Cover Story: A Mighty Ride

Carla Vargas Jasa reflects on the difficult, critical and fun decisions that led her to lead Valley of the Sun United Way

You can tell she’s well-traveled, smart and serious. You will learn that she likes to cook and loves her Boston Terrier puppy, Ellie. And yet, if you found yourself in conversation with Carla Vargas Jasa, you’d still be taken aback
by her openness. Her candor is disarming.

On the day we spoke, Vargas Jasa explained how her experience as a first-generation American is a big part of what led her to become president and CEO of Valley of the Sun United Way.

“My dad was a leader of the student movement against the dictatorship in Paraguay, which was the longest-running dictatorship in the southern hemisphere of the 20th century,” she said. “Because of his leadership, he was arrested, jailed and tortured several times and, at one point, escaped from a military hospital.”

Vargas Jasa’s parents were blacklisted and fled the country, heading to Penn State, where her father would earn his doctorate. Vargas Jasa was born while her parents were living in international student housing there in State College, Penn.

This began a peripatetic childhood, being raised the only child of an academic father and a mother who taught her child English as her first language, even though she barely spoke it herself. “My mom knew that they would never be able to move back to Paraguay, and they wanted to raise me in the States,” Vargas Jasa said.

Some of Vargas Jasa’s earliest memories include Tucson, where her father was a University of Arizona professor. “I remember playing in the washes with my friends, building forts. I remember going to Mount Lemmon and seeing snow for the first time. I have really fond memories of Arizona,” Vargas Jasa said.

It was a far cry from what her parents had experienced in Paraguay, and what she saw herself as a young child when the family lived in Guadalajara at other times in her childhood. “You would see a beautiful home — like a luxurious home — across the street from a family that built their house out of corrugated metal and cardboard,” she said. The disparities motivated her to want to help others around the world, and her time in Mexico made her fluent in Spanish.

Inspired by what she’d seen, motivated to do good, and armed with aspirations of becoming an international human rights lawyer, Vargas Jasa headed for UC Berkeley to major in political science. She landed there in 1992, on the heels of the Rodney King verdict, and saw important issues all around. “There were riots and looting all over the campus and city. There’s also a homeless issue in Berkeley,” she said. Walking down Telegraph Avenue and seeing people experiencing homelessness every day made her realize that human rights work could begin at home.

A job at a law firm convinced her that wasn’t her style, so she pivoted again and pinpointed the nonprofit sector as an area where she could directly impact human rights issues. She took her degree and left Berkeley, heading south for a job in community relations at Orange County United Way.

She started in 1999, working as a liaison to several regional nonprofits and those in the Latino community. “United Way is such a unique organization in that it has a bird’s eye view of issues in any given community and can see how to pull the pieces of the puzzle together to create solutions that are needed,” she said. “I was excited to raise my hand whenever a new opportunity came up.”

Over time, Vargas Jasa grew into a number of different roles, including leading corporate and major donor fund development. Around the time she was helping to launch Orange County United Way’s ambitious 10-year community impact plan, FACE 2024, her now-husband Steve was recruited for a job in Scottsdale. Vargas Jasa wanted to get FACE 2024 well established and Steve promised that if he took the job, they would see each other every weekend. “I like to say that he was our advance team for coming out here,” she said.

Thanks to his move, Vargas Jasa got to know both the community and Valley of the Sun United Way. “This is one of the top United Ways in the country and one that I’d admired from afar for many, many years,” she said. So when a call from a recruitment firm came, Vargas Jasa, then five years into FACE 2024 and well ahead of goals, found herself interested in the opportunity to grow as a leader.

“I was intrigued and intimidated, but my husband encouraged me to pursue it,” she said. Among other things, the job offered the couple a chance to actually share a roof. “We weren’t married at the time, and we’d never permanently lived together. We ultimately decided to formally submit my interest,” she said.

A few months later, Vargas Jasa walked in the door as Valley of the Sun United Way’s new CEO. “I’m not going to lie. I was apprehensive about whether I could do this job, given how much bigger an organization it was than Orange County United Way. I always thought I would come here to work for the next CEO,” she said. “But once I committed to it, I was all in.”

She entered with a 100-day plan of how she wanted to approach joining the community and understanding what stakeholders wanted from Valley of the Sun United Way. Vargas Jasa held almost 150 meetings with corporate and nonprofit partners, donors, community leaders and philanthropists, as well as United Way staff and board members, to hear their perceptions of the organization and integrate what she heard into plans.

“I asked people to be very candid and, because I was new to the community, they were,” Vargas Jasa said. “I heard that we could strive to be more reflective of the community and understand the needs of nonprofits working deep within it.”

Her objective was for 2020 to be an inflection point for Valley of the Sun United Way, commemorating its 95th anniversary as well as the conclusion of its 10-year strategic/impact plan launched in 2010. Vargas Jasa’s team developed a plan for community engagement and invited about 150 stakeholders to join the first session in March — just as COVID hit the Valley.

In a blink, Vargas Jasa went from being the new CEO in town to one of the Valley’s most visible executives leading in the pandemic. She paused long-range planning and focused on the demands of 2020, leveraging those meetings already planned to focus on responding to what nonprofit partners told her they needed. Valley of the Sun United Way immediately launched the United for the Valley COVID-19 Fund and started providing weekly grants to partners responding to community needs. 

“We kept driving forward, to plan forward, to make good on our 2020 priorities at the same time that we were responding to COVID-19,” Vargas Jasa said. While responding to the pandemic, Valley of the Sun United
Way also re-evaluated all of its work through the lenses of diversity, equity, access and inclusion and created
MC2026, a five-year plan for Mighty Change in Maricopa County. By any measure, 2020 was a monumental year.

And then the emails came.

“In November, I started to get these random emails from someone claiming that they were contacting me on behalf of an anonymous donor,” Vargas Jasa said. She took a bit of time to consider if the messages were part of a scam, but when a call was set up, the person revealed that she represented the billionaire, MacKenzie Scott.

Scott — one of the world’s wealthiest people after co-founding Amazon with her then-husband Jeff Bezos — wanted to address equity issues and support organizations that had responded to the COVID-19 crisis in ways she admired. Accordingly, she wanted to give Valley of the Sun United Way $25 million to support their work.

Vargas Jasa was working from home when she took the call. “My husband was at our dining room table on a Zoom meeting and I was like the little kid in the Cox commercial, running back and forth, screaming when he thinks he got a million dollars,” she said.

The MacKenzie Scott gift was astonishing not just in its size. The millions flew into the bank unrestricted, no strings attached, catalyzing the launch of Valley of the Sun United Way’s Mighty Change 2026, a bold plan focused on four key areas: health, housing/homelessness, education and workforce development.

“The gift helped us to think about longer-term investments to really stabilize the community,” Vargas Jasa said. “MacKenzie Scott gave everyone so much confidence in knowing that we were seen.”

Of course, being seen can take some getting used to. Especially as Vargas Jasa was being increasingly called to do something that actually makes her pretty nervous. 

“I do a lot of planning of my time because I know that I need to be ready to speak publicly, have all my points and feel like I’m prepared,” she said. 

Her nerves are easier to manage than they once were. “I’ve learned to give myself grace and tell people that my voice shakes when I’m nervous. So if it does, just bear with me.”

Big and busy as her job is, Vargas Jasa’s life is grounded by home. She goes to bed at 8:30 p.m. so she can get up to prepare for her day. She and Steve love to cook, play bocce and entertain friends at home.

They also enjoy exploring Arizona and have fallen in love with Sedona. Big foodies, they like trying new restaurants, too. “I will tell you that the restaurant scene in Phoenix completely outpaces the restaurant scene in Orange County,” she said.

Last year’s string of emergencies and triumphs has been followed by a dizzying amount of work. The upcoming holiday season offers a chance to reconnect with family and maybe recharge just a bit. Growing up, Vargas Jasa enjoyed her family’s tradition of having a quiet Christmas Eve dinner at home. They would open some gifts at midnight and leave some for the next day.

Steve, on the other hand, comes from a family of five children and several foster children. So today, the couple has a hybrid celebration. “Since my dad passed away, we try to spend Christmas Eve with my mom,” Vargas Jasa said. “We cook a nice dinner, open gifts and toast with Champagne at midnight, a tradition in Latin America. On Christmas Day, we run all around Southern California, visit my husband’s family and have a wonderful Christmas Day.”

In the new year, she and her team plan to use MacKenzie Scott’s gift to help sustain Valley of the Sun United Way and extend its collaborations and programs. They are realigning their energy, resources and partnerships with an eye on underserved and marginalized communities to drive Mighty Change in the Valley. 

“We are going to be making transformative investments in each one of our four areas to help scale community programs,” Vargas Jasa said. “I’ll do everything in my power to make sure that we meet those five-year goals for our community and for the people that need us. 

About Karen Werner

Karen Werner is the editor of Frontdoors Media. She is a writer, editor and media consultant. She has interned at The New Yorker, worked at Parents Magazine, edited five books and founded several local magazines. Her work has appeared in Sunset, Mental Floss and the Saturday Evening Post.
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