The Legends Campaign, a partnership between Reign FC and Avanade, honors women for their extraordinary contributions in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Prior to our August 7 match against Portland Thorns FC, Reign FC will recognize Junior Achievement of Washington President & CEO Natalie Vega O’Neil as a Reign FC Legend.
Vega O’Neil has been working in the nonprofit sector for two decades. Her current work with Junior Achievement of Washington is focused on providing to advocate for marginalized and underserved communities by offering K-12 programs that teach work-readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy skills in over 570 schools.
Prior to joining Junior Achievement of Washington, Vega O’Neil worked with Save the Children for nearly nine years. She ultimately became the organizations Associate Vice President of U.S. Programs, leading a team of over 600 people to provide programs focusing on early childhood education to over 300,000 children nationwide.
Vega O’Neil has also worked extensively for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the YWCA and Thrive Washington. She graduated from Ball State University in 1998 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Telecommunications and holds Master of Science in Early Childhood Education from the Erikson Institute.
Have sports meant anything particularly special in your life?
Absolutely. Sports were really the backbone of my childhood. I played soccer for over a decade in my youth. I played softball and also was in cheerleading. I think the thing that had the most significance in defining who I am is that these were all-female teams. It was all about young women coming together and supporting one another. We had so much support on every team I played with. The parents were engaged. There was a real camaraderie. It had a huge impression on me and how I interact with and support other women, how as females we have to lift one another up. That came from my involvement in youth sports.
What lessons do you think young girls can learn from sports that can serve them in the business world?
It certainly helped define who I am as an individual, which guides how I behave in the work that I do. I think sports helped me find a sense of independence but still understand who to work successfully in a team. It helps me realize that you can work really hard and not always win or get what you want in the end, but that the work you put into it is equally as important as winning. It creates a culture of supporting and empowering people around you when you’re all working together for a common goal, which is so relatable to the nonprofit world. Everyone that works for a nonprofit is working together for a common mission, so there are a lot of similarities there. It’s how I want to lead Junior Achievement and all the other nonprofits I’ve worked for is focusing around the mission of the children that we’re supporting.
What does being recognized as a Reign FC legend mean to you?
It’s a wonderful honor. A bit of a surprise, but I really appreciate the acknowledgement of what Junior Achievement is doing in the community and that has been doing within the state of Washington for the past 65 years. I think it’s great to have a spotlight on female leaders within the community and it’s a wonderful thing to showcase the good work that is happening in all sectors of the community.
What attracted you to work in the nonprofit sector initially?
I’ve worked for nonprofits my entire career. It was a choice to do that. I really feel compelled to give back to the community, particularly when it comes to children. I’ve felt called to be a voice for children when it comes to education or social justice or getting basic needs met and have always found a lot of passion and motivation in the nonprofits who I have worked for. I really believe in contributing all you can in making your community, your country and your world a better place. I think that that starts with doing work on behalf of children.
How do you feel the landscape for the communities you’ve worked with has changed in your time in the nonprofit sector?
I’ve definitely seen improvement over the course of my career. I think there are more people and philanthropic organizations and government entities that want to invest in children, particularly in early childhood education. I think that there is a resurgence of wanting to help lift up communities, trying to focus on the most marginalized populations across our country and providing that support. We have seen improvements around there. There are a lot of innovation happening around collective impact, but there is so much more we can do. We look at the problems and see that there are marginalized communities even across the state of Washington and that marginalization happens based on economic status, based on ethnicity, based on resources that are available to them. Helping to provide resources to those communities and empower not only the children living there, but their parents and other community members to see that the resources will help lift them up and give them a better life is our goal.
What would you say to someone who wants to help but may not feel as though they have the time or financial resources to do so?
Nonprofits are always in need of help. We like to say that people can volunteer sitting at their desks. There are micro-volunteer opportunities that lots of nonprofits have. Volunteers can bring their expertise to an organization and help support them in a variety of ways. I think that it’s really important for people to feel like what they can contribute is of value to an organization. Of all the nonprofits that I’ve worked for in my career, we’ve never turned away a volunteer. Everyone has something of value to give back. I think that when people aren’t able to give financially and feel like their personal time is really limited, they should speak to their employer about opportunities to have time off of work. A lot of companies now are honoring are giving credit for time worked within their employee base so that they can volunteer during the day. A lot of companies have this program available.
What advice would you give to young women who are pursuing dreams in a field where they are underrepresented?
What I would tell a young girl is that if you are interested in something, educate yourself about it. If you’re passionate about something, get yourself involved in it somehow. Don’t let the barrier of not knowing anybody in a field or industry that you’re curious about stop you from learning more, educating yourself and learning your own skills. There are a lot of doors that can open just through education and there are a lot of people that are willing to lend their time and their experience about different fields and different industries. That is precisely what we do at Junior Achievement. We bring people into the classroom to share their experiences with students. One of the most fantastic statistics about Junior Achievement is that one in five alumni go into the same field as their classroom volunteer. When people think about having an impact on the life of a youth, it can happen in something as simple as a classroom volunteer to open doors and opportunities to students when professionals come into the classroom and talk about the work that they are doing. I think that for students to educate themselves, to find peers or mentors in the fields that they’re interested in and to keep asking questions is the advice I would give.