Sitting at a round, wooden conference table in her Austin office, Victoria Lynden takes a sip of coffee and shifts in her seat, a bit uncomfortable with the prospect of discussing her life’s accomplishments. Like many champions of generosity, Lynden is exceedingly humble, often preferring to shine the spotlight on others who have contributed to her successes.
The business visionary behind such ventures as Cissi’s Market, Alliance Abroad Group and Kohana Coffee, Lynden has also dedicated her life to helping and serving others. Her remarkable capacity for altruism began at a young age, and was heavily influenced – like nearly everything else in her life – by her mother, Cissi Maillot.
In fact, when the conversation turns to her mother, Lynden smiles broadly, eager to discuss Cissi’s character, magnetism and compassion.
“My mother was always trying to help those people who didn’t have a voice,” Lynden says. “She was always so kind and I never heard her say anything negative about anyone. She was really like a guardian angel, taking up causes nobody else did. …
Being surrounded by that, it was almost impossible to not be influenced by it.”
Lynden fondly remembers a particular incident from her childhood growing up in the Chicago suburb of Hinsdale. One day she accompanied her mother to a church service near the Cabrini-Green public housing project. After the service Lynden and her mother, who loved to cook, whipped up breakfast – a few dozen batches of egg-in-the-hole – for neighborhood families, including many children Lynden’s own age. It was a benevolent act, but, for Lynden’s mother, helping others was an everyday occurrence. For Lynden, the experience was eye-opening.
“That was one of the most influential moments of my life,” Lynden reveals. “After that, I thought a lot about how I was going to make a difference and have a voice.”
By the time Lynden reached college that conviction was starting to become clearer. Her college roommate was from Belgium, and she made friends with students from all across the world, some of whom had parents working for foreign embassies. She longed to know more about different cultures, languages and ways of life.
Lynden spent her first year in college at the University of South Florida in Tampa. It was mostly the warm weather and the attraction to a place she’d never been that took her to the land of sunshine. But before long, her wanderlust struck again and she transferred to the University of Maryland.
“I was very intrigued by the East Coast, and I wanted to be more academically challenged,” Lynden says.
She started off studying to become a chiropractor, and later majored in art. But then she discovered the general studies program, which focused on business, art and language. It was a perfect fit for Lynden, whose passion for learning about other cultures continued to grow, particularly as she met more and more international students.
Driven by this passion, Lynden learned to speak Spanish, Italian and French. After college, she lived in various locales, including New York, and Rome and Fregene, Italy, all the while delighting in making new international friends and learning more about other cultures.
“The impact of meeting those individuals was really life-changing for me,” Lynden discloses. “That was a big turning point in my life.”
Later, Lynden moved to Washington, D.C., and picked up a job with The Experiment in
International Learning, where she worked with her colleagues to develop a work-abroad program. By the time she left the organization, Lynden was in her late 20s, and ready to launch her own business. She moved to Boulder, Colo., and started Alliances Abroad. (The company later changed its name to Alliance Abroad Group.) Initially, Lynden worked with her international friends to place students in jobs and homes throughout the world.
“I wanted to provide affordable opportunities for people to go abroad,” she says. “A lot of the programs at my former company cost between $5,000 and $10,000. I started programs to go abroad for about $500, and you could earn money back. Of course, I didn’t have a profit-making mentality; I could just make enough money to pay my own bills. But it wasn’t about that. It was about having an opportunity to make change.”
About a decade ago, while Lynden was running Alliance Abroad Group in San Francisco, she became weary of the weather, and started looking for a new home.
“I had always told myself that I would never live in Texas,” Lynden says with a laugh. “But it just seemed that there were so many reasons that made it the right place at that time.”
In Austin, Alliance Abroad Group – which emphasizes experiential learning by placing students and others in work and travel programs throughout the world – has continued to grow and thrive. This year, Alliance Abroad will bring about 15,000 people to the United States, the majority of them between the ages of 21 and 28, providing a learning experience and more life opportunities for these young people.
Of course, Lynden credits the success of the business to her employees and co-workers. “I’m not the one in the daily trenches,” she says. “I know how lucky I am to have the people I do. They make it a success.”
But those around her credit Lynden with making those successes a possibility. “I think that what Victoria does, what she’s creating, she tends to open doors, making things possible for other people,” says Piper Jones, Lynden’s partner. “That’s a strong statement for who she is and what she’s about.”
Thanks to her flourishing business, Lynden travels a great deal, leaving her family – Jones and daughters Sophie, 4, and Anabela, 19 months – at home in Austin most of the time. Despite being away from home so much, Lynden and Jones use the hardship as an opportunity to teach their children.
“We try to bring the girls traveling a lot, and that becomes a way of life for them too,” Lynden says. “We teach them about respecting other cultures and how to live life in a kind way. If I had to leave the planet tomorrow, I believe they could impact the world in a positive way.”
And it is just that attitude that makes Lynden a wonderful mother, says Jones. “Victoria is one of the most perfect role models for our daughters,” she says. “All the wonderful attributes she has I see as potentially being passed along to our girls so that they can become strong, capable women. I’m really excited about that.”
Honoring family is a virtue Lynden holds dear, and it is perhaps most evident in her desire to pass along her mother’s legacy. Several years ago Cissi died from lung cancer. The unexpected misfortune devastated Lynden. But instead of agonizing over her mother’s death, Lynden wanted to celebrate her life. Inspired by her mother’s longtime desire to operate a neighborhood store, Lynden opened Cissi’s Market, an urban grocery and deli located in the bustling South Congress Avenue community.
“I really wanted to offer something for everybody,” Lynden asserts. “I wanted it to be very diverse, and carry on what I felt my mother would do. I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished.”
Today, a framed portrait of Cissi, along with a signboard espousing her life philosophy – everyone is important, everyone has value – hangs on an interior wall, her gracious spirit welcoming shoppers to the market.
And despite not knowing much about the hospitality and food business, Lynden has created another growing business in Cissi’s, thanks, in part, to her knowledgeable employees.
“She empowers her people. She gives you the room to truly grow and do what you think is best for you. She’s very nurturing,” says Craig Thibodeau, the former general manager of Cissi’s, and the current director of development for the market and Kohana Coffee. “I’ve been an entrepreneur for a long time and I really thought I wouldn’t go back to work for anyone. Victoria has really made it inviting and challenging, and I’m very happy. One of the things I love about working for her is that she doesn’t make you feel like you are working for her, but working as a team.”
Cissi’s Market and Alliance Abroad Group continue to prosper, but for Lynden, that’s no reason to sit still. She’s currently involved in several other business ventures, including the nonprofit Association of International Development Exchange. She is also looking in to expanding Cissi’s and Kohana Coffee. And she’s even been collaborating with author Jan Bozarth on a book for girls and women titled “Fairy Godmothers Academy,” a cross, she says, between Harry Potter and “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” that may also be made in to a film.
While business is of key importance in Lynden’s life, she manages to find time for many charitable causes, is part of a women’s prayer group and attends Methodist church services regularly. She’s even a Reiki practitioner, a healing skill she views as another opportunity for helping people. But it is family, and particularly motherhood, that is most important to Lynden.
“Being a mother helps keep me young,” she says, her face lighting up at the mention of her daughters. “It’s the most rewarding thing for me.”
Juggling family, work and service is a tall order for any woman. But Lynden admits that she doesn’t have plans to retire from her work any time soon.
“I would hope that I could really continue, almost until my last breath, to look at various entrepreneurial ventures that serve in some type of educational way,” Lynden says. “The bottom line is that I want to be of service. I feel I’ve been successful if truly my legacy enables others to be of service.”