Alumni Spotlight: Nikki Walker, Executive Director of the East Nashville Hope Exchange

Alumni Spotlight: Nikki Walker, Executive Director of the East Nashville Hope Exchange

Nikki Walker photoNikki Walker is a graduate of YLC’s Nashville Class 77 and currently serves as the Executive Director for East Nashville Hope Exchange (ENHE), an organization focused on strengthening children’s literacy through the exchange of knowledge and support among families and the Nashville community to affirm the right to read for all. YLC recently caught up with Nikki to learn more about her work and how she’s using her professional passion to make a difference in the East Nashville area.

Please tell us a little about your work with the East Nashville Hope Exchange. How did you get involved with the organization and how does the mission align with your own personal values?

In my role as Executive Director for East Nashville Hope Exchange, I am responsible for the planning, management, and direction of the organization’s operations and programs. ENHE provides programming designed to close the educational “achievement gap” between children from poorer and more affluent families. This gap has increased due to learning loss caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Youth literacy rates in the U.S. are at the lowest level in thirty years and are even worse among low-income families and especially for black and brown students.

I started working with ENHE in 2017 as a summer volunteer coordinator and, after transitioning to a new role with a different company, continued to stay engaged with the organization as a program volunteer before joining the Board. The work that I’m able to do through ENHE fuels me each day to ensure that all children have access to a good education, and I will continue advocating until access is no longer a barrier.

How did your YLC training prepare you to effectively serve as a leader in the nonprofit community?  Are there elements of the program that have been particularly useful for you in your current role?

YLC provided me with a better perspective of how nonprofit boards work, and how the collective impact of the work affects the organization’s goals and outcomes. Before going through the program, I didn’t truly understand how all of that came together. Now in my current role, the most useful things learned were centered around board responsibilities, understanding the financials, and fundraising. I have learned that these are the most important things to know when leading and driving success for the organization. Gaining knowledge from YLC’s experts in these areas, really prepared me for what I am doing now.

What advice would you share with others looking to elevate their community impact by serving on a nonprofit board or becoming an executive leader for a nonprofit organization?

I would tell them to make sure that the work of the organization aligns with your passion. Truly take the time to learn about the organization, ask meaningful questions, and, if you can, go see the work in action. That will really help you decide whether that is in fact the area in which you want to serve. For those looking to become nonprofit executive leaders, it’s important to invest your time in learning the operational structure of the organization you desire to lead.

For more information on East Nashville Hope Exchange, please visit or reach out to Nikki directly at

January Nonprofit Spotlight: TN Innocence Project

January Nonprofit Spotlight: TN Innocence Project

Hayley Levy, Tennessee Innocence Project, Director of Development | Nashville Class 71

Hayley Levy is a YLC Nashville Class 71 graduate and serves as the first Director of Development for the Tennessee Innocence Project, where her work centers around individual, corporate, and foundation fundraising initiatives. Hayley also focuses on fundraising through special events and oversees community awareness and communications for the organization. YLC recently caught up with Hayley to learn more about her work and how its impacting the Nashville community.

What is the Tennessee Innocence Project and how does its work impact the Nashville community.

If you’ve ever seen a true crime documentary, listened to a podcast, or read an article about someone being exonerated and freed after years in prison, that’s what we do. The Tennessee Innocence Project is a state-wide, non-profit law firm whose mission is to free wrongfully convicted Tennesseans and facilitate systemic changes that prevent wrongful convictions from occurring in the future. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, Tennessee has only achieved 30 exonerations since 1989, including four achieved by the Tennessee Innocence Project; our four exonerees collectively spent 95 years wrongfully imprisoned. Some of our neighbors – such as Georgia (48 exonerations), North Carolina (72 exonerations), and Ohio (98 exonerations) – have had innocence organizations for 15 to 20 years. Tennessee is not administering justice better than any other state. We simply did not have the mechanisms in place to ensure we could fix wrongful convictions until our organization was formed only four years ago. Since opening, the demand for the Tennessee Innocence Project’s services has gone through the roof, with more than 700 inquiries received to date.

How does your YLC training influence the work that you do with the Tennessee Innocence Project and as a leader within the Nashville nonprofit community? 

As a nonprofit professional, I learned so much from YLC. On the practical side, I must admit I learned how to read a profit and loss statement! YLC also encouraged me as a young leader to get involved and give back. The program helped me connect with Project Return, where I interned and then served as a Board Member for two years. The training also prepared me to lead in the Jewish community, where I serve on multiple Boards, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Nashville, Jewish Middle School, and National Council of Jewish Women – Nashville Section. In my current role at the Tennessee Innocence Project, I helped set up our YLC internship program, and we are proud to be welcoming our second intern this fiscal year.

What has been the greatest benefit you’ve received from participating in the YLC training program?

I’ve truly enjoyed the network of people I’ve met and continue to meet through YLC. I’m still friends with other participants from my cohort, and it seems like every other week I’m invited to a YLC event or meet someone else who went through the program.

What advice would you share with other YLC alumni who are looking to plug into the work you’re doing at the TN Innocence Project? 

Please reach out to me if you have questions about nonprofit development or the Tennessee Innocence Project. We would love to have more volunteers, help others learn more about our work, and would certainly appreciate any financial support for our mission. I can be reached via email at


What Recent Graduates are Saying About YLC!

What Recent Graduates are Saying About YLC!

There are so many wonderful components of the YLC program, but what stands out the most to me is the opportunity to engage with a multitude of passionate nonprofit leaders and organizations in the Nashville area. I have been an active volunteer in the Nashville nonprofit community for 15+ years, but was introduced to numerous outstanding organizations that I didn’t know about that are doing inspiring and impactful work. 

I would recommend YLC to any young professionals who are eager to expand their nonprofit skills, multiply their impact in the Nashville nonprofit space, and develop community with like-minded individuals. I found my cohort members to be sagacious, open-minded, curious, empathetic, and lots of fun! 

I loved many aspects of the Young Leaders Council training, but what stood out to me most was the pure excitement and engagement of the leadership team and YLC board members. When you walk into any meeting or event, you can feel the energy in the room – these leaders are eager to share their knowledge and expertise simply in the hopes of you fulfilling your dreams to serve your purpose.  

The YLC training program is extremely beneficial for a number of reasons. Overall, young leaders will benefit from the program because it offers a safe space to obtain the knowledge needed to become a successful board member and a well-rounded young professional with access to numerous resources beginning on day one. 

I enjoyed the YLC training program because it gave me the opportunity to learn from current nonprofit board members. YLC taught us to not be afraid to ask all of the questions and encouraged us not to be followers.  

Experiencing this program with other likeminded individuals made me feel like I had a team to fall back on and kept me from feeling out of place. I loved hearing different perspectives from future board members. One of the best parts of the program was knowing that the YLC team are always willing to help and guide you along the way. 

Thank You for Your Leadership – Sarah Rochford Benfield

Thank You for Your Leadership – Sarah Rochford Benfield

For more than six years, Sarah Rochford Benfield has donated her time, talents and treasure as a Board Member for Young Leaders Council and has spent the past two years as Board Chair for the organization. Sarah has been a constant source of support and encouragement for the YLC team throughout her tenure, helping to build partnerships and sharing her passion for the organization throughout the community. Sarah is a member of the Junior League of Nashville and is a Human Resources Operations – Business Analyst with HCA Healthcare. Sarah will continue to support the YLC Board for an additional year, providing guidance and assistance to the incoming Board Chair, Julia Bonner Zade, Founder and President of Pierce Public Relations. YLC is truly grateful for Sarah and her and leadership in service to YLC.  

A Holiday Note from Kim James….  

I am excited to report that 2022 proved to be a phenomenal year for Young Leaders Council! One that allowed us to finally convene for in-person training and events; reconnect with YLC alumni; develop new partnerships; and find innovative ways to accomplish our mission. We are also excited to welcome Rachel Reyes back to the YLC team! Rachel will serve as program manager, playing a key role in managing the logistical planning, outreach, and communications efforts necessary to successfully facilitate the YLC training program. 

Over 37 years ago, some truly exceptional leaders saw an opportunity to create this unique organization. They intended for YLC to be a bridge that would train talented young professionals to effectively serve the local nonprofit community. Because of these visionaries, YLC has facilitated training for more than 3,000 individuals – many of whom have made an indelible contribution to the growth and success of local nonprofit agencies. These founders changed the Nashville landscape and paved the way for the important work that YLC continues to do today. 

YLC is truly thankful for them and for the opportunity to equip and empower the next generation of nonprofit board leaders. Whether you supported YLC this year by making a financial contribution, by participating in our training program, attending a YLC event, or by keeping us in your thoughts as we transitioned back to in-person training this year – we are grateful for you! And as we close out 2022 and prepare for the new year, I hope that you will continue to support and invest in the future of this great organization. None of this important work happens without YOU! 

Happy Holidays! 

Kim James 

Executive Director l Young Leaders Council 


Leadership Luncheon 2022

Leadership Luncheon 2022

Young Leaders Council hosted its 2022 Leadership Luncheon on Thursday, November 17th at the Music City Center, welcoming over 300 alumni, corporate partners, and community leaders. The Luncheon featured an inspiring and thought-provoking conversation moderated by Erika Glover (Fox17 News) with Marcus Whitney(Jumpstart Nova), Courtney Ross (Amazon), and Tiffany Kerns (CMA Foundation) on leadership and innovation.

The 2022 recipient of the Young Leader of the Year Award, Gary Gaston, was announced during the event as well as YLC’s Legacy of Leadership Award Winner, Hal Cato. Both Gary and Hal are YLC alumni and highly accomplished leaders who have made an indelible contribution to the growth and prosperity of the Nashville nonprofit community.

The Leadership Luncheon was presented by Asurion and Amazon and received generous sponsorship support from Tractor Supply Company, Jack C. Massey College of Business at Belmont University, The Memorial Foundation, HCA Healthcare / TriStar Health, Turner Construction, people3, LBMC, Pinnacle Financial Partners, Dollar General, and FirstBank.

YLC is truly grateful for everyone that joined us for the Leadership Luncheon and for your continued investment in its mission and programming over the years.

Photos provided by Emanuel Roland with Roland’s Photography and Padrion Scott with P. Scott Photography