Hub Stories: New Hub Member Uses Improv to Transform the Unacceptable

[Name]: Pamela Hawley

[Title]: CEO and Founder of UniversalGiving

[Areas of Expertise]: Charitable Giving, Volunteering, Social Justice, Poverty, Blogging, Sales, Business Development, Corporate Social Responsibility

[Memory Lane]:

“At the age of twelve, I was on a family trip in Mexico. My dad and I were wandering around at a traditional marketplace, and we veered off into a little cul de sac. I remember seeing so many starving children there, unwashed, maimed, some without legs… I was beyond shocked. I just remember looking at my dad in absolute awe. And the word “UNACCEPTABLE” became imprinted across my mind…”

As a little girl, Pamela wanted to be a ballerina… or a Safeway Checker. “I grew up before we had scanners,” she laughs. “The cashier would have to remember the code on hundreds of products, and punch them in. I was so impressed, and I wanted to be able to do that as rapidly as they did. I remember getting a cash register for a Christmas present, and I was so thrilled.”

A Safeway Ballerina? Not what you might expect from a powerhouse who has launched several award-winning online start-ups, and been named as one of the top 50 social innovators in the country. But Pamela, who acts and does Improv, maintains that performing arts are nothing to scoff at.

“Improv has wonderful life lessons, wonderful communication skills, wonderful partnership and team-building,” she lists. “Sure, it’s fun, and sure it’s a great connection to people. But to me, it really revolves around good life principles, communications, and teamwork.”

Ms. Hawley, who was heavily involved in sports in high school, never knew she had a talent for creativity on stage. But one night, that all changed. “I got asked out by a guy who took me to an Improv show,” she recalls. “I had never seen Improv before. I was sitting in the audience thinking, ‘Huh, I wonder if I could do that!’”

The budding entrepreneur inside of Pamela told her there was no room for doubt– it was all or nothing. Whether it’s a start-up or a new hobby, she knew that success would mean committing her mind, body, and soul.

Pamela went for it. “I kind of went into start-up mode with UniversalGiving and acting,” she says. “Since I didn’t have that experience, I had a lot to catch up to speed on. I was really bad at first. But people were really patient with me, and to this day, I still perform Improv and act on the side as well.”

Her first experience of going to an Improv class is ingrained permanently on her brain. “Oh yes, I have strong memories” she admits. “My strongest memory is coming home at night and laughing and crying myself to sleep, saying “Why do I do this? Why do I do this?”

Patience was key. “It takes a while to learn the principles,” Pamela cautions, “With good Improv, we are not stand-up comedians. We don’t get up there and deliver one-line insights. You have to practice before you can have the creativity and freedom to find the gift of each scene.”

But her hard work paid off. Pamela finds that the principles of Improv translate well to social enterprise. “You apply it every single day,” she says.

“In Improv, you’re working as a team– it is not a solo performance. You are all working synergistically together to create the magic onstage. It’s the same thing in an organization: I don’t care who you are or what your title is, we’re a team. There are no hoggers here.”

Sharing the stage is certainly a familiar tune at the Hub. But Pamela is bringing another principle to the table at 901 Mission.  “When you really drill down into good teamwork and communication, it’s all about the principle of “Yes, And…” she says.  “A lot of times in business, or non-profits, our language centers around ‘Yes, but.’ In Improv, we call that a ‘block.’ It’s saying ‘your idea is not legitimate.’”

To avoid the block, Pamela believes that leaders should practice saying “Yes, And…” to their team. “Think about building a home,” she urges. “If someone puts a brick down, do you kick it over? Do you go build somewhere else on your own? If you do that, you’re going to end up with two houses, and slow everything down. Whereas if you work together, you don’t have to put your brick right on top. You can slant it. It doesn’t have to be cookie-cutter, but find a creative way to put your brick down so you can build on what’s been done.”

She has a point. Creativity in the workplace can sometimes take the unglamorous form of compromising our self-deemed genius ideas for a more practical strategy that the whole team can get behind. We’ve all experienced the frustration of having an idea shot-down by a teammate or coworker– more often than not, it’s the person that balances the budget. But with “Yes, And…” Pamela is empowering her team to put the outlandish ideas into the mix, with the understanding that with a little adjustment or appropriate scaling, a crazy notion could just become your next successful project.

“As a CEO, it’s your job to figure out how to make outlandish ideas happen in a way that is practical,” she says.

When you look at the principle of ‘Yes, And…’ in the workplace, Pamela is amazed at how much it can change a culture. “Just look at the positive demeanor for someone going home that day who’s been ‘Yes, And-ed’ and not ‘Yes, But-ed,’” she says. “That can change the world.”

Pamela’s motivation for world-changing stems from a memory that she conjures up from a childhood trip to Central America. “At the age of twelve, I was on a family trip in Mexico,” she recalls. “My dad and I were wandering around at a traditional marketplace, and we veered off into a little cul de sac. There, we saw so many starving children: unwashed, maimed, and some without legs. I was beyond shocked. I just remember looking at my dad in absolute awe. And the word “UNACCEPTABLE”  became imprinted across my mind.”

Upon her return, Pamela started volunteering in her community in East Palo Alto. “I did everything from handing out food to sorting clothes to accepting donations,” she says. “I even started learning Spanish to help with interpretation.” Volunteering at home led to other opportunities. Since that moment in Mexico, Pamela has worked on a sustainable farm in Guatemala, volunteered for earthquake relief in El Salvador, spent time with victims of Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia, and helped develop micro-finance programs in India.

Sound tiring? There’s a reason behind the globetrotting.

“What I found out about myself is that I am not cause oriented,” Pamela explains. “I am not an environmentalist, or a human rights activist, or anything that is particular to one cause. What I care about most is how come I come from such a loving family, and how is it that so many other people did not have that? My whole life purpose has become engaged around the belief that this is not okay.”

This spiritual poverty is the type that Pamela finds most severe. “We certainly think about financial poverty, people not having money to buy a home, to buy clothes, but at the end of the day I think that some of the most severe type of poverty is spiritual,” she says. “That is, poverty in love, poverty in being taken care of, poverty in the inspiration and belief and confidence that you can be a great and inspiring contributor to our world.”

Maybe that’s why Pamela makes a point to spend time talking with homeless people. “The type of volunteer work I’m doing now is a little less formalized,” she says. “I call it community squatting.”

“I know a lot of people on Fillmore street, and Union street, in San Francisco. I’ll see a man I know on Fillmore Street outside a convenience store and I’ll sit down with him and ask him what he wants to eat. He’ll usually want a soda and chips, and that’s probably not the healthiest thing, but it is his decision so I’ll go in and get that for him. And we’ll just sit there and talk. Or I’ll give him a hug. I think showing people you can hug homeless people, be with them, spend time with them, and not just give them a dollar… that’s what volunteering is really about. Sharing your spirit with people.”

Pamela started UniversalGiving to allow others to access a web-based marketplace that would help people give and volunteer all across the world with the top performing projects. “I just wanted to help people, learn from people, listen to people, and address whatever dire situation across the world where there was need,” she says. “I love using efficient business skills to organize our team in a way that we can efficiently serve the world. We are one small but important part of the equation eliminating poverty.”

For inspiration, Pamela looks no further than her parents. “Alex and Wally Hawley, who have been married for 48 years, and are best friends with a spark, are my absolute role models,” she beams. “They gave me that humility, courage, inspiration and confidence to go do exactly what I was supposed to do in life.”

Pamela found the Hub at the White House, of all places. “I first heard about the Hub from Jonathan, the inspiring gentleman who founded the Hub, when I was invited as one of the 50 top social innovators invited to the White House,” she says. “He was so dynamic and wonderful, and I loved his enthusiasm and spirit.”

Little did she know that a very good friend was already involved: Tim Freundlich of Impact Assets. He convinced Pamela to “come and see it!” and so she visited Hub SF before it even opened. “Tim brought me over and gave me the full tour when it was in full-scale construction,” she remembers. I loved the idea, I thought it was great. And Tim is such a dynamic wonderful person, so that’s how I decided to join.”

“The office we were at before the Hub was an amazing place,” she admits. “We had food catered every Tuesday, baseball tickets, and a roof-top deck. But I promised my team we were going to go from good to good. And what happened instead is we went from good to great.”

Since moving, Pamela has been blown away by the Hub community. “I always tell people, the Hub is not an incubator. It’s a community. It’s a leveraged community that allows people to collaborate, scale, mind-share, build collectively, and grow individually. It’s my sparkplug, and I love connecting to it every day.”

Look for Pamela at the Hub, or head upstairs to welcome the UniversalGiving team to their brand new office on the second floor. You can also check out writings by Pamela herself at Fast Company or on her blog.

In an age of social innovation, let’s take a leaf out of Pamela’s book. “We’re so lucky to be social entrepreneurs,” she advises. “Share the knowledge that you have with other people. Don’t wait until you are fifty to give back your time, or your money, or your energy. Take the time to do it now.”

Thanks for reading!

Samantha, Your Hub Stories Correspondent


Samantha is a staff blogger for the Hub Bay Area. She designed and launched the Hub Stories Project in January of 2011 in an attempt to capture the unique narratives of Bay Area change-makers as they help to build a better world from within the Hub community. She also writes a travel blog and is currently based in Tel Aviv, Israel. 


Filed under Hub Stories

6 responses to “Hub Stories: New Hub Member Uses Improv to Transform the Unacceptable

  1. Pamela,
    I need help.If you would go to CanvasingTheWorld current tv you can watch a 7 min. video that barely scratches the surface of what’s been accomplished, but I need help in order to do what I hope to do.Please if after viewing the video and you’re interested in talking more I can be reached by phone @ 510-684-9938, or by mail I can explain more then.
    Thank Pamela for all that you do!

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