Locals Who Lead: Courtney Santana Is Turning Lives Around

Locals Who Lead: Courtney Santana Is Turning Lives Around

Honoring Purpose-Driven Local Leaders

A Domestic Abuse Survivor Channels Her Own Experience Into Helping Others Not Only Survive, But Thrive

Survive2Thrive foundation founder and CEO Courtney Santana — author of the new book Off Kilter: Getting Yourself ‘Right’ After Abuse — shares her powerful insights into servant leadership, mission and making a difference.


Courtney Santana

Biggest Leadership Challenge: My biggest leadership challenge lies in my ability to delegate and allow others to help me. My ability to get out of my own way will be the deciding factor in my business’s ability to grow. New minds mean new eyes and new perspectives, and that should be embraced. If you have the right people on your team, they will pick up where you left off and lead well.

Biggest Leadership Win: The biggest win so far has been my team. They stay with the organization and fight for it because they believe in the work we do. They all have a high work ethic and standards that keep them motivated in times of harvest and in times of famine. We celebrate each other and really get behind the work we do and each other.

Goals for Making an Impact: Survive2Thrive is attacking the victim-homelessness issue head on, but past the point of just surviving it. We work to create a path to self-sufficiency that will elevate survivors to a new reality where they are in the drivers seat and making the best decisions for their best life. True empowerment is empowerment where one feels equipped to handle any obstacle with confidence. We hope to provide survivors access to the resources they need to maintain their own lives successfully.

A Very Personal Mission

Courtney Santana is all-too-familiar with the horrors suffered by survivors of domestic abuse. Broken eye sockets, a broken chin, and bruised ribs were just a few of the injuries she suffered at the hands of a man she loved and trusted. When she finally found the courage to flee, her two young children in tow, Santana took refuge at Austin’s SafePlace. As she began the process of healing and trying to put her life together, she observed first-hand the gaps that existed in services for survivors.  In 2011, back on her feet, she founded the Survive2Thrive foundation to fill those gaps, and help others trying to put their lives back together after abuse.

Leading to Unlock Potential

When it comes to leading her foundation, Santana believes in freedom and responsibility. Translating that into action, for her, means, “give a person a job, give them the authority to do it and then hold them accountable for the results.” With the many projects that Survive2Thrive has going simultaneously, Santana’s staff must be self-starters. Leading in that environment has taught her to foster independence, only stepping in if one of her team members gets stuck or has difficulty. Explains Santana, “I truly believe that you have to have confidence in the people you bring on board to work with you. And your leadership style must unlock their potential and their expertise to do the best possible job for you.”

Courtney Santana

And doing the best possible job is incredibly important to Santana. Her philosophies in life and business have intersected, a result of the passion she has for what she does. Obedience is a recurring theme in her life. Several times in the past, she ventured away from her work in domestic violence, only to find herself redirected each time. It’s a path that only served to strengthen her sense of purpose, a belief that the work she does is where she is able to make the most impact.

I believe there is a very specific calling on every person’s life. Not to sound religious, but there is a special ‘quality’ that each person has and whenever they fail to use this quality in their life, it never quite feels right or they don’t get the results they want.

Partnerships and Mentorships

In addition to her team, Santana has relied on strategic partnerships to achieve some of her goals. One of the leadership lessons she has learned along the way is choosing these alliances carefully. “In the past, we have made partnerships with organizations and at the end of the day it wasn’t a good fit because we weren’t working collaboratively to provide better service or serve our clients any better,” she explains. “We were partners in name only and not beneficial to each other.” With the knowledge and perspective she has gained, Santana now seeks out partners who can bring something to her organization that is outside their area of expertise, and deliver excellence.

Mentorship has also played a significant role in her journey, and Santana is grateful for her experiences. “I believe mentorship is by far, one of the most important necessities a leader needs to do his or her job as a leader effectively, she says. “Mentorship for me has been the most valuable tool I’ve used because it’s based on real life experience from someone who is doing what I want to do.” Santana personally tends to choose mentors who are trailblazers and have faced adversity head on. Those relationships had given her perspective, and helped her see that failure can actually be the ground upon which great things are built. It’s the kind of knowledge that can’t be found in schools or books, which makes it especially valuable. Santana’s number one piece of advice to those looking to step up and share their own learning with others? Honesty — so that the mentee has a true, real-world understanding of what the business world is like.

Courtney winning

Redefining a Win

With Santana’s devotion to servant leadership, it’s no surprise that what she considers a success revolves around its impact on others. “A win for me in business is when I’m confident that the work that we’re doing and the way we are doing it, has sufficiently served our clients,” she says. For example, in many cases, survivors who do no get enough support return to abusive situations. Survive2Thrive provide a full spectrum of care, partnering with other organizations to make sure that when is survivor leaves their program, they have another program they can go to if needed. With this system, says Santana, “We are able to provide them with life options and exciting opportunities because the road ahead is very hard for them and they’re going to need the encouragement.”

Yet with all she has done, Santana still sees plenty of room for improvement. In light of her experiences, she has come to believe that the current way governmental systems are set up have a devastating flaw. While in theory these emergency services are set up to be a temporary option for those who are experiencing trauma and crisis, Santana has too many times seen that the actual outcome is survivors who become dependent on help for the long term. The end result is an unbreakable cycle of poverty. Her ultimate goal? Ending the “systematic oppression and changing [the system to] temporarily provide support and equip those they serve to self sufficiently live their lives by making a livable wage and living a life they can be proud for themselves and their children.”

I feel like I’ve made a difference because I use my voice to serve others like myself, with children like mine. When I stop making a difference, I’ll stop doing what I’m doing and I will find other ways to be impactful and help others.

Making It Personal

Filling the roles of activist, entrepreneur, leader, wife, mother and friend makes it critical for Santana to know what’s important. Her secret? A personal mission statement. Santana sat down and detailed how she was going to live, and for whom. When opportunities come her way now, she asks one simple question – do they fit her mission?

Stout Insights
 Courtney’s Keys to Making a Difference 

Have Discipline.Discipline to me means keeping your eye on the task at hand and being focused.
Know Your Limits.Knowing your limits is being able to say no when a situation does not fit your personal mission.
Stay Diligent. You have to stick with things, even when it’s hard or everything seems to be going wrong.
Choose Wisely. The people who surround you must be encouraging, honest and loving, with mercy and grace.
Keep Perspective. It’s important to look at life through the right lens.
Act Accordingly. When a good job has been done, be generous with praise. But also be ready to question things when needed

Answering this question — and trusting her gut when she does so — has helped her learn to not say yes to everything. It’s a perfect fit with the way she’s chosen to life her life, based on a favorite quote from Maya Angelou that Santana feels “embodies what I’ve been trying to accomplish in my life and how I want to represent and present myself to the world”:

My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.
-Maya Angelou

No Stopping Now

On thing Santana has said yes to is Survive2Thrive’s newest project, a 24 x7 drop-in shelter for survivors of domestic violence and sex trafficking in Austin, Texas. Visitors can come in, get cleaned up, and figure out where they are gong to go next. It’s a much-anticipated extension to the programs Survive2Thrive already offers, and is expected to open in early November of this year. In addition, she is looking to take her foundation to a national level, a goal that includes launching an app to aid victims called SANCTUARY in the coming year. She also plans to further develop her portfolio of survivor-driven businesses that allow domestic violence survivors to become entrepreneurs as well as grow their marketable skills so that they can get better employment. It’s servant leadership at the very highest level, but when things get difficult or threaten to overwhelm her, Santana always returns to her core belief. “I think I have always known that I was meant to do something greater than myself,” she says. “I just want to stay obedient and keep moving forward.”

Off Kilter: Getting Yourself ‘Right’ After Abuse by Courtney Santana

If Courtney Santana’s story inspires you, read her new book, Off Kilter: Geting Yourself “Right” After Abuse. And to sharpen your leadership skills even more, take a deep dive into the #Stout archives, or check out our entire Locals Who Lead collection.

Top photos courtesy of John Davidson.