After having lived on a sailboat, married his high school sweetheart, and worked his way to a successful position as a private practice attorney, Steve Sparks thought he’d achieved it all. But then, in 1993, tragedy struck.
“My daughter was diagnosed with leukemia,” Sparks says. “I would say that before the diagnosis, I lived my life by the motto that he who has the most toys wins. While we were in the hospital, I realized that most of the stuff I had mattered very little and that I really needed to reprioritize to figure out how to make my life more meaningful.”
The realization was almost instant, he says, but structuring the implementation of this change in his life would take time. “She was in treatment for about three years. And when you’re dealing with a child with cancer, you’re in survival mode. You’re focused on every day as it comes. You’re not focused on how to find another job or change a career,” Sparks says. “It took a little while and a little courage to decide to do something I really hadn’t done before and institute this change in my professional life.”
After his daughter emerged successfully from treatment, Sparks decided to dedicate his career to improving the lives of children. He relocated his family to take an in-house position with the Nemours Foundation. One of the nation’s leading nonprofit children’s health systems, Nemours was established by philanthropist Alfred du Pont in 1936.
“I was their very first in-house attorney at Nemours. Prior to that, they didn’t have a legal function, so we had to establish a legal function, build a legal team, and demonstrate value. After we were successful in building a legal team, I was asked to oversee compliance and audit in addition to legal,” Sparks says. From there, he was asked to oversee aspects government relations and was eventually tasked with overseeing the organization’s philanthropy efforts as well.
“When I started at Nemours, we were primarily in Florida and Delaware, and by the time I left, we were in seven states. That was due to a focused strategic plan, a commitment to the mission of serving children, and an amazing and truly collaborative effort between all of the Nemours associates,” he says.
Sparks also undertook a nine-day, nine-hundred-mile bicycle journey from Florida to Delaware in an effort to honor those who had helped his daughter. In the process, he raised more than $100,000 for the foundation.
After years of working with the teams at the Nemours Foundation, Sparks set his sights on making an even greater impact. This led him to seize an opportunity to serve as senior vice president and general counsel for the Hershey Trust Company. “With the kind of funding available through the trusts, I think there’s tremendous potential to impact the lives of children for the better, and that potential is what brought me here,” he says.
Today, Sparks oversees the legal activities of the Hershey Trust Company and the three trusts for which it serves as trustee: the Milton Hershey School Trust, the MS Hershey Foundation Trust, and the Hershey Cemetery Trust. “The most important part of my role is to work with the boards to help determine our strategic direction,” Sparks says. “Advancing Mr. and Mrs. Hershey’s legacy in serving children and the communities they so loved is the focus of the mission.”
“There’s a part of everyone that has genius, and my job as a leader is to figure out how to create an opportunity and space for that genius to come out.”
In addition to oversight, Sparks and his team are tasked with a regulatory function. “As a state-chartered trust company, the Pennsylvania Attorney General and the Pennsylvania Department of Banking also have oversight over our institutions, and managing relationships with those offices is important,” he says.
Though his role is nuanced and fraught with complexity, Sparks says he works overall to align his team around one simple principle. “The culture and the focus of our legal and governance function is to always remember the kids. We’re here to serve the kids, and whatever we do is aimed at furthering that mission,” he says.
Sparks also relies on a collaborative philosophy to ensure the best outcomes for his organization. “I don’t believe in using the law as something for power. I would rather, through relationships, discussion, and collaboration, have us come to the decision of what the right thing to do is,” he says. “If you identify what the right thing to do is, it will almost always be lawful.”
Looking back on his career, Sparks says the perspective he gained during his daughter’s illness was crucial in influencing how he operates both personally and professionally.
“I learned to put kindness and relationships as priorities in my life in a way I don’t think I did before,” he says. “As far as leadership, I was able to see that there’s a part of everyone that has genius, and my job as a leader is to figure out how to create an opportunity and space for that genius to come out.”
Defeating the Cycle of Poverty
The Milton Hershey School Trust was established in 1909 with the purpose of funding and overseeing a home and school for children in need. Over the course of a century, the school has grown to currently serve more than 2,100 girls and boys of diverse backgrounds.
In addition to his role as senior vice president and general counsel for the Hershey Trust Company, Steve Sparks has played a vital role in helping set the School Trust’s strategic direction and priorities as senior advisor to the board overseeing the Milton Hershey School. “In serving Mr. Hershey’s legacy, our mission is to provide children in need with a home and education through the school. Our ultimate goal is, through education and a nurturing home, to break the cycle of poverty,” Sparks says.
He has also worked to define success for the School Trust. “Success for a trust organization is not a question of just growing the organization. It’s about how many more children we are able to serve through growth and how many more children will get the benefit of a wonderful education, a safe place to live, and being surrounded by love and support,” he says.
“Those kids will go on to college, have successful careers, and have their kids and grandchildren go to college. That’s how Mr. Hershey’s legacy defeats the cycle of poverty.”
Potter Anderson & Corroon LLP:
“Steve is a savvy lawyer, a skilled diplomat and an inspirational leader. He thrives in mission-driven organizations where he can lead diverse teams through complex legal issues without losing sight of the big picture.”
—Kathleen Furey McDonough, Chair