Mission to Mentor – Philanthropist of the Year Linda Youngentob helps students in high school and college find a path to success.
Bethesda Magazine November-December 2018| BY CARALEE ADAMS
At first, Brandon Rodriguez didn’t think college was for him.
“I felt like I would be a fish in a shark tank—not knowing anything, not knowing anyone, not knowing what to do,” says the 19-year-old son of Salvadoran parents who didn’t finish high school.
All of that changed after Rodriguez met Linda Youngentob when he was a senior at Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg. She saw his potential while helping him navigate the college search process as a volunteer with CollegeTracks, a local nonprofit that guides county students at Watkins Mill, Quince Orchard, Wheaton and Bethesda-Chevy Chase high schools through the college application process.
“I told him he could do this,” Youngentob, 57, of Bethesda, recalls. “I try to emphasize to students that college is an opportunity to change the trajectory of their lives.”
Youngentob helped the teen complete applications and financial aid forms, and drove him to Goucher College in Towson for a visit after he was accepted. “She gave so much of her time and went out of her way for me,” says Rodriguez, who is now a sophomore on a full scholarship at the private college, where he also gives tours to prospective students. “It’s because of her I’m here today.”
Rodriguez is one of dozens of students Youngentob has mentored over the past decade, most of whom are first-generation Americans and the first in their families to go to college. Along with advice, she provides students with duffel bags to pack for college visits, access to printers that they lack at home, introductions to her personal network and a promise to answer her cellphone at any hour. Still, she insists her efforts are nothing out of the ordinary.
“These kids deserved that. I didn’t see any other option,” says Youngentob, who was helping other students even as she was taking her own three daughters on college tours. “Why did my kids get to go, but theirs didn’t because they can’t get a ride to the airport? I don’t think people really get that.”
In addition to her work with CollegeTracks, Youngentob is a faculty member of the Macklin Business Institute at Montgomery College, where she advocates for students as they transfer from the community college to four-year institutions. She also serves on the boards of several education organizations, leveraging her business acumen and insights gained while helping students to inform her work.
Youngentob’s involvement as a CollegeTracks board member and her mentoring of both high school and college students make her a “triple threat,” says Kevin Beverly, who observed Youngentob’s knack for motivating students as he served with her on the CollegeTracks board for seven years until she left in 2017. “She’s not telling [students] what to do. She’s asking them what they want to do,” says Beverly, board president and the president and CEO of Social & Scientific Systems in Silver Spring. “She gets them engaged and then starts to have the conversation about what it takes.”
Along with her hands-on work, Youngentob is also a generous donor and an effective fundraiser with a particular skill for putting people and organizations together, according to those who know her. In honor of her volunteer work and financial contributions, Youngentob was named the 2018 Philanthropist of the Year by The Community Foundation in Montgomery County (CFMC).
“Linda sees patterns. When she encounters one student who is struggling, she steps in to help. When she realizes there are hundreds more encountering the same challenges, she knows systems need to change,” says Anna Hargrave, executive director of CFMC. “She is not afraid to use her connections to tear down barriers.”
Youngentob grew up in Swampscott, Massachusetts, a small beach town north of Boston. Her father was president of nearby Salem Paper Co., which was started by his father. “That’s what instilled my love of business, because it was so all-encompassing in our family,” Youngentob recalls. “Even when I was a child, all the magazines sitting around the house were business magazines. Instead of reading Vogue or Glamour, I was reading Fortune and Forbes.”
Youngentob’s mother was president of her local chapter of Hadassah, a Jewish women’s service organization. Her grandfather was president of his temple and the local chapter of Kiwanis International, a service club. Growing up, Youngentob volunteered at a local hospital and served as a mentor to a low-income girl in a nearby town through a program called Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.
Community service has been a part of every phase of her life. “It gives my life meaning,” Youngentob says. While attending Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, she was involved with an adopt-a-grandparent program. After graduating in 1983, she worked 12-plus hours per day as a research analyst in Boston, but still had the energy to answer calls on a parental stress hotline from 9 p.m. until midnight.
Youngentob says she’s learned that people too often think they need to do something big to make an impact, but small, personal connections can make a difference, such as providing a ride, conducting an internet search, or creating a spending budget for someone in need. Gaining access to a college, a computer, a car and a credit card—resources that are often taken for granted—is a huge obstacle for many, she’s found.
“I am who I am today because of the ZIP code I was born in and I was born to two parents who went to college,” Youngentob says. “I worked hard and I didn’t screw up. I’m not better than anyone else. I just got such a leg up of privilege.”
Youngentob, who says she’s “always been a problem solver,” graduated from Brown with a degree in systems analysis and design, a major she created by combining operations research, engineering, computer science, economics and accounting. After working for two years as an analyst, she earned an MBA at Harvard, where she met her husband, Bob, a fellow MBA student who’s now president and CEO of EYA, a residential real estate company based in Bethesda that he co-founded.
Youngentob and her husband moved to Montgomery County in 1987, and she continued to climb the corporate ladder in telecommunications and information technology consulting until a series of events led her to reorient her life more toward serving others.
In 1991, Youngentob chaired Mitzvah Day at Washington Hebrew Congregation in the District, organizing about 1,000 volunteers to work on projects ranging from cleaning up parks to making food for the homeless. She noted the impact the volunteer work had on recipients and the sense of community and purpose that the event fostered among those at her temple.
Two years later, Youngentob, then 32, was seriously injured in a bicycling accident, shattering her elbow and breaking her shoulder. The long recovery led to a realization that her job wasn’t “warming her heart.” She found she was more motivated to help others than to return to work. “It gave me the vision to get off the fast track,” says Youngentob, whose daughters were 10 months and 4 years old when she had the accident. “I had been on this high-achieving path all my life. I thought, ‘Do I really have to do this?’ ”
At the time, Youngentob says there was tremendous pressure for female Harvard MBA grads to show the world that women could have it all. After the accident, she reassessed her situation. “I figured, instead, I’d live my life in chunks. If I couldn’t have it all, I’d live each chunk of life and experience it to the fullest, knowing it wasn’t going to last forever,” Youngentob says.
Then, in 1999, a good friend of Youngentob’s, Randi Waxman, died suddenly at age 35. The high-powered attorney-turned-business law professor had told Youngentob about how rewarding it was to mentor low-income students. “I got a sign from God during her funeral that my job was to continue her work,” says Youngentob, who was moved by the diverse range of people Waxman had touched and who filled the Washington Hebrew Congregation for her funeral.
At that point, Bob Youngentob says, his wife began to realize she could use her skills to have a greater influence in the world of nonprofits. In doing so, she changed his outlook as well. “She has made me more sensitive to the needs of the community, being exposed to it through her eyes,” says Bob, who serves on the advisory board for The Universities at Shady Grove in Rockville and whose business has been recognized—locally by the Affordable Housing Conference of Montgomery County and nationally by the Urban Land Institute—for developing affordable housing in the county.
To reach the most students in need, Linda Youngentob decided in 2007 to work at Montgomery College as an adjunct business professor. The following year she learned of the college’s Macklin Business Institute, an experiential learning program for business students where she now teaches an honors seminar one afternoon a week and guides students who are transferring to four-year institutions.
Lisbeth Medina is one of those students. She wanted to continue her education after community college, but didn’t know whether her family could afford it. Youngentob, who was her professor at Montgomery College, convinced Medina to consider Georgetown University and share her personal story in her application essay. “She helped me get out of my comfort zone and express myself,” says Medina, 20, who lives in Silver Spring and now attends the university.
When Medina ran into a snag with her financial aid package at Georgetown, Youngentob called the office of the university president and wrote a compelling letter to advocate on Medina’s behalf. After Medina learned that she was getting a full scholarship offer, she called Youngentob, who took the call while celebrating her 31st wedding anniversary at Legal Sea Foods, a local outpost of the New England chain where she and Bob had their first date in Cambridge.
At Macklin, Youngentob is known as “Mama Bear,” says Hannah Weiser, an associate professor of business and management at the college. “She acts like a mom for all the students. Anytime you talk to her, she ends a conversation asking: ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’ ” Weiser says.
There was the time when one of Youngentob’s students wasn’t connecting with her economics professor and was considering dropping the class, although doing so would have meant losing her scholarship. Youngentob took the student to Starbucks and role-played what to say to the professor so they could get on the right track. The student went on to earn a bachelor’s degree, and the two are still in touch, Youngentob says.
She recalls receiving a phone call in the middle of the night from a Latina student at a small college who told her about a fraternity’s plans to hold a party with an illegal immigrant and Border Patrol theme. The student was so upset that she wanted to leave school. Youngentob says she told the student that her job was to prove to other students that Latinas were intelligent and valued. “I was the only person she could call and vent” to, Youngentob says. “Being a safe place where these kids can talk about these challenges and obstacles they face, it’s really powerful work.”
Youngentob says she tries to be a voice for students who are struggling with procedures, communication or other issues on campus. At her first meeting as a board member of the Montgomery College Foundation, the discussion focused on real estate and investment portfolios rather than students, she recalls. “That was unacceptable to me,” says Youngentob, who says she has worked to change that culture. She is co-chair of the foundation’s $20 million capital campaign, and she and her husband set up a fund that provides tuition assistance to Montgomery College students with developmental disabilities as well as small emergency grants for students who need help in order to remain enrolled in the college.
Youngentob considers herself a mentor “for life” and has kept in touch with many of her students—she has the phone numbers of about 40 listed on her cellphone, including that of 19-year-old Oswaldo Baires Mendez, who now attends the University of Rochester in upstate New York.
Mendez, a first-generation college student from Gaithersburg, contacted Youngentob when he realized that he needed to improve his study skills to handle college classes. Youngentob, who had kept in touch after mentoring him when he was in high school, provided tips on using note cards and a planner. “She is always there. She’s been a big support for my dreams,” he says.
In addition to her mentoring work, Youngentob has hosted small fundraisers at her home—known as “friendraisers”—to generate support for CollegeTracks; Identity, a Gaithersburg-based organization serving the county’s Latino youths; and Compass, a Washington, D.C.-based organization where she volunteered for 13 years, providing business expertise to nonprofits. Youngentob joined Identity’s board last year, and the success of a friendraiser she held, where clients can tell their stories in a more intimate setting, led the organization to move away from holding its annual gala in favor of a smaller fundraising model, according to Identity Executive Director Diego Uriburu.
The Youngentobs have made financial contributions through their donor-advised fund at the Community Foundation and have given directly to a range of local, national and international organizations.
Youngentob has also contributed to Future Link, a Montgomery County organization that helps disadvantaged youths with career exploration. For several years, she taught a self-advocacy seminar for students to help them develop goals, prepare a résumé and pitch themselves to employers. “Linda was born to make a difference,” Future Link Executive Director Mindi Jacobson says. “She has a gift to really understand young people.”
Helping improve the lives of students through mentoring and providing financial support to organizations has brought Youngentob such joy that she wants to spread the word that helping others not only feels good, but is an issue of justice and economic development. “It’s so hard to maneuver in this world and feel you are making a difference, but it’s possible,” she says. “Everybody has a heart. Everybody has some love to give to somebody.”
Caralee Adams is a freelance writer in Bethesda.