The Journey that Led to Now: A Conversation with Founder Baker Harrell and Incoming CEO Amy McGeady
In July of 2019, It’s Time Texas Founder Baker Harrell welcomed Amy McGeady, who came on board as the organization’s Chief Strategy Officer in 2016, to her new position as CEO. What’s in store for Baker as he transitions from CEO to a new role as Founder? And how is Amy preparing to lead the organization forward as his successor? Find out in these highlights from their conversation in June!
Amy: So, Baker, let’s be clear that you’re not leaving – you’re moving into a Founder role with It’s Time Texas. What does that look like for you? What are you excited about?
Baker: You know, I’m really excited to spend a lot more time with my family – my amazing wife, Lisa, our two little girls, and all of the people who have been so instrumental in my development, and our development as an organization. I’m so grateful to them – my parents and family, our Board and staff, our partners and funders, and so many others who believed in me and supported me and allowed me to pursue this dream. I’m really looking forward to reconnecting and just strengthening those relationships.
I’m also just really excited to stay connected to this movement. You know, as we’ve talked about many times, one of the things I’ve hoped for in this transition was that it would not be perceived in any way as my sort of stepping away or losing faith in the potential of what so many are doing across the state to improve health. It’s actually the opposite of that.
I am more hopeful for this movement than I ever have been, and this transition gives me the opportunity to stay connected in new and exciting ways in the role of Founder for It’s Time Texas and as a broader champion of the movement.
Amy: Baker, I know that this journey for you began when you were just a little boy. I would love it if you would tell me that story.
Baker: Well, I grew up in a small town in Mississippi. By the time I was 11, I had lived more than a third of my life as an overweight kid. I was picked on and had a tough experience because of my weight. I couldn’t play sports the way some of my friends could. And I really didn’t enjoy going to school, because I knew I’d be made fun of. I was pretty unhappy. My one goal in life was to not have to wear husky jeans.
At the end of the 5th grade year, I needed some new clothes. So, my mom drove me to the mall, and this really friendly sales person came up to us and my mom told her I needed some new jeans. She took one look at me and walked me to the husky section. At a certain point, I ended up on the floor of the dressing room just crying. At that time, I had really hit bottom, and I just knew that I couldn’t live that way anymore. In a frantic state, my mom came back to the dressing room and for the first time, she saw how much I suffered. I had kept a lot of that to myself. I looked at my mom and told her that I wanted to change, I needed to change, and I thought that meant our family needed to make a change, too.
In that moment, my mom did this amazing thing. What she could have said was, “Oh Baker, you’re a growing boy, it’s just a phase,” or “If you want to change, fine, but you need to do it on your own.” Instead, she said, “Okay, son, but you need to lead this for our family. I’ll support you, but you need to be the leader.” And in that moment, she gave me a cause that was bigger than myself and it set me and my family on a completely different path.
The summer between my 5th and 6th grade years I lost a lot of weight. I exercised every morning. My mom started experimenting with different recipes to create a healthier diet for our family. We started sharing what we were doing with others in our community and our extended family.
And as I got older, I realized a few things. One, I realized that health is a gateway to a better life. It’s foundational. Two, that I was unhealthy because my family culture didn’t value health, and my family culture didn’t value health because my community culture didn’t value health. And I recognized that this was becoming the new norm – not only in my town and my state, but across the country. And I just knew that if I wanted to effect change, if I wanted to serve others, health would be a gateway, a mechanism to do that. That would be the way that I would effect change as a person. And in order to effect change at scale, I really needed to understand social change and culture change. That moment in time in the dressing room when I was 11 years old set me on a completely different path personally and professionally. I had a calling. And I’ve been able to travel this journey not because of my actions, but because of the support, because of the encouragement, because of the belief of so many others, that started with my mom, Olivia Harrell.
Amy: What would your 11-year-old self say to you now?
Baker: I hope that 11-year-old kid would say, I’m proud of the person you’ve become. I’m proud of the way you’ve stayed committed to this calling. I’m proud that you’ve helped to create an organization that prevents this kind of experience in other families – and for those who find themselves in this situation, who offers them understanding and support and love.
If a person is supported and is understood and is loved and has the ability, the encouragement, to effect change, great things – incredible things – can happen. And every one of us has that potential. And It’s Time Texas exists to help people find that potential.
Baker: So, Amy, you asked me earlier what I’m excited about. I’m interested in knowing, as you step into the role of CEO, what are you excited about?
Amy: You know, Baker, when I first came to It’s Time Texas, I was looking for a very unique and special opportunity to both use the things I knew, that I was expert at, while still having the opportunity to grow and learn. I was leaving a dream that I had created in my consulting business. In a way, I was reinventing myself. I didn’t know what was next, but I was hopeful that there would be a next. And I’m so thankful you welcomed me into your path.
I’m excited about so much in this next leg of the journey, but I think I’m most excited about all of the potential we have to really ignite a social movement.
Right now, we have all of these great programs, these events, these initiatives – we have all of these great ways for people to engage with our work. And throughout the past three years, as I’ve traveled with you around the state, I’ve seen all of these sparks from all over Texas not only from other agencies or public health professionals, but also from moms, dads, community and church leaders – everyday people who want to change their health and change the health of others. I see how they light up at being a part of this larger movement. That’s what I’m really excited about: How do we keep all those sparks alive, and how do we bring them together to create a bonfire?
Baker: What are the few things that you’re really focused on, that are your priorities as you begin to lead the organization in this way?
Amy: In the short-term, one of my top priorities will be to take advantage of all the great partnerships we as an organization have, to get out and talk to people, to find out, what are their dreams for our future? What are their dreams for their own future? What are their dreams for this work?
Something you’ve been very clear with me about from day one is that this is not my work. This is not our work. This is a movement of other people who are hungry for a healthier Texas, and it’s our job to nurture and support it.
As we build out the next season of our evolution, I’m excited to pause, to listen, to really take to heart what the community at large in Texas is telling us is most pressing and important to them. And then, as we learn about the priorities of one person in a part of the state, to figure out how we in our role as a convener connect them with someone else in the state who either shares that priority or who might be a little further along on their journey and has lessons to share. How do we engage them more? How do we amplify what they are doing? And how do we support it?
It’s amazing how many people share our commitment to health and to making health a fundamental part of our culture. We all have skin in this game, and It’s Time Texas will keep adapting and being responsive to what’s happening. That’s who we are.
Amy: Baker, you’ve been with me this whole time – holding my hand – what advice do you have for me now, as I embark on the CEO journey?
Baker: First of all, you don’t need my advice. You’re an amazing person, and an incredible leader. You have the full support of our team, our board, our partners, our investors. You’ve got this. You’re amazing. So, first I would say, you don’t need my advice, but since you asked, I would say, just continue to be true to yourself. There have been so many moments where you have said, Baker, I believe very strongly in this approach or this decision, and you’ve been proven correct. I have learned so much from you through this experience, through our time together, and I can tell you your natural instinct is always a great one and one to be trusted. Because at the end of the day, you’re curious, and you value the input of others. So, trust in who you are and trust in the way you lead, because you’re a truly gifted leader.
My second piece of advice would be to remember that you’re not alone – that you’ve got an incredible team of people – and to Just lean on them, lean on your board, lean on me. And know that there are going to be hard days. There are going to be challenges that seem overwhelming, that will seem almost suffocating in their scope, but just know that you’re not alone.
And then the third thing I would encourage you to do is just to be good to yourself. Be gracious with yourself. You’re going to make mistakes. There are going to be things that you wish you could have back and had done differently. But know those are moments that we all have, and just remember point number one, which is that you’re so gifted.
In planning for this transition, it was always about finding the right time to step aside so that the organization could benefit from new leadership, new perspective, new talent. I just couldn’t be happier with this situation, with you in the CEO seat, with the team we’ve assembled, the work that we’ve been doing and the people we get to work with and serve every day. It’s a blessing to have been able to live this kind of life and have this experience, and I’m just so grateful to be able to transition to my next dream and know that this initial dream is in really capable, supportive, loving, and competent hands.