Towalame Austin: Alumna Works Magic in Philanthropy as President of Nonprofit
Towalame Austin (Class of ‘04, B.S., business administration/marketing), president of the Magic Johnson Foundation (MJF) may be based in an office in Beverly Hills, but she remains connected to the underserved communities that the Foundation serves nationwide.
As president of MJF, Austin leads the nonprofit’s commitment to the health, education and social needs of ethnically diverse urban communities. She is responsible for overseeing the operations and growth of the organization, in keeping with its three-pronged mission of HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness and education. This includes establishing and maintaining partnerships with corporations and entities such as Abbott Laboratories, AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), Coca Cola, American Express, and Microsoft. In her former role as the nonprofit’s executive vice president and director of corporate relations and special events, Austin organized and held six key fundraising events and galas annually, including A Midsummer Night’s Magic, A Salute to African American Designers, and nationwide Magic Corporate Mixers.
Along with these high profile duties, the Los Angeles native also keeps an eye on her younger constituents, through her involvement with Imani Corporation, an organization that provides mentorship and guidance for young girls.
“It’s about self esteem, getting them right and making them leaders versus followers,” Austin says. “For me, growing up with a single mom, two sisters and no brothers, it was important having a strong friendship group and a strong mother who taught us values.”
Austin still depends on a solid support group, including her assistant Aneesha Saleem (Class of ’07, B.S., business administration/marketing), a former classmate from her days as a night student at California State University, Dominguez Hills. The executive describes Saleem as “an angel” who would have class notes waiting for Austin, who was already employed at MJF, when she would arrive on campus late from fighting traffic on the 405.
“I really believe had I had a different group of friends, I’d probably be a different person, which is the case for a lot of young girls with low self esteem,” she notes. “That group of friends can really make or break your life, or at least hinder the process. As adults, hopefully you have the stability and intellect to say, ‘This isn’t right; I don’t have to follow that person anymore.” But when you’re 15 and16, it’s all about [peer] pressure.”
The Foundation’s commitment to the health, educational and social needs of underserved communities keeps Austin busy with overseeing programs including the AHF Magic Johnson Healthcare Clinics. In 2006, she launched a highly successful campaign for World AIDS Day, “I Stand with Magic,” that tested more 1,300 at-risk individuals for HIV/AIDS. She also oversees the Taylor Michaels Scholarship Program, which awards four-year scholarships and mentoring to college students, complete with a laptop computer and paid summer internships with MJF’s corporate partners.
Austin also supervises 18 Magic Johnson Community Empowerment Centers throughout the nation, including a recently opened facility in Eastover, South Carolina, the first center in a rural area. The centers are dedicated to the education of children and adults and provide access to technology, afterschool programs for at-risk youth, seminars and workshops on health, finances, and home ownership, and industry certifications and jobs in technology fields,
“They say that during a recession, people go back to school,” says Austin. “They get themselves geared up for coming out of the recession, whether it’s the degree they always wanted or whatever skill or trade they’ve always wanted to do.”
Education in its many forms, whether in the classroom or on-the-job, is important to Austin, who was hired by MJF 12 years ago as a part-time receptionist. Realizing that her aspirations were in marketing, after taking classes at West Los Angeles College and Santa Monica Colleges, she transferred to CSU Dominguez Hills. She says that the university’s accommodation of the working adult’s 9 to 5 schedule was a key to her success along with her own personal drive to get an education.
“I had to work, I really didn’t have a choice,” she says. “The flexibility of the program was very instrumental in me obtaining my degree while I was working. I’m not big on online courses. I wanted to be a part of [the classroom] environment whether it was during the day or at night, and it’s just as involved and as active [at night].”
Austin has received numerous accolades for her work with the Foundation, including a commendation from the County of Los Angeles for community service, the Public Education Foundation’s Lifetime Educational Achievement Award, and a proclamation from the City of Eastover, South Carolina. She is a member of The Association of Black Foundation Executives. Along with her duties at the Foundation, she has lent her business and marketing expertise to Johnson’s wife Cookie Johnson, who launched a premium denim line earlier this year.
After more than a decade at MJF, Austin looks forward to more growth with the company that in the spirit of its mission, supported her throughout her education.
“Mr. Johnson is one of those individuals who likes to put [employees] where they want to be,” she says. “It’s still a young company and there are a number of opportunities. If you are a self-starter, the leadership here is 100 percent behind you if you want to work in specific areas, [and provides] opportunities to thrive in those areas.”
- Joanie Harmon