Nikki Toyama-Szeto has a serious résumé. Stanford educated, with Silicon Valley mechanical-engineering experience and a patent in her name, she followed a call to leave the tech world and enter Christian ministry leadership. Today, she serves as the executive director of Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA), an organization working for cultural renewal, holistic ministry, political reflection and action, social justice and reconciliation, and creation care. Having previously served as vice president of International Justice Mission and as program director for Urbana Student Missions Conference, Toyama-Szeto has brought creativity, a fresh perspective and a deep commitment to mission through her executive roles.
She is the author of Partnering With the Global Church and one of the editors of More Than Serving Tea: Asian American Women on Expectations, Relationships, Leadership and Faith.
Outreach Editor-at-Large Paul J. Pastor caught up with Toyama-Szeto to talk leadership development, Christlike ministry in today’s culture and faithfully bringing our full selves to leadership.
You left a promising career as an engineer to enter nonprofit leadership. Tell us about that transition.
I was an engineer in Silicon Valley during the first boom. I did rapid prototyping engineering—which demands a quick turnaround of projects and constant learning. I enjoyed it but largely did it because I could. Because of the whirlwind advances in tech and business, it was just insane to be an engineer in that place and time. I knew Christian engineers who—to borrow Eric Liddell’s phrase—“felt God’s pleasure” when they were working, but I didn’t.
So I decided to move into ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, because God had worked in my life through them while I was a student. I decided to do that for a couple years, which turned into 14, then into a life trajectory that has led to where I serve today.
Did you have any formative experiences when you were younger that helped direct you to leadership?
Yes, I think the call predated the opportunity. I had a couple of experiences in my school days that I see now were formative. I wouldn’t have always called myself a leader, but I recognize now that a lot of things I did instinctively were leadership. For example, in second grade, I organized a luncheon for my class. I worked with multiple classes and our library to coordinate the event. Looking back, that’s a little unusual.
My name is Nikki, which originally comes from the Greek name “Nike” (like the shoes). When I was looking into the meaning of my name in middle school or so, I read somewhere that it could mean “victory of the people.” That resonated with me. My name pointed out the strength of community.
I’m from Chicago. Our church always sent students to the Urbana Student Missions Conference. They’d come back and share about the incredible experience they had. So I went during my freshman year of college. That was a little unusual—there weren’t many freshmen from Stanford at Urbana. I came back knowing that the next Urbana conference would be three years later and wanting to help other students go. I worked to categorize Urbana as our student organization’s leadership conference at Stanford, and we were able to secure about $10,000 to send students to Urbana. It was just something that I wanted others to be able to do, but the financial gap was a roadblock. It became a huge joy—the staff was kind enough to let me give out the scholarships, and I still think of it as one of my favorite experiences. I got to pave the way for other folks to experience God in a way that had transformed me.
In hindsight, that’s become my modus operandi—thinking about leadership as paving the way. It combines vision for an organization, removing the obstacles in front of us and setting people free to walk. I want to get people to the feet of Jesus. What Jesus does once we are there is up to him, but I am called to help point them there—to create space for them to get there.
What have you learned about creating those kinds of spaces and opportunities?
This work for leaders largely focuses on removing obstacles. Sometimes it’s through good organizing or how we shape a space. It is often a proactive, very strong and forward-looking ministry of hospitality—shaping a space to meet people’s needs. Sometimes people think of hospitality as passive, but it’s not. There is a kind of hospitality that leads, that is innovative and pioneering. That kind of hospitality creates spaces for each person that says they are welcome and invites them to bring their full selves—everything they have to contribute.
My question as a leader is, “How do I create spaces for people to participate, communicate and know where they are supposed to show up? How do I help people be present and show up as their full selves?”
It’s design, really. There is a technical component but an artistic component, as well. That’s how I see leadership—half artistic, half operational. Rapid prototyping engineering means innovation that is not theoretical. You mock up an idea and try it, learn and redesign, and fix assumptions. You drop a lot of different versions and learn very quickly. The focus is on speed. You let it be quick and scrappy. I like that kind of innovation. Trying something new can be powerful leadership.
Give us a snapshot of your work right now.
I’m executive director of Evangelicals for Social Action and the Sider Center at Eastern University. ESA is a historic organization, one of the first to usher in categories of social justice engagement for the church during the 1970s when that still felt threatening to many evangelicals.
Here’s the reality of our time: The word “evangelical” is up for grabs right now. What it means to millennials, to political pundits, to newspapers are all different and often not descriptive of our history or belief. The word has moved from a theological category to a social and cultural one. Resisting that is one of the interesting opportunities I have right now. ESA has programs that help people think through what Christian discipleship looks like, intersecting areas of life that many people don’t think about or even ignore in relation to their faith in Jesus, such as initiatives for social justice, animal welfare, thinking through the morality of our food sources and so on. Jesus has dreams for humans as his image-bearers and how we are to interact with the world and all its creatures. Evangelicals need to engage that.