Leading by Service and Mentorship: Rhonnel Sotelo

09 Aug, 2023

Leading by Service and Mentorship: Rhonnel Sotelo

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August 9, 2023

Written by Brian Rogers, Board Secretary and Chief Executive Officer Emeritus and Dana Wellhausen, Deputy Director

Building a talented, cohesive team and unleashing them with the flexibility and freedom to own and lead their work is one of the Rogers Family Foundation’s core values. Throughout the remainder of our timeline, we will share our appreciations and reflections on the distinct qualities, accomplishments, and contributions of each Rogers Family Foundation team member. This piece celebrates Rhonnel Sotelo, who has been with the Foundation for over 10 years.

T. Gary Rogers, former CEO of Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream and founder of the Rogers Family Foundation, believed that running a successful organization stems from 10 leadership values, developed at Dreyer’s, that he coined “The Grooves.” These values had to be woven into the fabric of an organization and its people in order for it to thrive and succeed. To set these values in motion, leadership must hire smart people with great interpersonal skills and support them to make decisions, own their job, and continually grow. It’s one thing to state that you are going to empower your team, but another to actually craft and execute practices and structures that enable true empowerment.

Anyone who has worked with Rhonnel Sotelo, our CEO, soon learns that he leads with genuine care and service, through mentorship, and an uncanny ability to see potential in those around him. Over the past decade, Rhonnel has been a pivotal leader at the Foundation, guiding and supporting the RFF team to feel empowered to lead and evolve in our roles. Notably, Rhonnel personalizes support of each team member in order to unleash potential we may not see for ourselves. “Rhonnel saw a leader in me far before I did. When I reflect back, I see how slowly overtime he provided the opportunities and hurdles for me to grow into and embody qualities and skills I did not think I had. It’s powerful when someone believes in you. For that I am forever grateful,” shares Dana Wellhausen, Deputy Director. Rhonnel applies these skills to grantees and partners as well, lifting potential and offering guidance. He knows that when others are at their best, their power to drive change is unstoppable. Rogers grantee, Energy Convertors’ founder Dr. Charles Cole III attests to Rhonnel’s influence, “Couldn’t have done this without Rogers, Rhonnel in particular. You all gave me the confidence to be fearless and do what I want to ultimately do.”

Part of what makes Rhonnel a great leader is his ability to listen first. Often those in positions of leadership operate from a sense of entitlement or expectation to be the one to speak first, speak often, or drive conversations. Rhonnel’s approach is to first listen, absorbing and processing the details of the discussion. Our team thinks of this as Rhonnel’s “speak only as needed in meetings” motto. Because of this approach, Rhonnel’s words leave the deepest impact and offer the greatest clarity. He takes time to listen for understanding and you regularly see him jotting down key points of the conversation with old school pen and paper; or rather, hardbound notebook. From those seemingly unassuming scrawls comes a picture-perfect recall of the conversation with an informed analysis of possible ideas and solutions. Rhonnel’s capacity to listen, process, and give clear guidance in all the roles he’s held at the Foundation — from Chief Strategy Officer to Executive Director to Chief Executive Officer — has created a culture of growth, cohesion, and dedication across the team. “I feel like he pushes my thinking, not my thoughts. While this feels challenging and sometimes uncomfortable, it definitely pushes my growth,” says Sara Levine, Senior Program Officer

Rhonnel’s effective leadership and service are also evident when leading community forums and roundtables, including his work facilitating a large group of national philanthropic funders investing in Oakland, serving on former Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s Education Council, and engaging as a Board member for the Oakland Public Education Fund, the Oakland Literacy Coalition, and Envision Education. Rhonnel possesses a rare superpower to be consistently inclusive in gathering all the points of view in the room and his natural intuition to read a room enhances this ability. Rhonnel holds loyalty to and clear focus on his mission at hand, and in the case of the RFF’s work, he’s looking out for what’s best for the students of Oakland — even in the face of pressure from external forces or opposing voices. “Rhonnel is a natural leader — people are drawn to his leadership,” reflected Brian Rogers, Board Secretary and Chief Executive Officer Emeritus. “He brings a rare combination of authority and confidence balanced with ease and graciousness. There is a warmth and humbleness in how he openly shares his deep wisdom and experience.”

The Rogers Family Foundation is grateful to have had Rhonnel Sotelo as a part of our team for the past 10 years. Rhonnel has masterfully woven his talents with the Grooves values, building and empowering a team that is well equipped to “Go Out and Do Good!”