You Can Do Anything! The Four Words That Elevated Cynthia Heard to COO
“I was competing at the age of fourteen as a finalist in the Grand Prix Equestrian Competition. As the only African American on the equestrian team and in the competition itself I knew I had to perform at the highest level of excellence. All of my obstacles were right in front of me. I was prepared and well trained yet; there I was crying. I remember getting into the practice ring and my father came over to the horse. We knew the horse could do it. The question was, could I? My father said, ‘We have done everything to prepare you for this moment and if you want to doubt yourself so be it. But if you get off that horse, you will never ride again.’ My number is called. ‘Cynthia Mitchell to the gate.’ My father looked at me. I wiped my tears away knowing if I knock down the fence, which might have been six feet, I’m eliminated. I jumped, competed, and won. That has been the trajectory that propels me. If you can put a giant horse over a fence and jump over obstacles, you can do anything.”
This experience. This seminal moment represents the substratum of Heard’s beautiful life. The oldest of her siblings, belief in oneself was priority only over belief in humanity. Growing up in Palos Verdes Estates and Hollywood Hills after the divorce of her parents, Heard’s father who was a physician and her mother who was a homemaker, continually instilled that privilege never eclipses service. Whether service to God or service to community, it was never lost on Heard or her siblings what was expected of them. And whether she was working at the front desk of her father’s OBGYN medical clinic on 73rd & Western during the summer or worshiping at church with her aunt Bernice “Crouch” Hubbard, who gave Heard her sense of community, commitment, attention to detail and spirituality, the common thread was love for people and the underserved.
Witnessing her father provide resources, services, and often monetary support to marginalized families that surrounded his clinic taught Heard that giving back was an obligation. “My sense of respect for community came with seeing the community. I learned early on that community was based on love and empowerment.” Disseminating this communal love and empowerment has been Heard’s life’s work.
Having spent more than twenty-five years in the nonprofit organizational management industry/community relations sector, this effortlessly kind University of Southern California and Howard University graduate has been very intentional about how she invests her soul’s currency. For as far as Heard is concerned an opportunity devoid of a chance to create systemic change for the marginalized serves no purpose, which is why she could not resist the invitation by CEO Barbara Perkins to become a co-founding board member for the International Black Women’s Public Policy Institute (IBWPPI); the only global public policy institute led and founded by Black women to elevate women via policies that improve the lives of communities of color.
When asked what made this opportunity so irresistible, Heard enthusiastically retorted, “I wanted to support Barbara’s vision in creating public policies to enhance the lives of Black women globally. We wanted to build a bridge from the domestic to the international for women. Our ability to establish mutual and meaningful partnerships in the Bahamas, Ghana, Haiti, Bermuda, and other countries of color has been amazing.”
Well aware that her parents were grooming her to be strong, smart, and determined, Heard could not fathom that her core values and intellectual prowess would make her an ambassador for women and girls on a global stage. Heard can still hear her parents’ voices: “Shoot for the moon and grab the stars while you’re up amongst them.”
Heard was again called upon to shoot for the moon when the pandemic of 2020 shook up the world leaving the already underserved in limbo. With love for community top of mind and a skillset built for making something out of nothing, Heard, like many, did not know what to do, but she did know something had to be done to support the disadvantaged communities in Los Angeles. So, she got to work. As the VP of Development for YWCA of Greater Los Angeles she partnered with the likes of Black Entertainment Network (BET), United Way Greater Los Angeles, SoCalGas, Southern California Edison, US Bank, Union Bank, Bank of America, and Target to raise an impressive $1.8 million dollars in nine months…while she was sheltered at home. The funds were appropriated to help activate resources for needed community engagement, educational support, housing support, senior telehealth, virtual support, and advocacy during an unprecedented time.
Buttressed by hope even as the world continued working to regain the sense of stability the pandemic disrupted, the call to her next level of activism and community leadership would come in the form of a position Heard did not see coming. There were not one, not two, but three calls informing Heard that the Los Angeles Urban League was in search of a Chief Operating Officer, and she should apply. A spiritual woman, Heard’s first response was to turn to God in prayer. Unsure, she needed clarity. Within no time, clarity came. “I then figured out that the call wasn’t just coming from those three people, it was coming from God.”
As the first woman to serve as COO for the Los Angeles Urban League, Heard salutes the executive team, President and CEO Michael Lawson, and the distinguished board of directors who knew it was time for a pivotal shift. Of her historic appointment with this iconic organization, Heard shared, “They concluded that post COVID it was time to add a women’s voice in leadership. I am honored to be that woman and to hold this position. My experience and background in nonprofit guides me in bettering the lives of the disenfranchised in our communities.”
This proud COO concluded our conversation paying loving homage to the three female mentors who along with her father instilled in her everything she’d need to meet this extraordinary moment. “There’s my mother who taught me that family and unconditional love is where it starts. There’s Aunt Bernice whose presentation was always impeccable and taught me to always be prepared. And then Beverly Heath, who at the time was director of the Children’s International Institute, who saw in me what I could not see in myself as a twenty-eight year old reluctant to apply for a Vice President of Programs position managing a $3 million dollar budget.” Heard continued, “She said apply. I said I didn’t want it. She said just go and interview. I went and got the job. I remember calling Beverly crying. She said there is nothing you cannot do. We still talk to this day.”
As she continues to move fearlessly through life, Heard uses her life to remind others that there is nothing you cannot do.
Follow Heard’s work on Instagram @cynthia_heard, Facebook @cynthiamitchellheard, and on Twitter @cynthia57429506. Follow the work of the Los Angeles Urban League at laul.org.