As CEO of the Trevor Project, a suicide-prevention and crisis-intervention organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning young people, Amit Paley ’11 sees firsthand the challenges faced by today’s LGBTQ youth. The organization fields over 45-thousand calls a year from people in their late teens and early 20s facing harassment, bullying, violence, and alienation. Often, they’re considering self-harm; among young people, suicide is the second leading cause of death, but lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are more than five times as likely to attempt suicide. Forty percent of transgender adults say they've attempted suicide. Paley has always felt called to help. He started with the organization as a volunteer and board member, but his path to running the organization was circuitous. He visited Columbia Business School during Ally Week in November to discuss his career journey and why the fight for LGBTQ rights is far from over.
You’ve taken a few career steps to get to this point. Can you tell us about your careers before you joined the Trevor Project?
I started my career as a journalist. I worked for seven years at the Washington Post as a local metro reporter, national education reporter, foreign correspondent covering the war in Iraq, and then as a financial investigative journalist. It was when I covered that beat that I came to Columbia on a Knight-Bagehot fellowship for mid-career financial journalists. I studied at the journalism school and the business school, got my MBA, and then completely shifted careers and became a management consultant at McKinsey.
How did you become involved in the Trevor Project?
I first became involved more than six years ago. I started as a volunteer answering calls on our 24/7 lifeline, and it very quickly became the most meaningful part of what I did in my life. I started doing that shortly after I graduated from Columbia Business School. I had actually been very happy with the career that I had at McKinsey — doing my day job for a for-profit company and volunteering on the side. But that really changed around the presidential election. The day after the presidential election, our call volume at the Trevor Project more than doubled and just continued to go up every month. When that happened, I was both hearing the pain of young people in the calls I was taking as a volunteer, and since I was a member of our board, I was seeing the data showing this increased call volume. It made me feel like I really needed to do something to give back at this moment. And so that was a huge part of the impetus for me to say I want to move into the nonprofit sector and to, in particular, lead this amazing lifesaving work at this pivotal time in our country.
You've stepped out of the consulting world and into a nonprofit organization. What's the transition been like for you?
It's been a very busy transition in part because of how busy things are right now for LGBTQ young people in this country. It's been a very chaotic and tragic and heartbreaking time for LGBTQ youth since the election. A lot of rights are being taken away from them. They're under attack in a way that they have not been in quite some time. So, we're seeing a huge volume of young people reaching out to us desperately in need of help.
What have you been able to apply from your past work experience to the Trevor Project and what are you learning there? What's new for you?
I bring a lot of my experiences in the for-profit world to the work that I do at the Trevor Project. A lot of people think that there's a big dichotomy between the for-profit and nonprofit worlds, but I think that they each have a lot to learn from each other. People who work in the non- profit sector care so deeply about the missions of the organizations. They bring so much heart, so much caring, so much empathy, which can often make them look at problems and situations in a different way than someone might if they're just looking at cold hard facts and data. On the other hand, people in the for-profit sector often have certain types of skill sets related to data and evidence. I think the really high-performing nonprofits and really high-performing for-profits are ones that combine the empathy and passion and care of the non-profit sector and the data-driven, evidence-based practices of the for-profit sector. And I hope that we come to the point where people don't separate those.
What is the role technology is playing in your organization both in a positive and a negative way?
We are extremely data driven and technology focused because we need to serve young people where they are. We started as an organization focused on the 24/7 phone lifeline because at that point when we were founded in 1998, that was the main way that people could get help in that moment of crisis. But now we know the young people are in chat, they're on text, they're on social networks — who knows what are the emerging technologies that we haven't even heard of but that every 12-year-old is going to be using in three or four years. And, so, if we really want to be serving young people, we have to be technology and digital first. So, I believe technology and digital are enormous forces for good.
What do you most want people to know about about the situation that LGBTQ youth are facing right now and why it's so important?
I want people to know that even as much progress has been made to support LGBTQ people, there are still LGBTQ young people that are struggling every day and that we are working as hard as we can to make sure that LGBTQ youth know that they are never alone, but we need help. We need a lot of help from people everywhere of goodwill. We need financial support. We need volunteers. We need people to advocate for LGBTQ youth. We are serving far more young people than we have ever served before in our nearly 20-year history, and yet, we know that we are not serving nearly enough. And so, I would like everyone to know, who's listening to this, to know that we need your help, to ensure that we save as many LGBTQ young lives as possible.