In the tradition of honoring close colleagues, it was time to celebrate Cara Willis as she leaves Opportunity Nation and Be the Change after a remarkable six years. She is the master of advance, the mistress of social media, and the mastermind behind the Opportunity Nation Summits. She does the work of at least three super-humans, and will be sorely missed by her peers. Wise beyond her years, Cara earned the respect of some of the most notoriously demanding leaders that we encountered through our work – and did so with a smile on her face.

In reflecting on our years of working together, Cara’s contributions can be summed up through five key lessons:

Mentorship goes both ways. Cara’s expertise and instincts in things like visual design, social media, and event production are far beyond my capabilities, even though I’m nearly a decade older than her. Lucky for me, Cara loves to teach colleagues new skills and coach them on key areas of development. As a result, I’m now an active Twitter user and appropriately use hashtags like #FOMO. She’s supported me as I’ve developed my own writing career, and offered too many helpful suggestions and pointers to count. She didn’t let our ages define the kind of relationship we have, and as a result, I’ve had the opportunity to learn so much from her. It’s a good reminder to look in both directions chronologically when seeking mentors, and not to discount expertise that comes in young packages.

Everyone loves a great story. The art of storytelling is something that most organizations struggle to master, but is something central to an organization’s brand and mission. Cara has helped Opportunity Nation tell story after story through the Summit, our website, calls to action, and the annual Opportunity Index. Her stories are colorful, dramatic, visual, and memorable – just like Cara herself.

Without a strong operational plan, even the greatest ideas fall flat. Cara finds purpose in bringing ideas to life. You can see her get itchy in a room full of big ideas and vision. Her instinct is always to start getting things done. “How can we operationalize that? What are the next steps?” These are questions that Cara asks on a regular basis, and questions any strong organization needs answered to move forward in effective ways. She does this without being process-oriented or bureaucratic – it’s all about execution.

You can have friends at work. Cara develops genuine friendships with those around her. She cares deeply about the mission of the organization, but first and foremost the people who bring that mission to life. Without them, there is no mission. And you can’t help but be real around Cara – her personality demands it. From masterminding some epic farewell celebrations and building elaborate inside jokes with her team (Mean Girls, anyone?), she makes working fun and rewarding by investing in friends and friendship.

Flair is fabulous. Big hair. Big makeup. Big heels. Cara rolls with flair. And while you might be tempted to not take her seriously when she’s wearing a pink suit, you would be making a big mistake. Cara embraces who she is, owns it, and makes it work for her. This kind of unapologetic authenticity has carried her through her career so far, and will be an asset in many positions to come.

Together, Cara and I were quite a pair at Opportunity Nation. We are both loud enough to get kicked off the quiet car – though we never did. A regular conversation between us really does sound like a shouting match. We’ve laughed and cried together. We bicker like sisters. We took my 9-week old to SXSW. We visited my hometown in New Jersey. We have had more adventures than we can count. And finally, her chronological age is catching up with her old soul. No longer a twenty-nothing right out of college, Cara is ready to take the world by storm. I can’t wait to follow her in her new leadership role at Upstream!

Cara Willis