Celebrating Women in Leadership: Frances Padilla

Mar 27, 2023

During Women’s History Month, Fairfield County’s Community Foundation is profiling pioneering Women leaders who have made a mark on our community. Throughout the month, we’ll be sharing stories of these important figures and showcasing their work to make Fairfield County and our state a stronger, more equitable community.

Frances Padilla
Special Advisor, Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut

Growing up in the 1960s Bronx, Frances Padilla had all the odds stacked against her.

She faced several traumatic experiences as a young girl dealing with her family’s challenges of drug addiction and mental illness. Then, when she was 13, she and her family had to endure the horrific murder of her older brother.

Through it all, two enduring truths emerged for Padilla that helped her cope and motivated her to pursue a career helping others and her community. First, she drew strength from the power of love that her family shared, despite the stark challenges they faced. The second was the motivation to work toward a more equitable social services system that, through her family’s personal experience, she came to understand was not designed to support people of color living in marginalized communities.

“Growing up, I had already experienced enough through my family to know that the systems didn’t work,” said Padilla, who recently retired from the Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut after serving as president for 10 years. “So, when I thought about my career, I knew that I wanted to change them.

Frances Padilla,
special advisor
Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut

The road to creating change

After graduating from Wesleyan University, Padilla began her philanthropy career working as a program officer at the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. Five years later, she pursued a role at the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven (CFGNH) where she was able to further apply her personal and professional experience, taking the position of associate director in 1986.

Padilla says the focus of her career has shifted over the years. For the first 15 years, Padilla worked to address social issues around homelessness, unemployment, educational achievement and infant mortality. In some ways the work was rewarding, but she couldn’t help but question the government’s capability for helping to address the issues the foundation was trying to tackle.

Committed to finding new ways to accelerate systemic change, she left her job with CFGNH and enrolled in the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, earning a master’s degree in public administration focusing on public policy.

“This was a very important pivot point because it was in this space that I grew immensely,” she said. “I grew in my understanding of public policy and how policy is made. So, I knew that if I couldn’t find the job I wanted after graduating, I would create one.”

And she did just that.

In 1994, she started her own consulting firm – New Paradigms Consulting –  to help nonprofit organizations, foundations and other clients find effective ways to improve communities by providing services such as program and policy evaluation, strategic planning, and organizational capacity building.

“I called it New Paradigms because that’s what I was looking for, new ways of looking at challenges,” Padilla said. “And for ten years I was able to work with clients in different spaces and I was very proud of what I had built and the work I had done.”

In 2004, Frances and her husband wanted to find even more ways to give back, so they started The Progreso Latino Fund at the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven. The Fund focuses on providing educational, social, and economic support to create a thriving Latino community in Greater New Haven.

“We know that we didn’t get to where we are in our lives by ourselves,” Padilla said. “We had mentors, advisors, friends, and family that supported us through all kinds of adversity, so we wanted to pay it forward.”

During her consulting career, Padilla had worked with the Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut. Excited by the possibilities of the work being done at the foundation, she decided to join the organization full-time.

“I hadn’t done anything really in the healthcare space,” she said. “But I felt like the subject didn’t matter as much as the connection between policy and philanthropy. I learned so much.”

Padilla worked at the foundation for 18 years until she announced her retirement in December 2022.

For a decade, she proudly led the organization to advocate for policy change that would allow everyone — particularly people with low incomes, people of color, immigrants, members of the LGTBQ community, and people with disabilities – to have access to quality and affordable health care throughout the state.

Looking ahead

Now in the role of special advisor to the foundation’s new president, Padilla also continues to work with organizations as a coach to identify what it will take to change entrenched systems, and offer expertise in identifying and taking steps to dismantle structural racism.

“It took me a long time to feel like I could be a leader and have that confidence to pursue a leadership role,” said Padilla. “But I’ve learned, and what I want others to know is that leadership can be from the top but can also be at any other point that we are sitting. And for as long as I live, I will continue to exercise leadership from wherever I sit.”

Love this story? Don’t miss Part 1 and Part 2 of our Women’s History Month series, spotlighting women who are shaping the future of Fairfield County. 

Join us in person at the Greenwich Hyatt or virtually via our live stream for our Fund for Women & Girls 2023 Luncheon! Get inspired by keynote speaker Misty Copeland, learn about our newest signature initiative, and support women and girls across Fairfield County in achieving their best lives. Learn more and get tickets.