Your first act is school, your second act is work, but have you thought about what you’re going to do in your third act? Join host Liz Tinkham, a former Accenture Senior Managing Director, as she talks to guests who are happily “pretired” – enjoying their time, treasure, and talent to pursue their purpose and passion in the third act of their life.
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On this episode of Third Act, Liz talks with Michael Rugen – The Friend of the Children. Michael grew up a jock, telling Liz that he was into girls and sports as a young man. But his Dad sparked an early realization of the inequity in the US when someone came to the door asking him to sign a petition to prevent blacks from buying the homes in their suburban neighborhood. He went on to become a lawyer, but made sure that he had time and space for plenty of pro bono work, focusing on children and racial injustice. He started looking for an organization where he could further that work. He found Friends of the Children, an organization that pairs mentors with at-risk children from kindergarten through high school graduation. Today he is the Founder and Executive Director of the SF chapter, serving 110 children and growing. Michael is the perfect embodiment of what Liz was looking to highlight in this podcast; he had a passion for kids and racial injustice that he is now fulfilling full time in his third act.
Join Liz’s inspiring conversation with Michael as describes how a tragic pro bono case with a young man accused of second degree murder prompted him to serve at-risk youth in his Third Act.
3:17 Representing Ronald
5:38 Early recognition of racial injustice
9:29 Finding Friends of the Children
13:05 Impressive outcomes
15:13 How to change the school system
18:43 Organization goals
21:16 How to get involved in Friends of the Children
22:53 Why Michael was born to do this work
You can find Michael Rugen on Michael Rugen | LinkedIn or at [email protected] To learn more about Friends of the Children, click here San Francisco Bay Area | Friends Of The Children (friendssfbayarea.org).
If you enjoyed the podcast, please subscribe and share a review. Engage with more stories of those finding fulfillment in the third act of their lives on Liz Tinkham’s Third Act podcast at thirdactpodcast.com.
Liz Tinkham (00:35):
Hi, and welcome to Third Act. On today’s show I talk to Michael Rugen, the friend of the children. Michael grew up a jock, telling me that he was into girls and sports as a young man. But his dad sparked an early realization of the inequity in the United States when someone came to their door asking his dad to sign a petition to prevent blacks from buying the homes in their suburban neighborhood. He went on to become a lawyer, but made sure that he had the time and space for plenty of pro bono work focusing on children and racial injustice. He started looking for an organization where he could further that work.
Liz Tinkham (01:09):
He found it in Friends of the Children, an organization that pairs mentors with at risk-children from kindergarten through high school graduation. Today, he is the founder and executive director of the San Francisco chapter, serving 110 children and growing. Michael is the perfect embodiment of what I was looking to highlight in this podcast. He had a passion for kids and racial injustice that he’s now fulfilling full-time in his third act. Hi, Michael. Thanks so much for joining me on Third Act and welcome. Where do I find you today?
Michael Rugen (01:47):
You find me in my home office in San Francisco, feeling very sad about the Giants loss last night, but looking out at the Bay and feeling very, very grateful for the beautiful place that I live.
Liz Tinkham (01:59):
I’m sorry for that. Listen, as a sad Mariners fan, who haven’t been in the playoffs I don’t know if ever, maybe in a long time, we were at the very last game and saw them lose. So I feel your pain. So as I mentioned in the intro, you were a corporate lawyer for most of your career, but did quite a bit of pro bono work. I’m going to sort of land the hook for the podcast early because it sets the tone for the rest of your story. You told me when we were prepping for this about a gentleman that you represented who had been convicted of second degree murder and how that work really impacted you. And I was hoping you could sort of start with that story.
Michael Rugen (02:32):
Sure. I’ll start with a little bit of background. I practiced law at several really large corporate firms, but I also always had a very active pro bono practice and I always thought that I would have another phase of my career where I did some work in that area. My pro bono practice always focused on racial justice and children’s issues. But you get busy working and raising a family and that never happens. So at the end of one year, I just decided I was going to quit and I walked into my managing partner’s office and said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m going to take a few months to wrap up my practice and then I’m going to jump and trust that the net will appear.” But I knew I wanted to do something in the area of racial justice and work with disadvantaged children.
Michael Rugen (03:17):
So one of the last clients I had during that period was a pro bono client named Ronald, and Ronald was a kid who was born in East Oakland. His parents were 13 and 12 when he was born. I didn’t even know that was possible. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to parent him and Ronald did okay living with his grandmother, but then his grandmother died when he was about 12 or 13. Then he started living on the streets of East Oakland and when you live on the streets of East Oakland, you have to support yourself. So he started selling pot and when you’re selling pot on the streets, you need to protect yourself. So he started carrying a gun and one thing led to another and some gang guys tried to steal his goods and he got in a gun fight and an innocent bystander was shot and killed and Ronald was convicted of second degree murder. The event happened one day beyond his 18th birthday, unfortunately so he was tried as an adult and convicted of second degree murder.
Michael Rugen (04:17):
I was asked to represent him on appeal because he had a really, really terrible lawyer at his trial and we were trying to get his conviction overturned. I went to visit him over in Alameda County Jail the day before he was about to go off and start his 30 year to life sentence and when we were done talking, he got up and he threw his arms around my neck and started sobbing and saying, “Thank you, thank you,” and over and over again and of course I started sobbing too. And when I stopped sobbing, I said, “Ronald, why are you thanking me? I haven’t done anything. You’re going off to jail for potentially the rest of your life.” And he looked at me and he said, “No, you don’t understand. I’m not thanking you for being my lawyer. I’m thanking you because you’re the first adult who’s ever believed in me since my grandmother died.”
Michael Rugen (05:07):
At that moment, I understood what having caring adults’ support in your life could mean and what not having it could mean and that’s when I decided to go down the road that eventually led me to Friends of the Children.
Liz Tinkham (05:18):
He was 18 at the time or 19, by the time the trial came about?
Michael Rugen (05:22):
Yeah, yeah. He was one day past his 18th birthday.
Liz Tinkham (05:26):
Oh my gosh.
Michael Rugen (05:26):
When the shooting occurred, so he got tried as an adult.
Liz Tinkham (05:28):
Oh, my gosh. So, if I head back a little bit in your life and you went to Colgate and then NYU for law school. Were you socially active back then?
Michael Rugen (05:38):
I grew up in a fairly comfortable New Jersey suburb, largely White. In fact, my first recollection of racial justice issues was the guy who came to our front door with a petition, asking my father to sign a petition, agreeing not to sell our house to black people.
Liz Tinkham (05:56):
Oh, my gosh.
Michael Rugen (05:57):
My father was a very gentle man, but I’ve never seen him so angry. He almost physically threw the guy out of our house and—
Liz Tinkham (06:03):
Oh, good for your dad.
Michael Rugen (06:04):
That was my first understanding of racial issues on a personal level. But no, I was a jock back then and I was more interested in sports and girls than I was in social issues. But I would say my social awakening occurred slowly, going to a liberal arts college helped and going to a socially progressive law school in New York City helped and then I worked at a series of law firms that had very active pro bono practices. So unlike many of my friends, I think I’ve evolved in the direction of becoming more progressive and more socially active rather than less over the years. Moving to San Francisco pushed me even further in that direction, I think.
Liz Tinkham (06:43):
What kind of law did you think you were going to practice coming out of law school?
Michael Rugen (06:47):
Well, I thought I was going to be a criminal defense lawyer, but I worked for one summer during law school in that area and for reasons I won’t go into, I just decided that wasn’t for me. Then I got a job at a big law firm the second summer and it’s very seductive and pays very well and the work is very interesting and I kind of got off on that foot and never looked back, but thankfully I had my pro bono practice to feed my soul during that time.
Liz Tinkham (07:13):
You also had your own sort of Lehman Brothers moment. What happened?
Michael Rugen (07:16):
Well, when I came out to San Francisco I worked at a firm called Heller Ehrman, which was about 120-year-old firm in 2008 when Lehman Brothers crashed. I don’t know if you remember this, but the capital markets pretty much froze for a couple of days and my law firm had an outstanding line of credit and our bank just basically panicked, I would say. And they called our line of credit and they had a lock box and all of our cash came through the lock box and suddenly it stopped. So we couldn’t pay anybody their salaries and our firm was dead in the water after 120 years. But luckily I landed on my feet at another great firm and went on from there. So that wasn’t too bad for me. There were a lot of secretaries and librarians who didn’t fare as well, unfortunately, but…
Liz Tinkham (08:06):
When you were telling me this, when we were talking ahead of this interview, I didn’t appreciate the magnitude of the collateral damage to that whole thing, which I should have known. But I’m glad you got back on your feet. So my husband’s a lawyer, so I have some familiarity with sort of the pressure for billable hours, especially at the big firms. How were you able to manage that with doing your pro bono work?
Michael Rugen (08:32):
Well, I worked at three firms. I worked at Paul, Weiss in New York, I worked at Heller Ehrman then I worked at Sidley Austin and I chose those firms at least in part because they did have active pro bono practices and lawyers get a bad rap and some of it’s justified, but I think at Heller Ehrman and at Sidley we devoted somewhere in the area of 8% to 10% of our billable hours every year to pro bono work. So the firm was very supportive of it and I just did it because I wanted to do it and nobody ever said to me, “You’re doing too much of that.” Now I worked hard and I also worked hard on my paying clients. So I did manage to combine it, but there are a lot of law firms out there that are doing good work and I just want to put a plug in. I’m a recovering lawyer, but I still have a lot of respect for the lawyers that are out there doing that work.
Liz Tinkham (09:21):
Yeah, I totally agree. So you mentioned the sort of seminal case with Ronald. Did that inspire you to go out and find Friends of the Children?
Michael Rugen (09:29):
I was honing in on doing work with at-risk kids and I was thinking of starting a mentoring organization already and the experience with Ronald made me realize that there’s a lot of kids out there who are just falling through the cracks completely and have very little adult support. I ran into somebody just coincidentally, who was on the national board of Friends of the Children and he said, “If you really want to help the kids who need the support the most who face the biggest barriers in life you need to learn about this organization, Friends of the Children, because that’s who they serve.”
Michael Rugen (10:04):
So I went up to Portland and I, which is where the national organization is based, and I met with the national CEO and the founder and I just loved… I fell in love with the model. I mean, they actively go out and search for the kids who need the support the most. They have a very systematic, I would say almost business-like approach to mentoring and that combination is very rare in the not for profit world. So I just love the soulful mission combined with the business-like approach and that’s what sold me on it.
Liz Tinkham (10:36):
What’s the difference between say what Friends of the Children is doing and an organization like Big Brothers Big Sisters, which probably many of us are familiar with.
Michael Rugen (10:44):
Yeah. There’s several things that distinguish us, I think. The first is that we don’t wait for a mom to come and say, “My son or my daughter needs a mentor.” In fact, the national CEO told me on that first visit that if the mom is that involved in her kid’s life, that’s not the kid we’re looking for. So we have four partner schools and we spend six weeks in the school every year, observing all the kindergartners and we rate them on a risk factor scale. And at the end of the time they each go to score, a numerical score and we recruit the kids that are the highest scoring, which are the kids that have the least support in their lives and face the biggest barriers. So that’s one big difference. The second is we don’t use volunteer mentors. We actually hire full-time salaried mentors who generally have a background in either education or social work before they come to us.
Michael Rugen (11:37):
Then we train them, we supervise them and each one of them is assigned to eight children and they spend four hours a week with each child. So it’s having professional full-time mentors allows us to do a much more in-depth, much more systematic kind of mentoring than you can really do with volunteers. Then another big difference is that we start with every child in kindergarten and we commit to stay with them all the way through high school graduation. We say twelve and a half years, no matter what. I never want to speak badly of the volunteer organizations. They do great work, but the average volunteer mentor relationship lasts for about a year, but we stick with every child for twelve and a half years and that’s really the key ingredient in our magic sauce.
Michael Rugen (12:23):
Then the last thing is that we’re very, very evidence based. So the mentors create an individualized plan, which we call a roadmap for each child, which gets updated as needed and they record every interaction they have with each child, how much time they spent, how it relates to the roadmap and that’s all monitored by their supervisors. I monitor it on a high level so we’re always keeping track of the inputs that we’re making to the kids and the progress that the kids are making or adjusting what we do as we go along. So that allows us to be much more systematic than you can do with a volunteer kind of organization.
Michael Rugen (13:05):
Then the last thing is because we stick with kids for so long and because we’re so evidence based, we have a track record of success and we track four long-term outcomes. We track avoiding the juvenile justice system and 84% of the kids in our program have avoided the juvenile justice system. We track teen parenting and 98% of our kids have avoided teen parenting. Even though I will say that 85% of them come from teen parents. We also track post-secondary success and about 92% of our kids have gone on to either enroll in college or full-time employment or enlisting in the military. So it’s a pretty great track record of success, especially when you think about the challenges that the kids we serve are facing.
Liz Tinkham (13:53):
Those are really impressive outcomes. Right now, because you’ve founded San Francisco sort of recently, how many years in are you with your cohort group?
Michael Rugen (14:01):
We are about four years in. So our oldest kids are just entering the fifth grade.
Liz Tinkham (14:07):
They must be so cute.
Michael Rugen (14:08):
Which is an interesting time. They’re changing and we have to change with them, but we’re now serving 110 kids. We take a new class of kindergartners every year.
Liz Tinkham (14:17):
I can’t shy away from a little bit of a political discussion here because I’m the chair of the board of Washington STEM, which is equity in STEM education in the state of Washington. And recently I’m also the interim CEO right now and my staff knows I’m on a bit of a rant with our schools in Washington because the kids are back in school. They weren’t necessarily last year, everywhere, but anyway, we’re having a hard time with the kids who are sort of furthest away from equity with things now like lack of bus drivers. And then if one kid in the classroom gets sick because we’re not testing kids, I think they are in California, the whole classroom has to go back online if one kid gets COVID.
Liz Tinkham (14:54):
It just drives me nuts, why can’t the state intercede and figure some of these things out. So you likely see some similar issues with the schools that you work with in San Francisco. If you could wave your magic wand to change one or two things related to the schools that would make a big difference for your kids, what would it be?
Michael Rugen (15:13):
Well, I’m going to stay away from the whole COVID quagmire because you can get stuck there forever, and hopefully we’re starting to emerge from that. But if I had two things that I would change, the first is pretty trite and that is, I just think our schools are terribly underfunded and we as a society need to be better about devoting resources to these really critical activities. Every teacher I have run into, every administrator I have run into in this job is an incredibly dedicated, hard working person, but they’re so underpaid and they’re so overworked that it’s just a shame. I think as society, we really need to think about where we’re allocating our resources to corporate lawyers like I used to be versus teachers who are doing so much better and more important work.
Michael Rugen (16:03):
The second thing I think, which might be a little less trite is, I love the community school model and some of our partner schools are community schools and some are not. And what I mean by community schools is schools that offer a network of support services to their students and to their families, really on site at the school. So it could be everything from health services to mental health services, to mentoring, extra reading support. That model makes so much sense, especially in schools we work with because the children that we serve face such big barriers. They really need so much more than just classroom activity and that community school model makes infinite sense to me and I’ve seen it implemented really effectively. So I would hope that schools are starting to move in that direction to provide more holistic support to their students and their students’ families.
Liz Tinkham (16:59):
I agree. I mean, that’s one of the things we talk about with STEM all the time, that when you look at third grade math skills and you look at it by race or income level and certain groups are lower than others, there’s more to the story. So certain groups are coming in off the farm and they don’t have any breakfast or they don’t have internet access and so we have to surround those kids with sort of… To level the playing field just so they can do well in school.
Michael Rugen (17:23):
Each time we throw issues together we then lump all of this onto the teacher’s shoulders and expect them to deal with it and it’s just more than any human being can possibly deal with.
Liz Tinkham (17:39):
After you retired from Sidley, were you thinking at that point you were going to launch in San Francisco or how did you end up founding and then becoming the executive director of Friends of the Children in San Francisco?
Michael Rugen (17:50):
I try not to use the word retire. I like to say I’m a recovering lawyer.
Liz Tinkham (17:55):
Michael Rugen (17:56):
I left there knowing that I wanted to do something like this. As I said earlier, I adopted the Zen mantra, jump and the net will appear. It took me a while. I didn’t really know for about six months what I was going to do and that was after working hard your whole life and being very sort of driven, it’s a little hard to be in that state. But the net did appear and I found something great to do and I’m really glad I did it. What I would say that to anybody who’s thinking of doing something similar is whatever you’re doing you’ve developed skills that are probably way more transferable than you think they are. I use my lawyering skills every day, even though I’m not doing anything remotely close to lawyering and there’s something you can do with your skills that will serve you in a new career. So just think broadly about what those might be.
Liz Tinkham (18:43):
Where are you headed with your organization?
Michael Rugen (18:46):
Well, we’ve been open for four years and we’re serving 110 kids. Our goal is to serve 400 and we’re well on our way to that. The organization itself, the national organization, is almost 30 years old, but the model continues to evolve. One of the things we learn during COVID is our parents and our caregivers need our support as much as our kids do and while our focus is continuing to be primarily on the kids, we’re starting to move more in the direction of supporting whole families.
Michael Rugen (19:18):
For example, we surveyed our families and they reported food insecurity as their biggest concern during COVID. So we started a partnership with the local farmer’s market and we deliver fresh produce now every Saturday to our families and it’s been a huge success, not only because it addressed their food insecurity, but it just also cemented our relationship to the family and showed them that we really mean it when we say twelve and a half years, no matter what. So we call it the 2Gen model, we’re supporting the parent generation more as well as the child generation. So I’d say those are the two things we’re doing.
Liz Tinkham (19:54):
What’s the half year part of that. So you said twelve and a half years is… What’s the half year?
Michael Rugen (19:59):
We go into the schools every year in January. So it’s the second semester of kindergarten and so generally the kids are starting our program late in their kindergarten year and then we stay with them all the way through high school.
Liz Tinkham (20:14):
What are you most proud of so far in this work?
Michael Rugen (20:17):
I really miss this during COVID, but when I’m in the office and I see the mentors with their kids and I see how attached the kids are to their mentors. When I see that, and I think about the difficult challenges that those kids face in their lives and yet when they’re with their mentors, they’re happy, confident children and I see them becoming more and more like that every year. That’s what I’m most proud of. They’re little sponges and they soak up the love. The model at the end of the day, is really about loving the kids. We have a very sophisticated way of doing it, but it’s about giving kids the love and support they need and when I see the effect of that on the kids in person every day, that’s what I’m most proud of.
Liz Tinkham (21:03):
For our listeners who will be inspired by your story and might want to get involved either in the Friends of the Children in San Francisco, or there’s not one of these organizations in their city, how would they get started?
Michael Rugen (21:16):
I hate to be crass, but we always need financial support. We’re taking a new class of children every year. We pay our professional mentors and we try to pay them a living wage. So if you like to support us financially, we’d appreciate that. If you want to get involved volunteering with the organization that’s available too, and you can find out how to do both of those things at our website, www.friendssfbayarea.org.
Liz Tinkham (21:42):
We’ll put that in the show notes.
Michael Rugen (21:43):
I think there’s now 25 chapters around the country. So there may very well be a chapter in your neighborhood or one coming very soon and you should go to the Friends of the Children website nationally to find out where those locations are. If you’ve got access to significant assets and you’re interested in bringing a chapter to your neighborhood, to your city, we are in an expansion mode so we’re always interested in finding generous donors who want to start a chapter in their area. So again, you could go to the national website for that.
Liz Tinkham (22:16):
You said you were a recovering lawyer and I don’t know if that means there’s like a 12 step program for that, but do you miss it? Do you miss being a lawyer?
Michael Rugen (22:24):
Being a lawyer was great. I enjoyed it on many levels intellectually, financially, I made a lot of good friends that way, but no, I don’t miss it. I was ready to leave and I can honestly say that there hasn’t been a single day when I’ve looked back and wished I was still practicing law. So I guess the time was right for me to make that jump.
Liz Tinkham (22:45):
You said to me when we were prepping that you feel like you were born to do this in terms of what you’re doing with Friends of the Children. Why do you feel that way?
Michael Rugen (22:53):
I’ve always had a sense of racial injustice that America has treated some of its citizens very unfairly for several centuries and that we have never made up for that original sin. I’ve always looked for some ways to make a small contribution toward righting that wrong and now I’m doing it full-time. I also have an entrepreneurial streak that never got… I always worked at big firms where all that stuff was done for me. So leaving and starting an organization, which has now got 23 employees at a budget of $2.3 million a year has been kind of fun. So yeah, I think those were the reasons that I was born or at least,… And also, as I said, the skills that I developed as a lawyer have been immensely helpful here. So I was born to do it and then I honed some of those skills and this is a good way to use all of that, my inclinations and my learning.
Liz Tinkham (23:50):
I almost named this podcast I’m Not Done Yet because I feel like I’m not done yet. So what aren’t you done with yet?
Michael Rugen (23:56):
Well, I’m not done with Friends of the Children. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be the ED, but I’m certainly not going to leave it. I’ll certainly go on the board when I move on, maybe become chairman. I don’t know. I think there might be another phase of my life. I love writing, I’m pretty good at it. I think there might be another stage in my life that centers around writing.
Liz Tinkham (24:17):
Well, we’ll continue to follow you. So Michael, thank you so much for being on the show. The tagline for my podcast is purpose, passion and pretirement and I think you really embody all of it because you had this nut for social justice your entire life, and now you’re really living that. So I really appreciate everything you’re doing for the children of San Francisco. In addition to what you talked about in terms of the Friends of the Children website, where else can our listeners find you online?
Michael Rugen (24:47):
Well, we’re on social media. You can find us on Instagram or Facebook. Do you want to contact me directly? My email address is [email protected]
Liz Tinkham (25:01):
Great. Okay. We’ll publish all that in the show notes. Thank you so much.
Michael Rugen (25:04):
Thank you, Liz. Thank you for having me.
Liz Tinkham (25:08):
Thanks for joining me today to listen to the Third Act podcast. You can find show notes, guest bios, and more at thirdactpodcast.com. If you enjoyed our show today, please subscribe and write a review on your favorite podcast platform. I’m your host, Liz Tinkham. I’ll be back next week with another guest who’s found new meaning and fulfillment in the third act of their life.
Want to share the story of your own Third Act on our podcast? We welcome stories from executives who pivoted their careers to find their passion and purpose later in their lives. Tell us more about yourself to be considered as a guest.