It was a Sunday—January 10, 2021—when Lisa Tepper Bates ’86 got the call.
On the line was the Connecticut Department of Public Health and the Office of the Governor of Connecticut, and they had a request for Tepper Bates, the president and CEO of United Way of Connecticut/2-1-1 (UW of CT).
They were trying to get the COVID-19 vaccine to as many Connecticut residents as possible, many of whom could not successfully navigate complex online registration options. They asked if UW of CT could set up a statewide, centralized, phone-based vaccine registration system—and have it ready to go in four days.
She accepted the challenge.
Since the system launched on January 14, her team has fielded half a million vaccine-related calls and scheduled 180,000 Connecticut residents for their vaccine appointment, accounting for 10 percent of the state’s vaccinations. By May, 71 percent of Connecticut adults had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
“It’s been a team effort, and we have an incredible team,” says Tepper Bates, who joined UW of CT in October 2020. “I enjoy solving problems to make people’s lives better.”
You can say that again.
A patriotic vision for her country
With more than 25 years of experience in diplomacy and nonprofit leadership, Tepper Bates has a long history of solving problems, big ones.
She spent more than a decade helping people around the world in failed states, war zones, refugee camps, and human trafficking situations. With Serbian language training and expertise in the Balkans area, she contributed to implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and worked in the White House, providing counsel on Southeastern European affairs to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Then, she brought her skills and experience back home to U.S. soil.
“I am very patriotic,” says Tepper Bates, a fourth-generation Coloradoan. “I believe in the United States and in our understanding of what this country represents. And I felt a calling to apply my talents and skills to help solve for issues, like inequity, that stand in the way of us being what we think we are, to make good on our values and that vision of the U.S. that I believe in.”
With an MBA from the Yale School of Management, she began leading nonprofit organizations in Connecticut, starting with a focus on ending homelessness.
As executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, she led the transformation of the state’s approach to homelessness response—bringing more than 100 previously siloed housing agencies together as a true, coordinated system and reducing homelessness in the state by half in seven years. And now, she wants to replicate that process in other arenas, like food security.
“If we figure out how to put resources together more effectively, we can make much more out of the whole than the sum of the parts,” says Tepper Bates, who served as Connecticut’s senior coordinator for Housing and Transit Oriented Development before coming to UW of CT. “I want to create a truly systemic response.”
The secret to powerful problem-solving
So, how exactly does Tepper Bates manage such effective change?
For her, it comes down to three actions: 1) Challenging the current system; 2) Leveraging existing resources and organizational strengths; 3) Engineering new ways to respond to problems.
Of course, it’s not always easy.
In the case of the COVID-19 vaccine phone support system, for instance, there was no time for preparation or testing before roll-out. It was a case of “building the airplane as we fly it.”
“We’re responding to an unprecedented challenge, with no roadmap to follow and no time to prepare,” she says. “So we’re going to do our best, innovate and course-correct quickly when something doesn’t work, praise our team, and make sure people know we’re doing the best we can.”
She says her foreign policy work in war-torn places and tragic human rights situations was good training for keeping her cool in the face of high-stakes issues.
“I’ve worked in high-profile settings, like the former Yugoslavia, where we were dealing with the after-effects of war, and there was a real and present trauma,” she says. “That setting teaches you how to be present with something that is potentially very emotional. Your job is to not get bogged down in the weight of what you’re witnessing but to work through it and provide a positive direction.”
When the work gets particularly grueling, she draws strength from the knowledge that she is part of the solution.
“I’m doing my best to help people in need,” she says. “I’ve worked harder and more hours during the pandemic than ever before in my life, but I keep going, because it’s important, and this is how we get through.”
A home for future leaders
Tepper Bates believes much of her problem-solving ability is rooted in the education she had at Colorado Academy. There, she learned to dig deep to understand complex issues, to think outside the box, and to always ask questions.
“Most people would say that’s a hallmark of my work,” says Tepper Bates, who hosted a CA Interim group visiting Washington, D.C., in 2003 and told them about her work in the foreign service. “I’m always asking, ‘What are we missing? How can we do better?’”
A CA student from First to Twelfth Grade, she’s grateful for the efforts of faculty and staff to respond to the unique needs of every child and to challenge and inspire every student.
“At CA, I was challenged and supported, always as a unique individual,” she says. “That’s an incredible thing and was, for me, formative.
She says CA taught her the importance of raising her voice, not being afraid of leadership, and, ultimately, leading—a skill that has obviously come into play in her life and career.
Finally, from CA she gained powerful relationships. Though she has lived and worked all over the world and currently resides far from Colorado, most of her closest friends are still from CA.
“I have incredible friendships that have lasted my whole life that I forged at CA,” she says. “It felt like home to me.”