Kris Kepler: On Radical Hospitality and Unexpected Leaders

Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Kris Kepler, CEO of mobile hygiene pioneer LavaMaeX, which brings hygiene and other critical services to the unhoused.

1. What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?

I left my corporate job over three years ago to work in the non-profit sector. I craved a role in social impact, I wanted to give more, and I’ve never looked back.  

Kris Kepler
Kris Kepler, CEO of mobile hygiene pioneer LavaMaeX. (Image credit: LavaMaeX)

When I started, I wish I would have known the power of embracing failure, saying “I tried my best,” being okay with it and not defeated by it. I have learned to look at those moments with curiosity and optimism and know that failure brings great opportunity for change both personally and professionally.

I think women are taught to “push through” any situation that arises and we convince ourselves that if we just try harder, we can make it work. I’ve learned that life is about being committed to the process of testing and trying, which will lead to outcomes you may not expect. You just have to have the courage to change course and, as I like to say, “be comfortable with the uncomfortable”. 

2. What is your current greatest professional challenge?

I’m lucky to lead a team of compassionate, diverse, giving, smart people with huge hearts.  Working with those on the streets is our greatest joy and also incredibly heartbreaking, heavy and sad. We’re seeing so many new faces on the streets: families, young kids, more women.  It makes you doubt your faith in humanity and society to see so much suffering. My biggest internal challenge is supporting the mental health of a team of givers. Life is really messy right now. I lead by listening and supporting individuals through uncertainty, one day at a time.     

From an organizational perspective, one of LavaMaeX’s biggest challenges is getting funders to fund the “nuts and bolts” of our operations. Innovation doesn’t just happen by itself; you need to create the platform, the product, or the service experience to bring people together. It takes investing in the “guts” of an organization so we can try and test ideas. The “glory” may not be immediately recognizable to a funder’s eye. 

We’ve also set a new professional challenge: a five-year impact goal of creating a global network of communities launching and sustaining LavaMaeˣ-designed programs that serve 100,000 people moving through homelessness by 2024. Cultivating a global network of like-minded organizations to bring hygiene to the streets means investing in its collective power to change systems, sustain and support one another. The network is especially crucial in supporting nonprofits of color and the communities they serve, where collective support is needed now more than ever. We’re committed to making it happen.  

3. What inspires you most about your work?

The best feeling in the world is to deliver a shower or hygiene kit on the streets and see the smiles from our guests. To connect on the streets and laugh, share stories, and witness how happy they are after a nice, hot shower is incredibly humbling and makes my heart full. Our guests are our friends and the friendship works both ways: all you need to do is say hello, acknowledge them, listen and care. Living on the streets is not only incredibly traumatizing, it’s de-humanizing and isolating. Never underestimate the impact you can have, because you may be the only person that speaks to an unhoused person or acknowledges them that day, week or month—something many of us take for granted. 

I also love leading people to do important, impactful work. The DNA of our organization is rooted in innovation, collaboration and celebrating in our shared humanity. Everyone is encouraged to observe, listen, ideate and act. There’s no such thing as a bad idea; many times, all it takes is an “informed hunch.” We’re not afraid to try, test, fail and iterate or change course when something isn’t working. It’s empowering to have that level of creative license and to be empowered to be responsive, nimble, and pivot as needed during these stressful and uncertain times. 

4. How does your gender identity inform your work?

I’ve always considered myself to be an empathetic person who loves to listen and to understand before being understood. In high school, I was a Peer Assistance Listener, where I spent a summer being trained in listening and how to counsel peers experiencing serious issues. I spent two years in this program, the majority of it talking with girls my age who were struggling with depression, abuse and addiction. It opened my eyes both to the pain a lot of girls experience and empathize with their particular situation. The simple act of listening and being a friend is so important to feeling understood, and that builds confidence. I bring the art of listening to my work, whether it’s listening to an individual on the team, someone on the streets, or a board member. We all have various backgrounds and experiences. It’s important to understand other perspective and worldviews, to see how you can best mentor, help, and learn from their experiences.  

5. Do you think your gender identity has affected your career?

It definitely has, both positively and negatively. I spent many years working in a traditionally male-dominated culture as a consultant, and I knew early on that I had to work smarter, harder, and spend more time building trust and relationships than my male counterparts to establish credibility. These experiences made me incredibly resilient—it’s why I love a good challenge.  That being said, it’s incredibly tiring being underestimated. We shouldn’t have to fight so hard to be seen as equals. I stay focused on the work at hand and establishing trust by building and fostering relationships. What’s been important for me is to know when to call it quits, and move on from a job that I didn’t feel valued in. You have to know your worth, what you’re willing to fight for, and know when it’s time to walk away.

6. How can philanthropy support gender equality?

Philanthropic organizations must engage, listen and learn and build relationships with women-led organizations. Currently, women are stressed to the max, juggling full-time jobs, schooling kids at home virtually, keeping the house cleaned and organized…the list goes on. Yes, I’m one of those moms. 

In September, McKinsey and LeanIn research revealed that women left the workforce at four times the rate that men did due to COVID-19. It’s never been more critical to cultivate and foster women-led organizations, especially those led by women of color, to ensure success. Find the women that have a point of view, fire in the belly, and will be tenacious enough to have the will to start and sustain a non-profit in the face of incredible adversity. Invest in a relationship with them, cultivate them, trust them, and—most of all—work alongside them. This requires a 1:1 approach and an openness to unconventional funding solutions. What’s needed is more flexible funding, a commitment to fund grassroots efforts that are traditionally under-resourced from the start, approaching the relationship as a multi-year funding opportunity, and recognizing that funding general operating expenses is critical to organizational health and moving out of scarcity mode.

7. In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equality movements taking us?

I think that we’ll see diversity flourishing in the nonprofit world with more models of leadership and a greater variety of grassroots nonprofits receiving funding. 

I see more support and opportunity for unexpected leaders: women, particularly women of color, young girls, and non-binary people. How we get there is by cultivating diverse networks, supporting one another and using our collective power and voices. These networks and support systems are going to be more critical than ever as women face greater challenges in the workplace due to the pandemic.  

I also think that the traditional philanthropic model will change as women mobilize and demand change. Instead of women-led organizations fitting a specific set of requirements to receive grant money, foundations and grantmakers will have to serve the needs of women by taking our personal, professional and local community challenges into consideration. They will also consider different kinds of organizations they normally wouldn’t fund (i.e., women-led or working in under-resourced communities) and act as catalysts for their growth. This will bring more diversity and a variety of perspectives to the nonprofit world. 

About LavaMaeX: LavaMaex is a nonprofit accelerator that’s building a worldwide network of providers who take critical services to the street, where the unhoused need them most. With an approach rooted in Radical Hospitality®—meeting people, wherever they are, with extraordinary care—LavaMaex is changing the way the world sees and serves our unhoused neighbors, and helps restore dignity, rekindle optimism and fuel a sense of opportunity for people experiencing homelessness.


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Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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