Rarely does behind-the-scenes organizer and supreme networker Whitney Williams step into the spotlight.
But Williams, 43, the youngest offspring of Butte natives Pat and Carol Williams, granted The Montana Standard a rare interview and glimpse into her global consultation projects at Williamsworks, her Seattle-based firm specializing in public policy, advocacy and philanthropy.
On a summer day in Missoula, before heading to the lake with family, Whitney shared a bit of her work, ambition and vision over a cup of coffee:
Montana Standard: How long have you run Williams Works?
Whitney Williams: The company will be 11 years old in October. There were all these philanthropists, high net-worth individuals, some of whom had foundations and who were able to influence policy in a variety of ways, but they weren’t doing it. That was a little distressing to me since I’ve been around public policy my whole life.
MS: Previously you worked at Casey Family Programs, where you said you talked your way into a job that didn’t exist. What prompted you to do that?
WW: Casey knew what does and doesn’t work in foster care, but the foundation wasn’t sharing it with the state (Washington). We created an external and government relations program to influence the systems around kids for better outcomes. That was my first experience in philanthropy.
MS: How was your for-profit Williams Works born?
WW: There was this massive opportunity for lots of other philanthropists to get their voices heard through their grant-making or a foundation. So I decided to start Williams Works. We help foundations develop advocacy agendas. We work for nonprofits, corporations and individuals.
MS: Do you like being in charge?
WW: I’m the boss. It’s great. Creating small businesses is one of the most rewarding and difficult things a person can do; it really is the backbone of America, these entrepreneurs. Montana is a part of it, as well. Nobody’s making money off what we do; they’re actually giving it away! We’ve barely made a profit every year for 11 years. So our space is tricky; it’s not terrible lucrative, but it is impactful. We’re making a huge difference in peoples’ lives.
MS: Who are some of your high-profile clients?
WW: We have this amazing client list. They range from the Gates Foundations of the world to major institutions who are doing incredible work, to individual philanthropists who are of very high net worth, to big corporations like Nike or TOM’S Shoes.
Howard Schultz, Starbuck’s CEO, and his wife hired my firm to better support veterans when they return home. My firm’s been trying to dedicate more of our time and resources toward some domestic work. That’s one issue that’s overlooked.
MS: How do you know actor/activist Ben Affleck? How did you two form the Eastern Congo Initiative?
WW: Ben and I got to know one another through a mutual friend. He wanted to make strategic, sustainable decisions. He’s really smart. Ben and I started spending time together in Central Africa, a place I knew well. We started a nonprofit together: Eastern Congo Initiative, a grant-making advocacy organization. Ben is very interested in politics and how to do more for people who have less.
MS: What’s your economic development mission with farmers in the Congo, where mining is big industry and there’s great potential for cocoa and coffee crops?
WW: In three years, we’ve been able to have a big impact on a Congo community of a couple thousand families. We invest in training farmers and in farming implements. The farmers are doing better just within a few years; their market has opened up. We continue to find other buyers, but the truth is, once the farmers get momentum, we shouldn’t have to be involved, which is what we want, absolutely.
We do believe in the ripple effect and advocacy, so we get others involved to make investments – either corporate folks like Theo Chocolate in Seattle or philanthropists. We increase investments in the region. We’re really focused on getting more people to the region to see what we see, to believe what we believe: that Congo is a place of massive opportunity.
MS: How did your Africa experience come about?
WW: It started with Hillary Clinton, actually. I went with Hillary and the President on their historical Africa trip in 1998. I was so lucky. It was really a remarkable trip.
MS: What’s your history with the Clintons?
WW: I got a chance to be a White House intern in 1993. Dad was still serving (Pat Williams served 18 years as Montana's representative in the U.S. House). He and Mom were still living in Washington, D.C. I worked on Capitol Hill a lot in the Executive Branch, which was absolutely thrilling. It was Bill Clinton’s first year in office and as a young Democrat, for me to be in the West Wing was an incredible experience. I had four months in that role.
MS: After you graduated from the University of Montana in 1995, what did you do?
WW: After three or four years of getting to know a lot of people and working really, really hard, I got a job with Hillary in 1997. I got to work with her through 2000 when she was First Lady. My title was Trip Director. So whenever she left the White House, it was like managing a road show.
MS: It sounds like the job of a lifetime.
WW: It was really fun and incredibly hard work. But for a 27-year-old, it was the perfect time to have a job that was so grueling. Hillary’s extraordinary in the fact that she can keep the schedule she keeps now – just like 15 years ago when we were on the road together.
MS: Do you stay in touch?
WW: I’ve stayed really close to her. I was her finance chair in Washington state when she ran for president in the last primary cycle. I will do anything to help her get elected if she decides to run again.
MS: Other than your demanding job, what else are you involved in?
WW: Separate from my job, I volunteer helping friends running political campaigns here in Montana and elsewhere to raise necessary funds so they can be competitive. I was a co-host of a dinner for Secretary Clinton benefiting her family’s foundation, the Clinton Foundation, with a particular focus on their women and girls portfolio. I’ve been helping John Lewis. I am on Michelle Nunn’s National Finance Committee. Michelle’s father was Sam Nunn, the U.S. Senator from Georgia, so she’s running for his seat. Michelle is an incredible candidate and might well be the reason the Democrats might be able to keep the open pickup seat this year.
MS: How was the fundraiser dinner you hosted for the Clinton Foundation in Seattle last summer?
WW: It was at a friend’s private home with about 40 people. It was really a lovely, sunny Seattle evening, so we got lucky. Hillary was on her “Hard Choices” book tour.
MS: You have strong Butte roots since both of your parents grew up here. You even created a job for yourself in Butte one summer during college. Details?
WW: It was the best job of my life and my first job out of college. I moved Uptown and wrote a small grant to the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union. I asked them if I could help archive their history and the Women’s Protective Union history. The WPU is an incredibly important part of Butte’s labor history; it’s the longest-lasting all-female union the U.S. A bunch of my family were members. WPU was a total powerhouse. I organized the documents for Ellen Crain at the Butte-Silver Bow Archives.
MS: You juggle half a dozen projects at once while traveling the world. What’s next?
WW: I want to continue to do whatever I can to make an impact in the world. It’s just the DNA in this family of mine and the way we are. There’s no question we’re going to make an impact; It’s just a question of how.
MS: Your Dad, Pat Williams, served 18 years as Montana's representative in the U.S. House. Your mother Carol was the first woman to serve as both the majority and minority leader in the state senate and your grandfather, Hanna Griffith, was Butte mayor before the city and county consolidated. That’s quite a legacy of public service. Do you have any desire to run for political office one day in Montana?
WW: Running for office is in my future. I can’t imagine living a life without that in some way. It’s just a part of who I am as a Williams and a Griffith-Williams, my Mom’s side. It’s all about timing. Politics is natural for me. After Hillary, I thought that I would run for office. I had these incredible role models, obviously my Mom and Dad, grandparents and others in politics. It would be a great way to make a difference in an honorable position. I just found other ways to make an impact in the world. I don’t think that means that I won’t run. But if I do run, it would be from my home state. I have been a Montana resident most of my adult life.
MS: You spend about half your time in Montana when you’re not in Seattle or traveling the world. Do you consider yourself a Montanan?
WW: Butte is definitely the place we all love the most. It is one of the most magical places on earth. As I spend time in other parts of the world, it always feels like home. I am totally blessed, that’s for sure – between these parents and this family that I got and then all these opportunities. It’s amazing.