On the same day Kenny Wilson, a retired bank executive, took over as Haven for Hope’s president and CEO in April 2016, Molly Biglari began working there as the homeless shelter’s director of strategic relations.

Haven’s board offered to hire a chief operating officer to work under Wilson, but he declined.

“I needed to learn the business first” in order to better understand the organization’s needs, Wilson said.

Now he needs more time to fundraise and build relationships throughout the community, so earlier this year he asked Biglari to step up into a COO and vice president role. On Nov. 10, Haven for Hope’s board approved her promotion.

“She’s as fine an executive as I’ve ever worked with in my long career,” Wilson recalled telling the board. “She understands complex matters, she knows how to assemble the right people, build consensus, get to the right answer, and get it implemented. And she’s high-energy, high-intellect, and she’s compassionate about the people we serve.”

Biglari, a former private-sector executive and consultant for multinational organizations, looks forward to lightening Wilson’s workload. He’s known for spending long hours at Haven, the city’s largest homeless shelter and services campus that was established in 2010.

“I’m incredibly honored and excited to be in this role,” Biglari said. “Haven’s a phenomenal organization and I can’t say enough about how amazing Kenny is. … I know that sounds trite, but truly.”

During the coronavirus pandemic, Haven has had to shift and expand nearly every aspect of its operations – from its intake procedures to how it works with more than 140 on-site partner organizations, and Biglari demonstrated leadership throughout that shift, Wilson said.

“What was driving the conversation – and Molly was leading it – was … radical compassion,” he said. “That [core value] tells us we’ve got to do the best thing for this person.”

When the pandemic hit, Haven’s courtyard reached capacity, with 700 people experiencing homelessness, using Haven’s resources, and sleeping outdoors in close quarters. In April, the City leased a 300-room hotel downtown that Haven operates to allow for better social distancing and client care. That lease will last through summer 2021.

The courtyard and the hotel lodging are in addition to housing Haven provides at what it calls its transformational campus, which provides temporary housing and support services.

“Clients who normally would come and go in the courtyard [are] a little bit more inclined to stay in the hotel, so we can engage them for services [and find them housing],” Biglari said. “… That’s been just a wonderful success. And so we think all the time: how can we continue that? We don’t know the answer yet.”

While Haven officials figure out how to keep that engagement going once the hotel lease expires, Biglari said they already plan to continue telehealth services developed during the pandemic.

And so far, Haven hasn’t experienced any major outbreaks of COVID-19 as initially feared for congregate settings such as shelters.

“Since March 1, we’ve had over 3,000 clients come through Haven and we’ve had less than 40 positive clients [in] our transformation campus and the courtyard and the hotel,” she said.

Raised in Stamford, Connecticut, Biglari went to college at Northwestern University and went on to receive an MBA at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management there. As a management and strategy consultant, she’s worked in New York and Southeast Asia. She found a passion for nonprofit work when she moved to the Central Texas town of Marble Falls.

She became a founding board member of the Phoenix Center, which provides free mental health services.

“We started out helping children … who were suffering from trauma – very similar to the mental health needs of individuals experiencing homelessness,” she said. “It was like a nonprofit 101 [class]: nonprofit management and board responsibility, and it was wonderful. But really, the key piece was to see the vulnerability and the need out there. I think we often stay in our own worlds. And it really takes moving out of your comfort zone to see how vulnerable people can be.”

She moved to San Antonio when her twins – a boy and a girl – were ready for middle school.

“I just started to look [around] and found the [director of strategic relations] position at Haven,” Biglari said. “Having had recent experience with helping those with trauma, abuse, and mental health [issues] it was a natural fit.”

To clarify, Biglari’s promotion is not a signal that Wilson is leaving any time soon, he said.

“It came time for me to really need to spend an abundant amount of my time on relationship-building, fundraising, and policy matters. And I couldn’t do that and be deep in the operations [at the same time],” he said. “It’s not about [succession planning]. It is entirely about her and … utilizing her strengths.”

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...