SALT LAKE CITY — Three weeks before Amy Antonelli was scheduled to speak at Brigham Young University-Idaho’s Power to Become conference in October 2014 about her successful career path, she lost her job.
Antonelli rewrote her speech about 20 times, trying to “skirt around" what had happened. But nothing felt right, she said, because it wasn’t the truth. Having scrambled to finish a final version at 2 a.m., Antonelli took the stage and shared her story.
“Imagine waking up the morning before your 40th birthday with no children and no spouse, having just been fired from a great job at Facebook and realizing that night you were supposed to speak to thousands of students about how to find their purpose in life," she said in her opening remarks.
It was in Rexburg, as a student, where she first learned that God could make more of her life than she could alone. And doors had opened that she would have never imagined.
Her job at Facebook was part of a resume that included working for a startup that was aquired by Apple, serving as a spokesperson for Steve Jobs and spending seven years in a leprosy colony in India. She is now the CEO of Deseret Network International, a nonprofit organization of humanitarian and leadership programs for youths based in Salt Lake City.
“Finding our purpose is never a one-time event; it’s literally the work of our lives. It’s what we were created to do over and over and over again,” Antonelli told the Deseret News during an interview in her office in Salt Lake City.
Antonelli, a California native, dreamed of being a stay-at-home mom — which is still “the greatest, dearest hope of my heart,” she said. As mothers around the world are celebrated this weekend, Antonelli is on a journey she sees as “incredibly fulfilling and unbelievably joyful" — one that has involved caring for and nurturing children and youths throughout the world.
“I don’t believe that there has been some great cosmic mistake in the universe, where I’m 43 years old now and not married,” Antonelli said. “And I feel like the worst thing in the world I could have done for the last 20 years is sit on the bench and wish that I was married so I could get into the game. I’m here. I’m on earth. I’m living my life because I’m becoming this woman I was created to become.”
Antonelli, whose own mother is deaf and whose father is “every inch the Italian immigrant,” described her parents’ faith as “bedrock.” She said her mother raised her and her four sisters to understand that trials are an inevitable part of life and to not let hard things hold them back. Her father was a convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at age 12 and has allowed its teachings to mold and shape him ever since.
Antonelli said her most life-changing experience was spending seven years with Rising Star Outreach, a nonprofit that helps leprosy colonies in rural India.
“I’ve never been happier than when I was in the dirt in leprosy colonies,” she said. “We built a school over there and we have 200 children now that call me 'Mom.'”
Antonelli never expected to end up working in India. After graduating with degrees from Ricks College and Brigham Young University and returning from a full-time Mormon mission to Italy, Antonelli moved to California to work with an internet startup that was acquired by Apple in 2002. She then was offered a job as a spokesperson for Apple’s executive officers, including CEO Steve Jobs, and she moved to the heart of Silicon Valley.
“It was a dream life, driving my little white convertible around Palo Alto. I thought I was living in paradise,” she said. But after a few years, she had an “earth-shattering” realization that she wasn’t living the life she wanted to live.
During a humanitarian trip to India after the 2004 tsunami, she met Rising Star Outreach founder Becky Douglas, who took her to a leprosy colony. Touched by what she saw and felt, Antonelli returned to California, quit her job at Apple and moved to India six months later to become the first executive director of Rising Star Outreach.
Antonelli said she knew she had been in the right place at the right time and witnessed miracles as the years passed.
“I was the executive director, but I was definitely not in charge,” Antonelli said. “God would just bring us the people that we needed at the time when they were needed, and, one by one, these amazing people would show up and write their page in the story of Rising Star. It was like I was just sitting back and watching this beautiful book being written and I wasn’t the one writing it.”
David Aruldass, from India, was a 10-year-old student at the Rising Star Outreach school when he first met Antonelli. A convert to the LDS Church who didn’t speak much English, Aruldass remembers Antonelli’s smile and glow, going to church with her each week and listening to her tell stories from the Book of Mormon.
“I still remember Amy, how strong she was (and) how inspiring she was, with her faith and dedication to help me to come to the U.S. and gain such a good education,” said Aruldass, now 25 and a student at BYU. “That’s when we really became good friends. She’s like my big sister.”
Aruldass said Antonelli, who now teaches a nonprofit management class for BYU master’s students, has continued to be a constant source of support for him, especially at BYU.
“Once I got into BYU, it was really hard for me," he said. "Amy continued to encourage me and told me to do my best and God will take care of the rest."
Antonelli said her experience in India inspired her to learn more about social innovation, and she earned an MPA from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in 2013.
Antonelli was then hired by Facebook — a process she said took 15 interviews — to design a program that would help employees become more mission-driven. She was thrilled with the opportunity.
After months of research, Antonelli and her team felt they had the solution to the problem: ask employees to give more and connect Facebook to what matters most to them. It could be a movement they were passionate about or raising money for a neighbor with cancer down the street, she said.
For Antonelli, it was her faith. Employees just needed to find “their thing” that drives them.
"CEO Mark Zuckerberg believed that Facebook was a way to connect the two-thirds of the world who don't have access to health care, education and finance long before he met me," she said. "I just tried to help the people who worked at Facebook to feel his vision."
But then, the unimaginable happened. Antonelli said she was fired because of a mistake she made while trying to do better at her job — one that she's not embarrassed about because "I know there was no malicious intent behind it," she said.
Though it was hard in the moment, Antonelli said she now understands failure is part of life.
“I don’t think there are mistakes when that happens,” Antonelli said. “I think that’s God’s way of deepening us because we’re becoming the people we were created to become.”
After her time at Facebook, Antonelli moved to Salt Lake City to spend two years developing a mentoring program for the self-reliance initiative of the LDS Church.
In January 2017, she became CEO of Deseret Network International, the parent organization of Humanitarian Experience for Youth (HEFY), Youth Summit Jerusalem (YSJ) and Youth Refugee Coalition (YRC). Antonelli continues to draw upon her professional, academic and spiritual experience to help young people connect with God in new ways.
“When we take these kids on trips, they’re working their guts out all day long and they’re hot and dirty and sweaty and exhausted. And then they come home … and they have felt love for people in a way they didn’t know they could,” Antonelli said.
HEFY, the largest and longest-running of the three programs, will run 130 humanitarian trips on six continents for almost 3,000 participants this summer — the most it's ever done. The theme for this year is “There will be miracles.”
Kelsi Christensen, executive director of YRC, which sends 18- and 19-year-olds to work in the Syrian refugee camps in Greece, has been working with Antonelli since she took over as CEO. Christensen said she watched as Antonelli grew the organization by 70 percent, “believing in people and seeing potential in a lot of them to try things.” One example is the recent creation of YRC.5 comments on this story
“We wanted to do something with refugees but knew it didn’t really match the HEFY formula,” Christensen said. “One day I had a passing comment, ‘Oh, we could make this refugee thing into an organization,’ and the next day she was on the phone telling people I was the executive director of this new organization.”
That’s exactly how Antonelli operates, Christensen said. “She gives us things that we think we don’t deserve or that we think we’re not qualified, and that’s what allows us to progress. She believes in us and trusts us. ... She sees us like (God) does, and that’s pretty cool.”