicine, the National Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Named one of Forbes’ “100 Most Powerful Women,” and one of NonProfit Times’ “Power and Influence Top 50,” she has authored numerous articles on global and domestic public health issues, poverty alleviation, gender equality and social justice.

Helene earned a bachelor’s in psychology at Barnard College, an MD at the University of Pennsylvania and an MPH at Johns Hopkins University. She has received 15 honorary degrees and holds faculty appointments at the University of Washington and Emory University.

Judith Gethner, Executive Director, Illinois Partners for Human Service

Judith is the founding executive director of Illinois Partners for Human Service. Since 2009, she has built Partners from a start-up to over 800+ human services provider partners located in every legislative district across Illinois. As a leading voice within the sector, Judith has led a successful campaign to educate service providers on the budget impasse and other fiscal issues; has informed the political discourse on human services through collaborative advocacy efforts with community organizations, state agencies, elected officials, and the private sector; and has been appointed to lend her expertise to numerous government councils and agencies. She has been appointed to the State Health Improvement Plan Council, Illinois Single Audit Commission and the Social Service Advisory Council.

Judith brings a strong combination of private and nonprofit sector experience to her work. Judith was trained by the Industrial Areas Foundation in organizing and was campaign manager for Vote YES on the ConCon. She served as executive director of College Living Experience, which helps special needs students attend universities, was Access Living’s 2014 Advocate of the Year, and has done consulting on organizational development.

Mae Hong, Vice President, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors

Mae opened the Chicago office of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (RPA) in 2009 and is responsible for serving individual donors, families, foundations and corporations throughout the Midwest. In addition to providing high-touch, custom services to help clients manage their charitable giving, develop effective strategies, and discover joy in their philanthropic journey, she is also a frequent speaker and writer about issues, trends, and ideas in philanthropy. 

With nearly 20 years of nonprofit and philanthropy experience, Mae previously served as program director at the Field Foundation of Illinois. Her funding expertise includes children, youth and families; poverty alleviation; women and girls’ issues; and advocacy. She has also been actively involved in RPA’s leadership on the issue of diversity in philanthropy. Prior to entering the nonprofit sector, she worked in the publishing industry for several years.

Mae currently serves as the board chair of Illinois Humanities. She completed her graduate work in social service administration at The University of Chicago, and is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

Mark Ishaug, Chief Executive Officer, Thresholds

Mark has dedicated his entire career to advocating for the rights of stigmatized and vulnerable people. For the past seven years, he has led Thresholds, an innovative community-based organization that provides behavioral healthcare and supportive housing to more than 10,000 people each year in Illinois. During his tenure at Thresholds, he has overseen explosive growth, but also a culture shift that embraces change, innovation, transparency, and yes – love. Thresholds has been recognized for five consecutive years as a Chicago Tribune Top Workplace and a Chicago’s 101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For. Prior to his work at Thresholds, Mark spent decades as a leader in the fight against HIV/AIDS as CEO of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. Mark holds an MA in political science from Northwestern University and a bachelor’s in government and international studies from the University of Notre Dame.

Michelle Larson, President and CEO, Adler Planetarium

Michelle Larson discovered astronomy in her 20s, when she pointed a pair of binoculars at the moon. The stunning details visible on its craggy surface were a complete surprise, and the experience left her eager to find out what other secrets the sky had to offer. Now, as the president and CEO of the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Michelle leads a talented team that helps people of all ages discover their own infinite possibilities through exploration.

Before joining the Adler in 2013, Michelle held positions in science engagement and administration at Utah State University, The Pennsylvania State University, the Montana Space Grant Consortium, the California Institute of Technology, and the University of California–Berkeley. At each of these institutions, she served as a bridge between scientists and broader audiences. She earned a PhD in physics from Montana State University, where she studied neutron stars and realized her passion for sharing science with the public through a NASA project about our star, the sun. Michelle is a member of the American Astronomical Society, the American Physical Society and serves on several national and Chicago-area advisory boards.

Jimmy Lee, President and CEO, Goodcity

Jimmy serves as the Chief Executive Officer and President for Goodcity.  He is also the managing director and a member of the board of directors for Mission Create. Jimmy came to Goodcity with vast experience in the government and nonprofit industries both locally and globally. In 2009, he was named one of Crain’s 40 Under 40 following his bid for the United States Congress in the 11th Congressional District of Illinois. Jimmy was the former executive director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, the former special assistant to the Governor of the State of Illinois, and also the former executive director of the Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce. He helped start Create Possible, Resource Global, the Global Executive Leadership Forum, US Asia Business Council, the National Center for Community Development, and serves on the board of directors for 1MISSION, Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, Renew Chicago, and Resource Global.

Dorri McWhorter, Chief Executive Officer, YWCA Metropolitan Chicago

As the CEO of the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago, Dorri McWhorter has embarked upon a journey to transform the 140-year-old social service agency to a 21st-century social enterprise. Dorri is moving the agency into the digital age by re-launching the TechGYRLS program and introducing 3D: Developing Digital Diversity, which provides web and mobile application development training to adult women. Dorri has also led the YWCA’s expansion of digital services with the launch of YShop.org, womenshealthexchange.org and the MPWR mobile app. Dorri was included in the inaugural list of “The Blue Network,” comprised of the top 100 innovators in Chicago, by Chicago Tribune’s Blue Sky Innovation and recognized by Good City Chicago receiving its Innovative Leader Award. Dorri led the process for the YWCA to develop an exchange traded fund (ETF) for women’s empowerment ($WOMN) in partnership with Impact Shares, which is the first nonprofit investment advisor to develop an ETF product.

A proven leader in the corporate and social change sectors, Dorri prides herself on being a socially-conscious business leader throughout her career. Most recently Dorri was a partner at Crowe Horwath LLP, one of the largest accounting firms in the US. She has also held senior positions with Snap-on Incorporated and Booz Allen Hamilton. Dorri is also active in the accounting profession having served as a member of the board of directors of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) and for the Illinois CPA Society. Dorri serves on the board of directors for several organizations, including The Metropolitan Club, Chicago Finance Exchange, and Chicago Child Care Society. Dorri received a bachelor of business administration degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Mary Morten, President, Morten Group LLC

Mary F. Morten has over 20 years of executive leadership at nonprofits and a past mayoral appointment in city government that provides clients with a unique skill set and access to decision makers. The firm’s scope of work includes organizational development (focused on board accountability and resources acquisition), strategic alliances, succession planning and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. Morten Group works with national organizations, foundations and for-profit entities. In 2018, Morten Group began its 17th year of work supporting organizations, strategic alliances and social justice movements.

Mary has served as board chair, associate director and interim executive director for the Chicago Foundation for Women, one of the world’s largest women’s foundations. She is a past director of the Office of Violence Prevention for the Chicago Department of Public Health. Prior to this position, Mary was an appointee for Mayor Richard M. Daley and served as a director/liaison for the Chicago Commission on Human Relations. An award-winning filmmaker, Mary is currently in production on a sequel to Woke Up Black, a documentary chronicling the lives of five black youth. Mary has received numerous awards for her work, most recently the 2017 Women in Film Focus award, and the 2014 YLeadership Award from the YWCA Evanston/Northshore for her work her work on racial justice and women’s empowerment. Mary holds a BA from Loyola University of Chicago, and is a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals and the Association of Consultants to Nonprofits.

Maria Pesqueira, President, Healthy Communities Foundation

Maria del Socorro Pesqueira was appointed president of the Healthy Communities Foundation (formerly The Arthur Foundation) in May 2017. The Foundation’s mission is to improve the health and well-being of individuals, families and communities in over 20 communities in western Cook County by promoting health equity, quality and access.

Prior to joining the Healthy Communities Foundation, Maria served as President to Mujeres Latinas en Accion. Preceding her time at Mujeres, Maria led The National Museum of Mexican Art’s Development and Marketing Team. Her civic and community involvement include appointments to the United States Congressional Commission for a National Women’s History Museum, Illinois Children and Family Services Advisory Commission, Illinois Partners for Human Services, Community Memorial Foundation, Aetna Medical Advisory Board and The Chicago Network.

Maria’s awards consist of being named a Chicago Community Trust Fellow in 2015, 1 of 50 Women of Influence by Chicago Business Journal in 2016, the Excellence in Community Service award by MALDEF in 2015, the Making a Difference Award by Chicago Women in Philanthropy in 2013, selected to AJC Project Israel Interchange for National Latino Opinion and Policy Leaders in 2016, and named one of “Forty under Forty” by Crain’s Chicago Business.

Maria is a graduate of the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government Executive Program, St. Thomas University, Mini-MBA in Nonprofit Management and DePaul University.

Denise Williams, Associate Professor, Metropolitan State University, College of Management–Entrepreneurship & Innovation

Dr. Denise E. Williams, serves as an associate professor, researcher, and community alliance builder with Metropolitan State University-Minnesota in entrepreneurship and organizational Behavior. Denise delivers engaging and culturally sensitive curriculum with special commitment to developing the innovative mindset, career readiness, and positive psychology. Her corporate leadership experience includes United Airlines, General Mills, Foote Cone & Belding Advertising, Robert Half International and Africare. Students have benefited from her integration of these real world experiences into the classroom at Metropolitan State University, Butler University, Golden Gate University, Indiana University and Loyola University in New Orleans. Her research examines factors influencing entrepreneurship success; relationships between the entrepreneurial mindset and well-being, coaching, and diversity.

Denise was honored as the state of Minnesota’s Veteran Champion by the United States Small Business Association Minnesota (2017). Williams receives the Women Business Development Center Public Sector award in 2019.

Denise earned her PhD and master’s degree in business from Indiana University, Kelley School of Business concentrating in organizational behavior and entrepreneurship; an MBA from the Wharton School of Business; a bachelor’s degree in economics from Spelman College; and ordination from One Spirit Learning Alliance-NY. Denise has served on the NAWBO Minnesota Board of Directors; Women Business Development Center Regional Advisory Committee; MEDA’s African American Women CEO Brain Trust; and as a business competition judge for universities and Junior Achievement.

Morning Breakout Sessions (10:30 am – Noon)

Changes in Philanthropy: What’s Next? – Ellen Alberding, President, Joyce Foundation and Helene Gayle, President and CEO, The Chicago Community Trust

Join us for this conversation about the history and future of philanthropy. What is on the horizon? What is changing? What do I need to know? Where should I spend my time and energies? This conversation will help nonprofits think clearly about the future and how they can anticipate and work towards the coming changes.

Developing an Innovation Mindset – Denise E. Williams, PhD, Associate Professor, Metropolitan State University

What does it take to create innovative programs? How do you move from idea to execution? How do you stay innovative and stay on mission? How do you convince others to support your innovation with resources?

Honest Conversations About Leading – Michelle Larson, President and CEO, Adler Planetarium and Jimmy Lee, President and CEO, Good City

In this session, Chicago nonprofit leaders grapple with questions such as: How do you move from frenetic to focused leadership? How do you build a leadership team that compliments your leadership and what your organization needs? How does your leadership connect with the mission and needs of your organization?

Philanthropy and Inequity: Having the Hard Conversations – Maria Pesqueira, President, Healthy Communities Foundation

How does the philanthropic field deal with the realities of inequity? How do we cultivate honest conversations in situations where a serious power imbalance exists?


Afternoon Breakout Sessions (1:45 – 3:00 pm)

Going Deeper with DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) – Mary Morten, President, Morten Group

It seems like DEI initiatives are set up to fail. From a lack of organizational commitment, to failing to provide sufficient resources, or not cultivating a culture of inclusion. In this interactive session, learn how to develop the power to effect change in your organization from both the top down and the bottom up.

Government and Nonprofit Relations: Working Towards Sustainability – Judith Gethner, Executive Director, Illinois Partners for Human Service

How do you strengthen relationships between government entities and nonprofits to ensure sustainability? What does it take to ensure that government resources and relationships aren’t a liability but a strength?

Honest Conversations About Leading –  Mark Ishaug, CEO, Thresholds and Dorri McWhorter, CEO, YWCA, Metropolitan Chicago

In this session, Chicago nonprofit leaders grapple with questions such as: How do you move from frenetic to focused leadership? How do you build a leadership team that compliments your leadership and what your organization needs? How does your leadership connect with the mission and needs of your organization?

Nonprofit Governance: Building a Better Board – Greg DiDomenico, President and CEO, Community Memorial Foundation

In this interactive session, learn from stories of struggles and turnarounds regarding board governance. How does your board connect with the mission and needs of your organization? How do you cultivate a strong and healthy relationship with your board? We encourage executive directors to bring a board member with them to this session.

Kirstin Chernawsky, Executive Director

Erie Neighborhood House

Kirstin Chernawsky is the ninth individual—and fourth woman—to serve as the executive director of Erie Neighborhood House. Kirstin shares her leadership expertise by volunteering with numerous organizations across the city of Chicago. She is a board member of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), Susan G. Komen Chicago and the Metropolitan Chicago Breast Cancer Task Force. Kirstin was appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to serve on the 2017-2019 Community Development Advisory Committee (CDAC), is a member of the Economic Club of Chicago and is a member of Leadership Greater Chicago, Class of 2019. She holds a Master of Science in Public Service Management and a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology, both from DePaul University.

Esther Franco-Payne, Executive Director

Cabrini Green Legal Aid

Esther Franco-Payne is the executive director of Cabrini Green Legal Aid where she leads the strategy, fundraising and overall management of the organization. With a long career in violence prevention and criminal justice advocacy, Esther’s personal commitment has been to serve as a voice for underserved communities of color. Esther is a member of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, the federally mandated State Advisory Group to the Governor, the General Assembly and the Illinois Department of Human Services and Chairperson of the DMC Committee, focused on eliminating racial disparities in the juvenile justice system. She is an alumnus of the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration.

Malik Gillani, Founding Executive Director

Silk Road Rising

Malik Gillani is the founding executive director of Silk Road Rising (SRR), a position to which he brings extensive experience in producing, management, and business development. Malik is a recognized leader in the creation of innovative arts programming that expands artistic access. Most notably, he conceived of and developed SRR’s model for creating online video plays which are now being accessed across the globe. Malik has been a volunteer grant reviewer for the National Endowment for the Arts, the Illinois Arts Council, and the City of Chicago’s CityArts Program. He earned a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland and a master’s degree in nonprofit administration from North Park University.

Mark Ishaug, Chief Executive Officer


Mark Ishaug has dedicated his career to advocating for the rights of stigmatized and vulnerable people. As the CEO of Thresholds, Mark has overseen explosive growth, but also a culture shift that embraces change, innovation, transparency, and yes – love. Thresholds has been recognized for five consecutive years as a Chicago Tribune Top Workplace and a Chicago’s 101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For. Prior to Thresholds, Mark worked as a leader in the fight against HIV/AIDS as CEO of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. Mark holds a master’s degree in political science from Northwestern University and a bachelor’s degree in government and international studies from the University of Notre Dame.

Jim Kales, President and CEO


Jim Kales is CEO of Aspire, a nonprofit recognized throughout the Midwest as a leader in providing bold, pioneering and uncompromising services to kids and adults with developmental disabilities. Jim is an evangelist on building a winning, performance-based culture among Aspire’s team of 200 employees. In 2015, 2016 and 2017, Aspire was named one of the 101 Best and Brightest Places to Work in the United States. Prior to joining Aspire, Jim served as CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Lake County, and as the director of communications for the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago. He graduated summa cum laude from Bucknell University and received his master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School.

Sandee Kastrul, Co-Founder and President

i.c. stars

Sandee Kastrul is president and co-founder of i.c.stars. i.c.stars provides opportunities to break the cycle of poverty that limits inner city youth. Through training in technology, leadership and business skills, i.c.stars prepares future leaders for careers in information technology and community leadership. As the founder of a nonprofit and social enterprise, Sandee discusses the powerful result of optimism and raising standards for our communities with a unique perspective on capitalism and civil rights. She has been working in education and transformation for over two decades. She worked as a teacher and consultant from early childhood classrooms through adult education affording her a wide perspective in project-based learning, leadership development, reverse mentoring and asset-based pedagogy.

Maria Kim, President and CEO


Maria Kim is president and CEO of Cara – a suite of bootcamps and businesses that uplift people and communities through the power of employment. Cara produces hundreds of jobs each year at retention rates over 20 points higher than national norms, and with over 80% of employed participants pivoting from homelessness to permanent housing. Maria serves on the boards of EPIC Academy, a charter high school in South Chicago and Rebuilding Exchange (a social enterprise in the circular economy). She was a fellow for Leadership Greater Chicago’s Class of 2008, a 2012 American Marshall Memorial Fellow, a 2013 TEDxMidwest Emerging Leader and a 2018 Bank of America Vital Voices Global Ambassador. Maria holds an MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Dan Kotowski, President & CEO


Dan Kotowski is president and CEO of ChildServ, a nonprofit dedicated to building better lives for children and families, so they can reach their full potential. In just over three years, Dan has led the effort to turn a struggling organization into a fiscally sound, social impact enterprise with a surplus. Before joining ChildServ, Dan served as vice president of development and public affairs for UCAN, and as executive director of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence (ICHV). He brought his passion for improving people’s lives with him when he decided to run for the Illinois State Senate in 2006. He serves on the boards of the Danny Did Foundation, Horsefeathers Therapeutic Riding, Inc. and the Gun Violence Prevention Education Center (GPEC). Dan received graduate and undergraduate degrees from DePaul University and the University of Illinois.

Michelle Larson, PhD, President and CEO

Adler Planetarium

Growing up in Alaska, Michelle Larson enjoyed the beauty of the northern lights. She became further captivated by astronomy in her 20s when she pointed a pair of binoculars at the moon. Now, as the president and CEO of the Adler Planetarium, Michelle leads a talented team that connects people to the

universe and each other under the sky we all share. Since Michelle joined the Adler Planetarium in 2013, that team has found new and innovative ways to meet people wherever they are and welcome them into the scientific community. Michelle earned her doctorate in physics from Montana State University and serves on several national and Chicago-area advisory boards.

Yesenia Maldonado, Executive Director

Between Friends

Yesenia Maldonado, LCSW, is a socially thoughtful leader focused on inspiring and empowering collective action and change. She is the executive director at Between Friends, an organization that works to end domestic abuse by being responsive to the needs of those impacted by abuse and engaging communities on ways to build safe and healthy relationships. Yesenia is responsible for the vision, strategy, and fundraising efforts at Between Friends. Prior to joining Between Friends, Yesenia served as the clinical director at Alternatives Inc.  She received her Master of Social Work with a Type 73 certification from the University of Illinois Jane Addams College of Social Work.

Dorri McWhorter, Chief Executive Officer

YWCA Metropolitan Chicago

Dorri McWhorter is the CEO of the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago. She is moving the agency into the digital age by re-launching the TechGYRLS program, STEM awareness for girls, and introducing 3D: Developing Digital Diversity, which provides web and mobile application development training to women. Dorri was included in the inaugural list of “The Blue Network,” comprised of the top 100 innovators in Chicago, by Chicago Tribune’s Blue Sky Innovation and recognized by Good City Chicago receiving its Innovative Leader Award. Dorri lead the process for the YWCA to develop an exchange traded fund (ETF) for women’s empowerment in partnership with Impact Shares. McWhorter received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an Master of Business Administration from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Michelle Morales, Chief Executive Officer

Mikva Challenge

Michelle Morales is the CEO of Mikva Challenge Chicago. Prior to Mikva Challenge, Michelle worked as a teacher at an alternative high school and as associate director at the Alternative Schools Network. At Mikva Challenge, Michelle leads a staff that provides professional development to Chicagoland teachers in action civics and student-centered teaching, as well as facilitating youth councils that inform major city institutions. Michelle is passionate about the wisdom that youth possess. She has committed her career to reminding others of the power of youth voice and ensuring that there are spaces throughout Chicago that empower youth. She received a bachelor’s degree from DePaul University, a master’s degree in special education from UIC and a master’s degree in educational leadership from Northeastern Illinois University. Michelle is also a fellow of Leadership Greater Chicago.

Masequa Myers, Executive Director

South Side Community Art Center

Maséqua Myers is the executive director of the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC). Maséqua has shared her diverse talents with arts centers and theaters throughout the United States. She is an award-winning producer, recognized with honors from the Beverly Hills/Hollywood NAACP Theatre Awards as Best Producer and AV Multimedia Producer Magazine’s Top 100 Producers. She was awarded the Life Time Achievement Award from the African American Arts Alliance in 2008. Most recently, Maséqua was awarded the Black Excellence Award by the African American Arts Alliance of Chicago as curator of the fine arts exhibition, History Thru Art: A Woman’s Palette. She was awarded the Dr. Margaret Burroughs Legacy Award presented by the Women’s Board of the DuSable Museum and Deloris Jordan Excellence in Community Leadership award at the Black Harvest Film Festival.

Stacy Ratner, Founder, Open Books and Co-Founder

Chicago Literacy Alliance

Stacy Ratner established Open Books, an organization that provides literacy programs to K-12 students and gives away 150,000+ books each year, and the Chicago Literacy Alliance, whose 130+ members serve more than 18 million people of all ages and literacy levels annually. Both organizations make their homes at the Literacenter, America’s first shared workspace dedicated to literacy. Stacy received a Chicagoan of the Year award from Chicago Magazine, an Emerging Leader Fellowship at the Chicago Community Trust, the Social Enterprise Alliance’s Innovation prize, and selection as a Kellogg Young Impact Scholar. She holds a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from Brandeis University, a Juris Doctor from Boston College Law School, and a Master of Business Administration from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

Darnell Shields, Executive Director

Austin Coming Together

Darnell Shields is the executive director of Austin Coming Together (ACT). Throughout his time at ACT, Darnell has been able to galvanize hundreds of organizations and community leaders to take on Austin’s challenges with passion and commitment. Darnell was named a 2015 Fellow of the Civic Leadership Academy at the University of Chicago. He received the 2017 United Way of Metro Chicago Community Leadership Award and is a recipient of the 2019 Martin Luther King – Keepers Of The Dream Award from the Leaders Network. He currently serves on the boards of the Jane Addams Resource Corporation and Friends of the Children Chicago chapter. Darnell holds associate degrees in applied sciences and liberal arts from Wilbur Wright College and a bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurship from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Zack Schrantz, President/CEO


Zack Schrantz has served the youth and families of UCAN for the past 28 years. He currently serves as the organization’s executive director. Highlights of Zack’s tenure at UCAN include leading significant revenue growth, creation and implementation of programmatic dashboards in order to effectively measure service delivery impact, development of UCAN’s highly respected Teen Parenting Service Network, and the development of programming and curricula focused on youth leadership to help UCAN’s vision of “Youth who have suffered trauma become our future leaders” become a reality. He has served on multiple boards and advisory committees and is co-chair of the Child Welfare Advisory Committee (CWAC), and a Fellow of Leadership Greater Chicago.

Sheldon Smith, Founder and Executive Director

The Dovetail Project

Sheldon Smith, founder and executive director of the Dovetail Project, began working as a youth organizer in Woodlawn as a teen. His community work focused on issues such as youth and gang violence, juvenile justice, sexual health education, and promoting community activism. When Sheldon became a father at the age of 20, he was determined to be the best father he could be. He knew he wanted to help other young fathers have a positive impact and build strong relationships with their children. He created the Dovetail Project to bring together resources that were lacking in his own life and the lives of others. Since then, his organization has graduated over 400 young men. Sheldon was selected as a 2018 Muhammad Ali Humanitarian, 2018 Forbes 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneur, 2017 Steve Harvey Hero and 2016 CNN Hero. He serves as a board member for the International Youth Foundation.

Jackie Taylor, Founder and CEO

Black Ensemble Theater

Jackie Taylor is the founder and executive director of the award-winning Black Ensemble Theater, which owns and operates the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center. Jackie is a distinguished director, producer, actress, singer and playwright and has written and produced more than 100 plays and musical biographies. She has had featured roles in several major films. Jackie has a bachelor’s degree in theater, a master’s degree in education and an honorary doctorate from DePaul University. An outstanding teacher, Jackie has worked for the Chicago Board of Education, the Illinois Arts Council and Urban Gateways. She is the president of the African American Arts Alliance and a board member of the Betty Shabazz International Schools. Jackie is a recent recipient of the Sarah Siddons Award.

Jennifer Tscherney, Executive Director

Swedish Covenant Hospital Foundation

Jennifer Tscherney is the executive director of Swedish Covenant Hospital Foundation. Jennifer has experience in nonprofit health care and higher education development including Northwestern Memorial Hospital Foundation, University of Illinois at Chicago, DePaul University, University of Chicago Medicine and Sherman Health Foundation where she led a campaign that raised over $12 million to build a new hospital. After successfully leading a campaign to build a new women’s health center at Swedish, she initiated a violence prevention program that is the only program of its kind addressing domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking in Chicago. Jennifer holds a Bachelor of Arts from University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master of Science from DePaul University. She is a member of the women’s board of the Joffrey Ballet.

Laura Zumdahl, President & CEO

New Moms

Laura Zumdahl, Ph.D, is the president and CEO of New Moms, a social impact organization that interrupts generational poverty by focusing on young moms and their children. She also serves as CEO of New Moms’ social enterprise, Bright Endeavors, a soy candle company that provides paid transitional jobs to young women in New Moms’ job training program. Laura’s career has been focused on growing and developing effective nonprofit organizations. She’s served in a variety of leadership roles in the nonprofit sector in capacity building, legal aid, higher education, and child welfare. Laura earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Trinity Christian College; a master’s degree in social work from the University of Chicago, School of Social Service Administration; and a doctorate degree in leadership from Cardinal Stritch University. She serves as a board member of Chicago Jobs Council and Trinity Christian College.

Breakthrough Urban Ministries

Bridge Communities

Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center

Center for Enriched Living

College Bound Opportunities

Lakeview Pantry

One Goal Chicago

Shore Community Services

Ignite (formerly Teen Living Programs)

The Cradle

Chicago Eco House

Dream On Education

Shift: Englewood Youth Orchestra

If you are interested in sponsoring The Arc of Innovation, please fill out this brief form.

Will meals be provided?

Lunch and light refreshments at the end of the conference will be provided. They are included in the registration price.

What is the refund policy?

Refunds are available until seven days before the conference begins.

Is parking available?

Yes, on-site hotel parking is available. A discount rate of $15 is available to conference attendees.

How do I get to the hotel via public transportation?

The conference hotel (Hyatt Regency O’Hare) is walking distance from the Rosemont stop on the CTA Blue Line.

Will WiFi be avaiable?

Free WiFi will be available in certain areas of the hotel for attendees.

What is the dress code?

Business casual is appropriate.

What is the social media hashtag?

The social media hashtag is #ArcofInnovation

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