How One Woman is Changing Her Community from Her Corporate Desk

by Kristen Domingue

When we spoke to Praveena Ramaswami, lead of Community Relations at Toyota Motor North America Research & Development, we gained deeper insight into something you likely already know: relationships are everything. As Ramaswami, a super connector, “followed her bliss” — helping people and improving her community — she moved from a role with Toyota to a role as a community leader while she focused on raising her daughters, and then back into a role within Toyota that allows her to serve her community even more. Here’s how she did it.

I FOLLOWED MY PASSION, BUT I ALSO FOLLOWED MY RELATIONSHIPS

I’ve been with Toyota for a while in different roles, many of which came to me through the relationships I had fostered within the company. From helping develop Toyota R&D’s first internet pages, to managing the vehicle fleet, to being the first Team Leader of Administration for Toyota’s design house, Calty Design Research — I loved what I did and became involved more in the community as well. I kept thinking, “How can Toyota get more engaged in the community?” I was lucky that Toyota was responsive to my interest, and that they had a willingness to put me in positions that allowed me to do just that.

When I decided to leave Toyota to focus on my family, I continued to build relationships in my local community and took on several leadership roles. However, the relationships I had nurtured at Toyota were not forgotten. They reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested in coming back to the company in a community engagement role. I remember that conversation so clearly. They said, “You have good rapport internally with our leaders, and you know people in the community and their challenges, so it’s a perfect bridge: someone who could represent us outside in the world and represent the world inside for us at Toyota.”

Because I was deeply engaged in the community and at home, it wasn’t part of the plan to come back to Toyota. I had to think carefully about this decision.

I took on the position because I understood I would be able to do more for the community with Toyota’s support than I could on my own. It felt like it was a win-win.

In my role leading community engagement, I represent Toyota Research and Development, headquartered in Ann Arbor. They’ve been in Southeast Michigan for 40 years, and my role is to help Toyota make a positive impact and be in active service to the community.

BEING TRULY PRESENT VS. JUST BEING THERE: A WORD ABOUT OVERCOMMITMENT

I was working full time, raising my children, and deeply in my community. After some thought, I knew I wanted to continue doing community work and spend more time with my young family.

I decided to take a hiatus from Toyota and left the company for two and a half years. I was at home doing community work and raising my daughters who, at the time, were in 5th and 2nd grade.

I felt like my past experiences lent themselves to ideas and solutions that helped the community-based organizations (CBOs) I served become better. They kept asking for my opinion on things and inviting me to be on boards and committees. I often said yes because I could see that my input and involvement made a difference.

During this time, I worked to restore the Thurston Nature Center and became their marketing chair. We fundraised to restore the pond to bring back its wildlife, and we built a nesting island for birds to help repopulate the aquatic life. I also continued to be involved in my local area non-profits and worked to improve processes and communication, elevating them to the next level. Best of all, I could do all of this from home in my comfy yoga pants. I was also on the board for the Ann Arbor Art Center, a Parks Commissioner for the City of Ann Arbor Parks, and a member of the STEM Committee of the Ann Arbor Educational Foundation.

When I decided to take on this new position at Toyota, I knew it was time for me decide how to allocate my time. There were and are several other organizations I’m a part of, but it came to a point when I had to do some soul-searching about my commitments. In the past, I took on challenges and just said yes without thinking too much about it, walking into every door that opened. I now take more time to reflect. If I could do it all again, I would have spent my energy more wisely.

The game-changing question for me, both in my roles on boards and in my family, was this: Was I present or was I just there? Now I’m more able to disconnect for work and be present when I need to be. Before, it all blended together and I wasn’t able to see clearly. Now that I’ve gone through the stress of multiple things coming at me, I’m able to use my energy the way I need to and know when I’m done and need to close my laptop and my teeming mind.

SPONSORSHIP VS. PARTNERSHIP: IT’S ABOUT MORE THAN PUTTING OUR NAME ON IT

At Toyota, my role is to engage and develop partnerships within the community. I work with nonprofits, educational institutions, industry, and civic groups to solve community-wide problems in a long-term, trend-reversing fashion.

Part of why I said yes to this job is because, for Toyota, it’s about more than writing a check and putting our name on it. My role requires me to think about problems and needs within the community and how we can use Toyota’s knowledge, people, resources and funds to solve them.

One of the things I love about my job is that I don’t have to lead with “I work with Toyota and let me cut a check.” I can just have conversations, listen to people, engage them and find out what’s happening. I know from experience that name-dropping “Toyota” at the front of a conversation leads to requests that may solve one-time problems or requests for money that band-aid a challenge. I want to help solve the problem by understanding the cause, having holistic conversations that create sustainable, community-wide solutions.

If I find out what people are working on first, what matters to them, and what their goals are, I can help them by facilitating a multi-stakeholder conversation with sustainable impact through my connections. By starting here, I can create a partnership conversation instead of a sponsorship conversation.

DOING GOOD IN THE COMMUNITY IS DOING GOOD FOR THE COMPANY.

For us, this work is about long-term sustainability. While people do look to us to fund CBOs, our contribution is focused on the creation of partnerships and often comes through relationships we’ve built over time. We look at factors like: Does it align with our core values? Do we trust the team leading the implementation? Does it have the possibility for the community to lead its growth after we’ve done the heavy lifting to move things in the right direction?

The belief we have is that if we do good in the community, it will be good for the company. Right now, we’re focused on projects where we can get multiple organizations together to solve a community problem.

One example is our recent partnership with Growing Hope, Meals On Wheels, and Ypsilanti Consolidated Schools (YCS). Our goal was to solve the lack of access to fresh food in a food desert — downtown Ypsilanti, Michigan. Without reliable transportation or convenient access to fresh vegetables and supplies, many challenges arose.

But solving the problem wasn’t as simple as providing vehicles and driving; it mattered that we help create access to help people get what they need. So, Toyota worked with YpsiPlanti (the local farmer’s market) and Growing Hope to tow their mobile farm-stand with a new Toyota Tacoma. The mobile farm-stand goes where people gather — schools, churches — to sell fresh produce that was grown in their community. We also fundraised to help create a space for Meals On Wheels to prepare deliveries at YpsiPlanti. Learning as you grow produce speaks to our support of STEM education.

My job is to meet with the partners and create a collaborative conversation to figure out how we’ll solve the problem. This is just one of several community-led partnerships Toyota supports. It’s exciting to know we’re doing something in our community that’s changing the lives of thousands of people over the long-term.

HOW I “DO” RELATIONSHIPS

I don’t follow a formula when I talk to people, but I do focus on being approachable by acknowledging people in the room and having an engaged conversation. I don’t talk so much, but I’m always interested, asking questions and going deeper to discover their interests. When I meet people, I’m building a profile in the back of my head of their concerns and work. As I listen, I focus on finding common ground with whomever I’m speaking with, and people feel more comfortable talking to me because I’m listening for commonalities and similarities and speaking to those right off the bat. Then as time goes by, I may meet someone new, and I realize they need to connect with someone else.

Lastly, when I introduce you to someone, I introduce you based on what I know is important to the other person because I want to build the connection for people; I want to pass on the spirit of connecting.

Ramaswami’s work with Toyota is an extension of the work she’d do whether she worked with Toyota or not. Her ability to connect with people and help them improve their circumstances comes naturally to her. And while all superpowers are not without their kryptonite (including being a super connector), we are inspired by the way Ramaswami has learned to channel her strengths into a position of leverage, so they help more people without leaving her overwhelmed and over-committed.

Kristen M. Domingue is a copywriter and content marketing consultant in the New York City area. When she’s not delivering on client projects, you can find her cooking up something gluten-free or in an internet rabbit hole on entrepreneurship or astrology.