Today we sit down with Laura Whitaker, Founder and Executive Director of ESP to discuss the importance of casting vision and inspiring your team. Over the last 15+ years, Laura has led ESP to growth and the expansion of their mission. She is passionate about leadership and uses her management strengths to manage staff, oversee multiple year-round programs, and raise funds to run programs. Her favorite part of the job is getting to hug the many children who walk through the ESP doors.


[Intro] Helping community bankers grow themselves, their team and their profits. This is the Community Bank podcast.

Eric Bagwell: Welcome to the community bank podcast. I’m Eric Bagwell, director of sales and marketing for the correspondent division at CenterState bank. And joining me today is Caleb Stevens. Caleb is a business development officer here at the bank and you guys have heard him before. He, guest host on the podcast. Now it’s becoming more frequent. I think we have three hosts now.

Caleb Stevens: Yeah. Can I call myself a regular co-host now?

Eric Bagwell: I think you are regular; we’ll have to update your job title.

Caleb Stevens: Update my title and my LinkedIn profile. Right?

Eric Bagwell: Exactly. But we’re glad Caleb is with us today. He has sat down with Laura Whitaker. Laura is executive director for ESP, and that stands for extra special people. She is on the board of a bank Oconee State Bank in Watkinsville, Georgia and she speaks at banking conferences around the country. And I think Caleb, you actually heard Laura speak and I think she got a standing ovation at the thing you are at.

Caleb Stevens: Yeah, we talk about that in the interview actually wasn’t there, but I heard the story secondhand and it was just funny because, you know, when you think of bank credit conferences, you kind of think pretty dry, pretty boring, and she got a standing ovation. So, we talk about that a little bit and joke about it in the interview, but it’s a great conversation. She really gets banking because she’s been on the board. She started with no banking experience, but she’s really learned the banking industry, but she’s been able to tie that into the work she does at a nonprofit. And so, it’s cool to kind of hear her perspective on the value of community banking and how that translates and helps her as a non-profit leader and vice versa. I think there’s a lot of things community bankers can learn from nonprofit leaders in terms of how they motivate people, cast vision. Because if you think about it, I mean, you’re having to inspire volunteers and aren’t getting paid. So how do you do that well and how do you get people on board? And so, I think there’s a lot of carry over for bank leaders.

Eric Bagwell: Yeah. A nonprofit. Actually, knew somebody in, gosh, it’s been years, but she worked for a nonprofit and it’s a different animal. The motivation part, you know, out trying to drum up support. It’s tough. So, we’re excited. Caleb actually talked to Laura today and so we’re going to play and go to that interview right now.

Caleb Stevens: Well, Laura, thank you for joining us today. It’s great to see you. How are you doing?

Laura Whitaker: I’m doing great. Thanks for having me.

Caleb Stevens: Of course. So, I heard I wasn’t at this conference, but I heard about two months ago, you were the keynote speaker at the Georgia Bankers Association credit conference. And I heard that after your talk, you got a standing ovation from the crowd and I think that might make you the first speaker ever to receive a standing ovation at a bank credit conference. So, congratulations. We’re honored to be talking to you today.

Laura Whitaker: Whoa. It’s an honor and I have to be honest, you know, after COVID, I think people were just excited to be in person together, so that might’ve been part of it. But I like to have fun when I speak and really have enjoyed the world of banking. Good fun.

Caleb Stevens: That’s awesome. So, what’s cool about you, I think is you’re a nonprofit leader, executive director. You’ve been there for quite a while and we’ll get into that in a minute, but you’re also a board member of a local community bank. Oconee State Bank in Athens, Georgia, which is an awesome customer for us here at the correspondent division at CenterState. They’ve been a great customer for gosh, decade or two and you’re a board member there. And so, it’s neat that you’re kind of are in our world, but you’re also in this nonprofit space. That’s totally different from banking. And I think it’s really cool that you kind of have, you get to experience both on a daily basis. So, talk a little bit about ESP, extra special people, the nonprofit that you lead? Talk about, what’s your mission? What are you guys all about and how did you get into leadership there?

Laura Whitaker: Yeah, well, I have the absolute joy of being the executive director of a nonprofit called ESP or extra special people. And our mission is really simple. We exist to create transformative experiences for people with disabilities and their families, and we believe that changes communities for the better. And we’ve seen that happen in the Northeast Georgia area and now our mission is begun to spread throughout the state of Georgia and even out to San Francisco, which is pretty cool, but we do our mission in three ways. One, 360 is our program day to day afterschool programs, camps, family support. We have a social enterprise called Java Joy, which is a mobile coffee cart run by adults with disabilities and we call them Joy Reese does instead of a Barista. And that is the franchise that went out to San Francisco, which is pretty awesome. We employ all types of adults with disabilities out there and throughout the state of Georgia. And then our future dream, which is a camp property called Hooray.
So that’s how we fulfill our mission every single day here in Northeast Georgia and it’s been really neat. Oconee State Bank is one of our corporate partners. And so, they are a key part in how we fulfill our mission. And it’s been really beautiful to watch as the executive director, how for-profit entities are making a difference every day in their communities. And really that’s been the fun part of my job. I started volunteering as an 18-year-old college student at the university of Georgia and I grew up in Atlanta. So, I went out to Oconee County, past cows and chickens, and landed in Watkinsville, which is the home of Oconee State Bank and started volunteering for a very small organization ESP. And about a year later, the founder and director who started it back in 1986, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. And so, as a 19-year-old college student, I did what every other stupid 19-year-old would do. And I said, sure I can run the organization. And after Martha’s Path passing took over was 19 finished school, undergraduate and graduate degree. And now 16 years later they can’t kick me out. So still loving my job every single day and watching it grow has been one of the greatest joys of my life.

Caleb Stevens: Wow. So how big was your staff when you first started in terms of volunteers and full-timers, how many people were you leading at? What was it? 19 years old you said something like that.

Laura Whitaker: Right, I was 19. So, I was a party of one. There were no other staff members. In fact, the founder that passed away was a volunteer director. So, her husband and daughter hired me, they said we have a $50,000 deficit. If you can make up the deficit and plan camp for the following summer, we’ll potentially start giving you a paycheck. And so that’s what I did. I took over in January of 2006. And then raised that $50,000 deficit would talk to anyone who would listen to me, what, to every radio station, any news station that would listen to me. And we raised it and then I started getting my $8 an hour to be the executive director of a nonprofit and that was good enough for me at the time.

Caleb Stevens: Yeah. So where are you guys now in terms of volunteers, how many people on a yearly basis, would you say you guys have the pleasure of leading and working with?

Laura Whitaker: Yeah, so we have 30 staff members now.

Caleb Stevens: Wow.

Laura Whitaker: Over I would say about 3000 volunteers a year that work with us, and then we serve a little over 600 families and you know, collectively, altogether, that’s about 2000 people that we touch every year. So, and part of our mission is teaching people how to engage people with disabilities. So, if you include all those people, there’s thousands and thousands of people that are touched by our mission every single year.

Caleb Stevens: Well, as someone who volunteered a little bit with you guys when I was in college and then I’ve recently went to a Java Joy event just a couple of months ago. Wow. So cool to have experienced firsthand your passion and your leadership and how you’ve led your staff and how you’ve impacted so many lives of people and kids with special needs. So, wow, started with zero $8 an hour, grew it 30 full-timers thousands of volunteers, all different kinds of program I’m sure you could write a book on this and you probably will someday, but if you could give us just two or three takeaways in terms of your leadership that you’ve learned starting as a 19-year-old, who, you know, probably had never led much of anything before I would imagine. And here you are, you know, thrust with this huge responsibility of leading a nonprofit and how you’ve grown it so far where it is today. What have you learned along the way?

Laura Whitaker: You know, one thing that I learned pretty early on that I didn’t realize I was learning is that starting as a 19-year-old? I knew that I couldn’t do it alone and I knew that I didn’t have the tools to do what it took to keep the organization going. So, from an early age, I surrounded myself with mentors and I think, you know, a lot of people have said, you know, you are, you help raise millions of dollars and you know, you guys are growing. And how? How are you doing it? And I always respond, you know, they always want to know what the secret sauce is? And I’m like, well, you know, a lot of it’s a lot of hard work, but I think if there was a secret ingredient to what we do, one of the things I love to teach my team about is humility. And I think that the secret ingredient to what we do is humility.
Really, even to this day, 16 years in, as an executive in the nonprofit world, have three mentors that I go to if not weekly, every other week. And I seek a lot of guidance and advice and surround myself with people that are much smarter than I am much more equipped than I am. And I think that really helps you know, give us the opportunity for people to want us to succeed because we’re seeking the advice of others. So, I think humility and mentorship will forever, you know, one of my mentors is in her seventies and she talks about her mentor and another one of my mentors, he’s in his sixties and he’s bought and sold manufacturing companies all over the country. And he talks about his mentor. So, this practice that I think, you know, if you’re a learner then and you have that humility, then that learning never stops no matter how old you are or how long you’ve been in the business. And I think it’s key to our organization so every person within our full-time staff is required to have a mentor. And so, we really believe in that in our organization, that idea of being equipped to do our job.
So, I think that’s one thing that I’ve learned, the other thing, you know, my middle name is hope, and I really have kind of always kept that as my Anthem. And I think this idea in leadership that people really need to be reminded about what’s in the future about vision, they need to con, we are so short-sighted in our world. And so, I really have kind of put on this hat as we do as leaders, you know, we have these different hats the coach had or whatever we put on these different hats. And I think the hat that I really love having on is just this hope dealer hat, where I can remind people how they’re using their gifts and talents. I can give them hope for the future. I think this last year with COVID was the best example of that is keeping that hope dealer hat on and encouraging people, regardless of what I thought the circumstances were. Really reminding people what they’re here for and what our bigger vision is.
And so, I think so that’s something else that I’ve learned but gosh, I’ve learned so much in this year within itself. I think all of us could probably write a book on leadership after this last year but courage is the thing that I learned over the last year that courage is contagious and there was a lot of contagious courageous moments. There was a lot of courageous moments over this last year that took courage. And I’m so glad that we were courageously moving forward in our mission, regardless of what other nonprofits were doing, because it was contagious and it was contagious to the people that we serve. And to the for-profits that were around us.

Caleb Stevens: You talk about vision, let’s spend some time on that because I think this is something, at least from what I’ve seen, nonprofit leaders tend to be better at this than business leaders, in many cases, because as non-profit leaders, you guys know that in order to move people’s wallet, you got to move their hearts. And to move their hearts you’ve got to cast a really clear, compelling vision of the future and the impact that you guys can make with their support in their efforts. You also have to inspire volunteers who aren’t there for a paycheck they’re there because they care. And that’s a big commitment to give up several hours of your week when you have all these busy things going on to do something without pay, maybe cutting into your work time. Talk about the importance of vision and how do you try to instill that into your organization?

Laura Whitaker: Yeah, I’m so passionate about vision, you know, and it’s so funny when I talk with my other colleagues or board members that are in the for-profit world, because, you know, decisions work very differently in the nonprofit world. But I think there’s a lot to learn for the for-profit leaders that for me, in order to move something forward, I have to cast a vision, collect people who believe in that vision who want to invest in that vision. And like you said, volunteer for that vision. And then we are able to move forward to purchase the land or build the thing or grow the thing. And, you know, in the for-profit world, a lot of times you’re working on a lot of that behind the scenes, right? You’re pulling together the business plan and the funding and all this strategy and statistics and then you go public with a decision, right. Then once you’ve gotten everything together and what I’ve found really beautiful. And I’ve seen this on the bank side and I’ve seen this with a lot of my poor profit leaders and casting vision is this idea that people want to be a part of something bigger than themselves.
And, you know, I often relate it to if you’re going on a trip and you want someone to go with you, if they can only see a portion of where they’re going, if you’re just saying, Hey, do you want to go on a trip with me? They’re like, maybe where are you going? What are we going to do? What do I need to pack? What’s it going to feel like? You know, and so oftentimes I show a picture, a beautiful, you know, exotic place. And I’m like, Hey, you want to go on a trip with me? And you know, you’ll see people shoot up their hands. Like, yeah, I want to go there. Yeah, take me there. But people have to see the bigger picture, right? They’ve got to see where they’re going in order to make a decision to go with you. And so, this idea is so applicable, no matter what leader you are and what organization you’re in is that, you know, the people under us oftentimes need to be reminded about that exotic vacation. They need to be reminded about the why and where they’re going. And again, we’re so short sided, we get caught up in all the details and it’s the leader’s job to remind our people and to remind our customers and to remind for us, our volunteers, our donors, where the big picture is.
So, they can feel a part of that big picture and get excited about where they’re going and it’s our job to be storytellers and to remind them of that. So, we do that regularly here at ESPN. I mean, we want to be the leader in providing transformative services to people with disabilities throughout the country. And so, it’s my job to remind our people that every small thing that we do, every small celebration that we have, every win that we have, we’re working towards that greater, more national goal to be the best provider in serving and celebrating people of all abilities, changing communities all over the world. And so, people get excited about that, and they’re much more willing to work harder, to work longer hours, to put an extra volunteer time, to give you extra advice, to give you extra money, to invest in you. When they see that big picture and understand that it’s more than just like, you know, in the bank’s case, shareholder value and profitability, it’s like, no, Oconee State Bank wants to be, Georgia’s most remarkable bank I can get behind that. That’s much more, that’s something that I want to be a part of something bigger than myself.

Caleb Stevens: Yeah. I love the vacation analogy. And especially now with COVID, I mean, gosh, aren’t, we all just wish we could go on a vacation and we wish we could travel and unfortunately, you know, for most of us that’s off the table, but I mean, you’re so right. When you want to book a vacation, one of the first things you do is you could look up the hotel or look up the condo or look up the Airbnb and you want to get a vision and what is it going to look like? And you know, what does the beach look like? Or what do those mountains look like? It’s not just you know, you don’t read a bunch of facts off a piece of paper and says, all right, well, it’s here and it’s here now. You want to go see it and see a vision of it and see a picture of it. And kind of sounds like that’s what you’re trying to do with your donors, with your volunteers, with the families you work with is not just give them a handout and say, here’s what we do, but really show them the impact that you guys have and where you’re going in the future. So, I love that.

Laura Whitaker: That’s right. And you know, listen, we are we’re storytellers in our minds. We make up stories all day long. That’s what we do. And so, in order to communicate a vision with people, we’ve got to create a story and we’ve to show visuals that go along with that. Yeah. If you told somebody the longitude and latitude of where they’re headed for their vacation, they’re not going to remember those numbers, but they’re going to remember the picture of the Island and the beach and the sailboat that they’re going to be on. And in order to make an impact, both with our people, with our customers, with our donors, with our volunteers, we’ve got to be storytellers as a leader for it to really stick and for people to give us the energy that we really are looking for.

Caleb Stevens: Well, as someone who is not only a nonprofit leader, but a board member of a local community bank. In what ways has being on a bank board helped you maybe in your leadership with ESP?

Laura Whitaker: Oh gosh. You know, it’s been such a neat mutual relationship, I think both from the experiences that I’ve had and the things that, you know, I mentioned that when they asked me to be on the bank board, I’m like, you know, I know nothing about banking and they were like, exactly, that’s what we want. We want someone who doesn’t know anything about banking, who can learn that, right, because I’m a lifelong learner. So, give me all the bank books and let me learn it. But the value of having somebody from outside of the bank see things that the bankers are not going to see, I think has been really, really neat. And likewise, as the reverse as I’ve learned more about banking and about relationships and about shareholder value and about profitability and about low and quality, I mean, one example I can give is you know, over this last year, it was so cool to watch the response of local community banks with PPP. And, you know, it was a really cool opportunity. I mean, not only did it help, we were the recipients of PPP and that was a huge benefit to ESP, but then to watch it on the bank side and to watch the inside of how that all worked really gave me vision for how we respond to a lot of the needs of the individuals that we serve.
And so that was really cool. You know, leadership is leadership. So, watching Neil at the bank, watching a lot of the leaders at the bank talk through strategy and big picture and everything from marketing to budgeting, it was so cool. The bank and ESP were both going through a transition in our budgeting system at the same time. And so, it was neat because I was able to talk to that transition and those systems at the same time in it, I was able to go back to ESP and say, you know, we need to think through this and think through that. So, at the end of the day, you know, leadership is leadership. And so, it’s been fun to look at my board and the bank board and how can we better structure things on my board. So, it’s just been really, really great. And then also as a leader who leads a board, I think being on the other side of the board table has been really nice as well. And it’s given me vision and perspective of what my board members feel and think and how they respond. And so just a more three 60 view of what it looks in leadership. And it’s been a learning experience. I’ll tell you; it took me about a year to fully understand all the terms, all the banking terms that they were talking about.

Caleb Stevens: Different language yeah.

Laura Whitaker: Really is. I was like, I need a cheat sheet that I can sit right next to me, I’m understanding about 85% of every meeting that we go. So, I’m getting there, I’m getting there.

Caleb Stevens: Well, I would say the same thing too. When I first got into banking, I was like, what’s the net interest margin and what’s fed funds. And you talk about camels, you know, capitalization and asset quality, all of these different lingos that the regulators look at. And you’re just like, oh my goodness, I’ve all these terms are totally foreign. But it kind of comes together. The more you just immerse yourself in it, you kind of put the pieces of the puzzle together. And I would say a takeaway that you just said for all of our listeners is if you’re running a board, have a variety of voices on that board, half folks who are analytical half folks who have a business background, but then have nonprofit leaders and have people that really get, how do you cast a vision? How do you connect the dots? How do you inspire people who are not even getting paid, like volunteers and hold both of those things together? We don’t have to just talk about shareholder value and analytics, and decision-making all essential things. We’ve got to have those things. We’ve got to Excel in those things. We’ve also got to talk about culture and vision and mission, and we’ve got to marry those things together. So, I love how you’ve done that really well with your being on a board as well as leading a nonprofit.

Laura Whitaker: Yeah. And, you know, times are changing. And there’s a reason that, you know, an iPhone goes from a 1.0 to a 2.0 to a 3.0, there’s a reason why we update. Right? And so, as we grow in our organizations, things like diversity and things like culture and things like vision are going to become more and more important as our customers get older because they expect something different in the same way that we expect something different of our iPhone as things change. And as the world changes, and it’s been really neat to watch at Oconee State Bank, you know, we have to be relevant, right. We have to be relevant in order to be attractive to our customers. And so regardless of what business you’re in, you’ve got to stay relevant. And I think it’s those people that come from outside of the bank that are really going to challenge that relevancy and make sure that banks particularly community banks are staying relevant with the times.

Caleb Stevens: Yeah. That’s awesome. I think that’s great. Especially now, too, with COVID when you can’t go see new prospects or customers as easily. Team meetings are a lot harder. We’re doing it virtually. One thing we’ve been saying around here at CenterState is how do we do things that are personal when we can’t be in person? And how do we continue to get in front of folks and bring value and stay innovative when we can’t go see people the way we used to, how do we continue to, you know, you don’t want to just sit on your hands, say, well, we’ll just wait till this is over and we’ll just ride it out. You want to say, let’s use this time to go on the offense and make improvements and make adjustments. And because who knows when we’re going back to normal. So, in the meantime, let’s try to do things that are personal, even though we can’t be in person.

Laura Whitaker: That’s right. And that’s a great example of, you know, when COVID hit, ESP was able to pivot really quickly because difference and having disabilities and obstacles is every day for us. Right? And so, we’re constantly pivoting and things like transportation or people getting to us that’s our day to day. And so, then you transfer that to the bank. And the benefit of having people that have a diverse perspective at your leadership table is that they are able to use their experiences. Like I was here at ESP and help pivot really quickly. And I think that that’s so, so, so important and so relevant with the times now, as it’s, we’ve got to move and we’ve got to shift based on the times and who knows what’s in the future. But the more diverse you people around your table, I think the better responses and the better solutions that will come

Caleb Stevens: Well, Laura, this has been a really inspiring conversation. If folks want to learn more about ESP, if they want to learn more about Java Joy and everything you do. They’re listening to this and they’re getting excited and want to get in touch with you. How can they do that? And how can they learn more about ESP?

Laura Whitaker: Yeah. So, you can learn everything, our website, and also our social media handles. Our website is Again, that’s ESYOUANDME All spelled out .org. And my email is

Caleb Stevens: Well, Laura, thank you for your time. This has been such an inspiring conversation. I hope our listeners have gotten a lot out of it as well, and we wish you all the best this year.

Laura Whitaker: Thanks for having me.



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