Why a Wall Street leader gave up retirement for holistic generosity

When Helen Young Hayes describes her life after Wall Street, she uses words like “joyful” and “contagious,” but not for reasons you might think. After a successful, storied, 20-year career in the financial industry, Helen felt God’s call to deploy her “trophies.” What came next was a life transformed – from financial generosity to holistic generosity, for the glory of God’s kingdom.

When they were recently out of college, newlyweds Helen and Matt joined their first small group with some Christian friends. This was the first small group either one had ever joined. Together, they read Richard Foster’s book, Money, Sex and Power. They explored how these three gifts from God can become dangerous if too much importance is placed on them, and how they can be beneficial and beautiful if used properly.

While Helen had grown up reading the Bible, she had never studied practical theology or learned to unpack the Bible. The book challenged Helen and Matt at a time when they had no money and a lot of student loan debt. It laid the foundational belief that caring for the poor in a sacrificial, intentional, and consistent manner would be part of their family philosophy. For the next 30 years, their obedience looked like compartmentalized financial generosity – supporting ministries that served the poor, creating scholarship funds, writing checks. 

“A royal position” – for more than retirement

After retiring in 2003, Helen found herself in the middle of a study on the book of Esther – a study she’d completed before. This time, though, Mordecai’s words to Esther seized her and wouldn’t let go: And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this? (Esther 4:14 NIV). She knew this was God’s way of telling her he had more in store for her. 

Helen felt she too had come to a “royal position” with wealth, prestige, and favor in every aspect of her life. And she had “trophies” to show for it: a blessed childhood, a strong marriage, wonderful children, and financial and career success. She sensed she was being called to deploy her trophies for the kingdom – for such a time as this. She instinctively knew it would be an outworking of her commitment to loving and serving the poor and marginalized – God’s “least of these,” whose treatment Christ identified with.

Helen asked the Lord to reveal to her what was next concerning what he’d placed on her heart. She knew she wanted to incorporate her business acumen into her quest to serve the poor, but she wasn’t clear what that could or should look like. 

Sharing the joy of transformation through holistic generosity

Around this time, she was invited to brainstorm with other Denver-based Christian business leaders about how to lift individuals in their community out of poverty into flourishing provision. She heard how a local business hired young women from Hope House – a ministry that provides free empowerment programs for teen moms, including residential assistance, parenting support, and high–school and GED classes.

Inspired by the transformative power of work as the next step towards self-sufficiency, Helen now knew what God had next for her: to replicate this employment model on a larger scale to bring other business owners the joy of watching an individual’s life change forever. 

“I began to focus on how I could catalyze business owners to become the generous employers that I know God wants us to be, and how I could help companies provide people with opportunities to flourish and participate fully in the economy,” Helen remembers. She began researching the workforce-solutions industry, discovering three gaps she could fill:

  1. Closing the gap between job seekers and jobs: Connecting people aspiring to self-sufficiency with employers looking for engaged and passionate workers
  2. Bridging ministries serving those experiencing poverty with for-profit businesses:  Transitioning individuals from training programs to workforce mastery:
  3. Connecting inherent potential to realized success: Bringing out the potential in people who want to secure economic mobility through training, development and coaching.

From here, Helen’s life moved from financial giving to what she calls “holistic giving.” In 2016, she founded ActivateWork, Inc., a non-profit training, coaching and placement firm that helps people achieve economic freedom through the dignity of work. Activate’s secret sauce is one-on-one coaching for life, professional and socio-emotional skills that are essential to success on the job.

They also receive tuition-free IT training through ActivateIT, which equips individuals with technology skills and credentials for the knowledge-based economy. Activate’s clients more than double their incomes. But, more importantly, they experience the joy of caring for their families and fulfilling their God-given potential.

ActivateWork’s goal is a hopeful, vibrant future for both employees and employers through the creation of an economy of shared opportunity and shared prosperity. “We are activating long-term success and lasting, holistic transformation,” Helen says.

She believes the solution involves more than giving people a better income. She wants ActivateWork to provide economic empowerment that enables individuals to make better decisions for themselves and their families, like acquiring high-quality childcare or living in a safe neighborhood.

The inconvenienced life of holistic generosity

Holistic generosity is more than philanthropy for Helen; it’s her life and career focus. This led her and her husband to develop their Giving Strategy™ with NCF. “I believe kingdom work should not be limited to writing checks, which is what we did before,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong – organizations need financial generosity to serve their populations, and my husband and I are committed to our Giving Strategy.”

“But everything I do now is about helping to bring the kingdom of God here on earth to people, systems, and ecosystems that need to see believers co-creating with God,” she says. It’s about actively building “a more beautiful, whole, and dignifying existence for our neighbors.” 

In the second half of her life, the season most people spend enjoying retirement, Helen views her purpose differently as she seeks to live like the Good Samaritan in the parable Jesus told. Before her work with Activate, Helen could go about her days never crossing paths with those who were suffering, simply because of where she lived. She easily could have lived that insulated life forever. 

The Good Samaritan looked for those who were hurting. “When we witness the needs of others, when we share proximity, God puts it on our hearts to respond,” Helen says. “The Good Samaritan not only gave financially, but he massively inconvenienced himself. He got down off his donkey, traded places with someone in need, and then returned to ensure the person’s transformation. He made his life harder to serve another. It was more than transactional; it was relational. That’s holistic generosity at its finest.”

Helen says the joy she experiences from helping people realize their full potential for the Lord’s glory feels like holy work. She’s so passionate about it that she doesn’t think she’ll ever truly retire – and her husband Matt agrees.   

When Helen left Wall Street, her plans didn’t include starting a nonprofit. But, like Esther and the Good Samaritan, she has responded by following God’s direction “for such a time as this.” And whether many or just one life is changed, she will continue to live out her faith for the benefit of others.

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