16 Jan 2014
Learning from Helping Others
A spirit of service and entrepreneurship led Ashley Garrett (MBA 1987) to turn volunteer work at a New York City soup kitchen into an educational experience for students.Re: Peter Nolan (MBA 1987); Andrew Peisch (MBA 1987); Suzanne Peisch (MBA 1987); AJ Jones (MBA 1987)by Jill RadskenTopics:
Ashley Garrett's 20 years as director of All Souls Soup Kitchen fed her soul.
Raised and educated as a Quaker, Garrett (MBA 1987) says her family's values—consensus, equality, service, and integrity—provided her a solid foundation for a life of service.
"My parents were very big on volunteering. My siblings and I started volunteering at a very young age and I've continued to do so my whole life," she says.
At All Souls, an Upper East Side feeding program for the neighborhood's neediest families, Garrett has done more than serve hot meals every Friday. She also created a partnership with local public and private schools, enabling students to volunteer at All Souls on a regular basis. Young school children set tables and make centerpieces while older ones prepare food and wait on guests.
"Students come away from the experience realizing that we are all alike, but sometimes bad things happen to people and they are forced to live off of food stamps or go to soup kitchens and food pantries to get their meals," she says.
The New Jersey native recalled that her own earliest altruistic efforts—performing Gilbert and Sullivan musicals at nursing homes, delivering pies to community centers—were school-related.
"The most amazing thing we did was when we spent time at a nearby prison with prisoners who were about to go back out in the world," she says. "We were young school children helping people get rehabilitated. I don't think I realized it was such a big deal until later on."
While Garrett continued to help various causes, she graduated from Smith College with a theater degree and moved to New York in hopes of launching an acting career. But she found a talent selling tax shelters over the phone, and her bosses suggested business school.
Her time at HBS, Garrett remembers, was "the hardest two years of my life."
"However my training as an actress really worked in my favor. Class participation counted for 50 percent of our grades and I was never afraid to raise my hand. Having an authoritative voice was extremely helpful. Given my unusual background, I probably learned more than anyone else," she says.
The work-hard-play-hard environment produced some of her most enduring friendships—Peter Nolan, Andrew Peisch, Suzanne Pollock, Kris Klein—among classmates, and she also met her husband, Alan Jones, at HBS. Favorite subjects were her Organizational Behavior class and a Robert Coles-taught seminar called Moral and Social Inquiry.
"We read literature and discussed what the characters had done and what decisions they had made. It allowed us to then think about our own lives and what kinds of leaders we hoped we would be," she says.
After graduating, Garrett marketed credit cards for Chemical Bank, then MasterCard. But she always found time to volunteer, recording books for the visually impaired, and reading to elementary school students on her lunch hour.
A change in management at MasterCard in 1994 coincided with Garrett having her first child and she left the company to return to acting.
"Being a voice actor turned out to be a great option for me," she says. "I was able to use a lot of what I learned in business school—creating a business plan, cultivating contacts, developing and sticking to a budget—and I was able to do something I really loved: acting," she says.
Projects with Coca Cola, American Express, L'Oreal, and Samsung quickly followed, and Garrett balanced her voiceover business by volunteering at the soup kitchen.
She first set tables and made sandwiches, then found herself managing the volunteers, and finally running the entire operation.
"The soup kitchen is a business. I managed more than 50, oversaw all of our marketing efforts, and maintained relationships with grant-making organizations," she says.
But Garrett also made the soup kitchen's atmosphere a priority, hiring guests to play piano or guitar.
"At the soup kitchen, it's quite peaceful and the music really lets everyone relax and simply live in the moment," she says. "One guest was even able to parlay his piano playing at the soup kitchen into a job with the Joffrey Ballet at one of their locations outside the city."
Garrett stepped down from her role as director in October, leaving a healthy program that now feeds 13,000 people 20,000 meals a year on a modest budget of $100,000. She hopes to pursue a career in public relations and photojournalism, but continues to volunteer at All Souls, and still manages the schools' component of the program.
"That has been my biggest accomplishment," she says, "getting younger people to understand service should always be an important part of their lives."
Class of MBA 1987, Section F