The Immokalee Foundation, president and CEO
Most nonprofit leaders have a deep-rooted passion in their organization, and many have personal experiences with the causes and missions they get behind. Noemi Perez scores high marks on both those fronts: The CEO of the Immokalee Foundation, which helps young people in the eastern Collier County farming community build skills for professional careers, Perez worked in those fields herself.
The daughter of a local pastor, Perez worked in the fields and then sold and delivered produce at farmer’s markets in Immokalee. “As the president and CEO of The Immokalee Foundation, and although I respect all our farmworkers,” Perez writes in her 40 under 40 survey, “my goal is to give students the educational support they need to keep them out of the fields.”
“Coming from the fields myself,” Perez adds in an interview, “I always knew in my heart I would come back and pour myself into it.”
Founded in 1991, the foundation serves more than 1,400 children a year with a variety of programs while also working to break the cycle of poverty within some 1,100 families. It has $12 million in assets, according to its most recent IRS filing. Perez joined the foundation in 2008 as program services director. She was promoted to CEO in July 2018, when the previous top official, Steven Kissinger, left to take a position at Take Stock Children of Florida.
While Perez is plenty busy at the foundation, she has an unusual side hustle: construction. Along with her husband, Jay, they have a small homebuilding company, and Perez is a licensed residential contractor. She actually got into that line of work soon after she graduated from Hodges University, when she worked at Bonita Bay Group, a prominent Naples developer. “I’ve always liked seeing things built,” she says. “That really drives me.”
The foundation, of course, is her main career driver. The pandemic, like it’s done for many others, not just nonprofits, has forced Perez to move quickly and adapt to unusual circumstances. The foundation moved programs from in-person to online and secured 80 laptops for students in need. She worked hard on the visibility side as well, getting the need out there to the foundation’s donor base. The hustle paid off: Donations were up 189% in the second quarter over the 2019 second quarter.
With the uncertainty of the pandemic at the forefront, Perez has no intention of slowing down — or letting the people the foundation helps down. “I can’t see myself doing anything else,” she says. “This is what I love to do.”
City of Residence
The Immokalee Foundation
President and CEO
Years on the Gulf Coast
Married with two children
Hodges University — business management
What community group or organization are you most involved with?
The Immokalee Foundation — I really do not have time for any other involvement.
What's the weirdest job you've ever had?
I haven’t had a “weird” job, but I have had a job that is “ironic” considering my life today. As a young woman, I used to work in agricultural fields and sell and deliver produce at the farmers market in Immokalee. Today, as the president and CEO of The Immokalee Foundation, and although I respect all our farmworkers, my goal is to give students the educational support they need to keep them out of the fields.
What's your top tip for being productive?
Start your day with a positive attitude, and write down your tasks for the day. I write lists to keep me on track and ensure I do not forget anything.
If you could have a side hustle, what would it be?
I do have a side hustle: I also own a construction company. I'm a certified licensed residential contractor. Aside from that, I would love to be a fitness instructor.
What's your favorite off-hours activity?
Cycling on my Peloton bike
What's your favorite board game, game show or video game?
Texas Hold 'Em Poker
What’s your go-to delivery service? (DoorDash, Uber Eats, GrubHub, Bite Squad, etc.)
Bite Squad because it is only one offered in my area. But I love using Shipt for all my grocery deliveries.
What do you use most — Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams or Google Meetings?
Microsoft Teams and Zoom
What’s the best binge-worthy show you have enjoyed during the pandemic?
What’s the longest virtual meeting you’ve been on since mid-March?
How many times had you used video for a work meeting prior to the pandemic?
Once or twice
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned during the pandemic?
Life will always find a way to throw a curveball, so let go of what you cannot control, and find ways to show gratitude.
What do you miss most about the world pre-pandemic?
Although I respect how my team immediately adjusted to working from home, "Zoom" energy is simply not the same as the energy we share from being in the same space. We feed off one another. The same is true of our students. They have learned to rely on us, and we pride ourselves on being accessible to them — face to face. Although we have maintained electronic communication, it's not the same. However, we are now embarking on a new school year — right on the tail of a phenomenally successful summer. By embracing online programming, we delivered 100% of our planned summer programs, and we enhanced or added a few events too. Enrollment in our summer programs increased by almost 20%.
What have you been spending more time doing during the pandemic?
Worrying. About our students. About the families in Immokalee who depend on us. Although our focus is education and professional development, we have been careful to ask our students about their needs as a whole. If we discover that a student and their family are in need of something (food, housing, health care, etc.), we have done everything we can to point them to local resources that can help them.
Do you prefer working from home or working from an office?
I prefer working from the office because I get to see and communicate with my team in person.
How have you kept up camaraderie with colleagues during the pandemic?
I’m fortunate that I have a team that supports one another. When we were forced into a work-at-home situation, that same support became more beneficial than ever before. As every member of the foundation team is exceptionally mission-focused, our “work family” culture became one of our greatest assets. I made sure to keep in contact and transparent with my team and ask about their challenges and any concerns they might be feeling.
What’s the first thing you’ll do after the pandemic?
Host a family BBQ! I miss my family so much.