Why Sloane Davidson Founded “Hello Neighbor” to Open the Door to Refugees
November 08, 2019 | Filed in: Woman of the Week
Pittsburgh native Sloane Davidson has always been a connector. As the fourth of six daughters spanning three marriages (more on that later), she grew up navigating complex relationships—and she always felt accountable to her larger community. As an adult, her varied career dipped in and out of different industries and cities. But ultimately, she returned to her roots—both in Pittsburgh and in philanthropy—to launch Hello Neighbor, a nonprofit that matches recently resettled refugee families with local mentors. Below, we talked to Sloane about leaning into empathy, taking the first step, and embracing her “Eat, Pray, Love” moment.
I AM AN ONLY CHILD, AN OLDEST CHILD, A MIDDLE CHILD, AND A YOUNGEST CHILD because of how my parents divorced and remarried. I’m my parents’ only child together, but I have three older half-sisters from my dad’s first marriage and two younger half-sisters from my mom’s second marriage. In my family, I’ve always been the convener, since I’m the one who connects the older and younger sets of sisters. I also wear a different hat based on who I’m with. Among my dad’s daughters, I’m treated like the youngest. But with my mom and step-dad’s daughters, I’m the oldest, and I look out for the others. I grew up trying to navigate lots of family dynamics, and I think that translates really well to being a CEO. I know how to read a room and make myself valuable, no matter who I’m talking to.
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I WAS ALWAYS PHILANTHROPIC and motivated to help people. I came home from school one day in seventh grade and was like, “I want to start volunteering.” I didn’t realize until much later in life that that was linked to empathy. And I didn’t realize until much, much later that I over-index in empathy. Now, I know that’s one of my strong suits, but when I was younger, it just meant that I felt everything around me and had an intense desire to give back.
MY FIRST JOB AFTER GRADUATING was in the marketing department of a big accounting firm in Boston, and it was such a crash-and-burn. I performed well, but I was so unhappy. I wasn’t used to the feeling of not liking something—because I had loved school, I loved learning, I loved volunteering. But I dragged my feet every single morning on my way to that job. It was a good lesson for me that I’m not built for big companies.
I DECIDED TO QUIT THAT JOB AND DRIVE ACROSS THE COUNTRY WITH MY THEN-BOYFRIEND. My family thought I was crazy, but when we got to L.A., I found that the nonprofit world was a good fit for my big heart. I worked at a school and then at Starlight Starbright Children’s Foundation. This was 2006, and I was really inspired by the new wave of “social media” that was just emerging. I was so excited to help the organizations I worked with leverage this new way of communicating. Eventually, I was approached to join a startup that focused on social media for social good. I did that for a year, but then the financial crash came in 2008, and everyone got laid off. Even though it didn’t work out, I met a ton of people across the nonprofit space.
WHEN I WAS 29, AFTER FIVE YEARS IN L.A., I ended up Eat, Pray, Love-ing my life. I broke up with my long-term boyfriend, sold most of my stuff, and bought a one-way ticket to Buenos Aires. I spent the next year traveling and volunteering in a number of countries. That included a six-month Kiva fellowship in the Philippines, where I was really involved with women and girls. I love just sitting on the floor, spending time with women and babies in different villages. It was also the first time I was really on my own—and I learned to be okay with being alone. It gave me a chance to think about what place I wanted to have in the world. I came back from that year very determined to focus on social good opportunities.
I’D ALWAYS TALKED ABOUT MOVING BACK TO PITTSBURGH, and after a few years in New York, once I was married and pregnant, it seemed like the right time. I really wanted to be near my family, but I wasn’t sure about the next phase of my career. I knew I wanted it to do something that involved building community in Pittsburgh. I decided to do a mid-career master’s at the University of Pittsburgh, where I focused on policy and nonprofit management. I also started volunteering at a refugee resettlement agency in Pittsburgh, where I was basically a sponge—learning as much as I could about the refugee experience.
WHEN THE 2016 ELECTION HAPPENED, I HAD THIS AWAKENING where I realized that if I was ever going to do something that would have an impact, now was the time. I wanted to help refugees from a place of humanity and storytelling. They don’t need people to feel sorry for them—they’re the most resilient people in the world—but they do need support to navigate very complicated American systems. So I put together a framework of what would become Hello Neighbor, and I ran with it.
WE LAUNCHED IN 2017, and since then, we’ve matched 95 families with local mentors. We’re now impacting hundreds of people’s lives. But even after that very first introduction, I came home and I said to my husband, “If the whole thing were to collapse right now, I’ll feel like I’ve succeeded. Because even that first relationship is a win.” And every relationship we’ve facilitated since then has been a win.
WE CHOSE THE NAME “HELLO NEIGHBOR” because I do think the hardest part about giving back or making any kind of meaningful change is that first step of opening the door. It’s not easy—there are fears and unknowns on both sides of the relationship. Our mentors and mentees are essentially being match-made. And after that, they’re building a relationship from scratch. The refugees face a lot of hardship, be it navigating healthcare, education, jobs, housing, or everyday things like budgeting, transportation, and language. A mentor can play a huge role in giving them a sense of home.
THE WORD “MENTOR” IS ACTUALLY NOT MY FAVORITE, because a great mentor is more than that. They’re an ally, an advocate, a supporter, and ultimately a friend that helps you navigate. In my career, I’ve had mentors and I’ve been a mentor. Regardless of which side of the relationship I’ve been on, it’s done something for me. It’s made me feel a certain way. It’s not a one-way street—both the mentor and the mentee should feel a sense of fulfillment. It’s a partnership, and that’s definitely true of our mentors and mentees at Hello Neighbor.
I BELIEVE IN AVOIDING DECISION FATIGUE, especially when it comes to getting dressed. I have two sons, plus my startup (which is kind of like a third child), and a dog. So I really value simplicity, and I wear a lot of black and navy. I try to pick my outfits the night before, and I like the trick of flipping your hangers so you can see when you’ve worn something.
A LOT OF PEOPLE ENVISION THEIR PHILANTHROPIC JOURNEY as fixed, and yet, everything else in life changes. Jobs, relationships, cities, clothing styles, hobbies—these are always shifting. Your philanthropic involvement can shift too! Sometimes you have time to volunteer, and sometimes you only have time to write a check—and that’s okay. The modern professional woman is stretched more than ever before. More is expected of us, and we expect more of ourselves. I think a lot of people feel guilty for what they can’t do, instead of empowered for what they can do. Whenever someone says to me, “I wish I could do more,” I always tell them, “Whatever you’re doing, it’s enough.”
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Photos by Matthew Priestley.
Styling by Nyjerah Cunningham and Samantha Michel.