20 Under 40: Courtney Underwood

Courtney Underwood | 36

Underwood Commercial Properties, The SANE Initiative
Education: SMU

This year marks the 16th that Courtney Underwood has fought to expand services for victims of sexual violence, both in our community and across the state. Deemed “the Dallas area’s most prominent advocate for sex crimes” by the Dallas Morning News, the Highland Park resident still remembers how terrified she felt the first time she publicly shared her story about being a rape victim. In the March 2009 issue of D Magazine, she talked about her mission and bringing SANE’s (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) to the city – and she would still do it all “to help one single survivor.” Between her work with the initiative and becoming the owner and CEO of Underwood Commercial Properties four years ago after closing out her mother’s estate, Courtney calls her day-to-day life crazy but blessed. And she’s dreaming big for the future; her goal is to establish the first Family Advocacy Center in Dallas – the largest city in the country without one, open more SAFE Clinics across the U.S., and ensure all hospitals have SANEs in their ERs.

Q: What leadership skills were the most challenging for you to develop?
A: Definitely patience in addition to learning that success is built upon the back of failure.

Q: What did you learn from your first job?
A: Working in the service industry not only gave me an enormous appreciation for everyone who works in the industry but it also taught me that one of the best ways to judge a person’s character is to watch how they treat servers in those in the industry.

Did You Know?
Brooks was a therapy dog for sexual assault victims before being trained as my service dog. He’s also the mascot for Courtney’s SAFE Place, and he’s always sporting a bow tie.

Q: Where do you see yourself and/or your career 10 years from now?

A: I see myself walking out of Dallas’ beautiful, successful and vibrant Family Advocacy Center which is transforming lives, taking a call about another SAFE Clinic opening in a rural town because all the big cities already have forensic clinics for victims of violence, and smiling because I know that every hospital Emergency Room in the US has SANEs in their ERs as required by law. I dream big, so we’ll shoot for five years. (For context, Dallas is the largest city in the country without a Family Advocacy/Justice Center; presently very few SAFE Clinics exist throughout the US, and many hospital ERs across the country don’t even provide and perform rape kits much less have SANEs, even when required by law to do so as they are in Texas.)

Q: What was your “lightbulb moment” that lead you to your career?

A: I think it was in 2012 when I realized that I had developed the skills to work with other hospitals to design, develop, implement and fund SANE Programs in their hospitals, therein removing a huge barrier to the expansion of SANE Programs. In Real Estate I would say it was realizing that running our family company isn’t really about real estate, it’s about carrying on my mom’s incredible legacy and having the opportunity to help other businesses find success. I like to think I run our family company with the goal of making the world a better place every day, in addition to being successful economically of course.

Q: What do you love about the Park Cities or Preston Hollow community and why?

A: First, I have to say I absolutely love and am so grateful for our Highland Park Police Department and secondly, the amazing Town of Highland Park Library and our fabulous librarians. I treasure my neighbors and love the close-knit feel that is at the core of the Park Cities. It’s wonderful to live in a community where people smile and wave at one another, are excited to see our HP police on the streets keeping everyone safe, and the HP library has been one of my favorite places (pre and post renovation LOL) for my entire life.

Q: What is your favorite local store?

A: Saint Michael’s Woman’s Exchange

Q: Where is the best place in the Park Cities or Preston Hollow for a power lunch – what do you order?

A: Highland Park Village MiCocina, my second home, where the service is always fabulous. (Chicken Fajitas) Followed closely by Honor Bar (The Kale Salad)

Q: If there was ONE thing that you could change or improve in the community, what would it be?

A: The Park Cities is full of some of our community’s most powerful community, business, and philanthropic leaders; I would love to see our residents really pull together to strengthen the public-private partnership between residents, The Dallas Police Department, and the city of Dallas to help deal with some of the enormous struggles facing the City of Dallas right now. And it would obviously be fabulous if everyone in our community would stand with me to help open a Family Advocacy Center in Dallas.

Q: If you could buy a book (or rent a movie) for your neighbor, what would it be and why?

A: “Something’s Gotta Give” It’s one of my all-time favorite movies, and one I think you can watch a million times and still love.

Q: If someone made a movie of your life, what would the title be and who would play you?

A: Tough One … Maybe “Beautiful Scars” or “A Rising Phoenix”. And honestly, I have no idea; in a dream world maybe Jennifer Garner, because she’s inordinately talented.

Q: If we looked at your social media accounts, what would we learn about you?

A: First, you’ll see lots of Brooks and his many bow ties. I think it would become quickly apparent that I have some of the most absolutely, amazing friends, who are really my chosen family, and who make up an incredible support system in times of success and in times of grief. I’m blessed to be Auntie Courtney or Auntie Cookie to all of my best friends’ kiddos, which is an incredible honor, and I love their kids more than words can say. If you scroll down a bit, you’ll also get a glimpse of all the amazing community partners, supporters, and friends who stood outside in 30-degree weather for over half an hour for the ribbon cutting for Courtney’s SAFE Place. And you’ll probably also ascertain that Brooks and I keep our sanity despite my crazy work schedule by escaping to the lake.

Q: If you could, what advice would you have for your teenage self and why?

A: I feel like there are a million different things I wish I could tell myself, but I’m going to go with the most difficult, most raw answer for this one. I wish that I could go back and provide my 15-year-old self with the knowledge I was so desperately searching for after being raped at knifepoint. I would tell myself that what happened was not my fault, that people would believe me (and if someone didn’t I shouldn’t care), and that I needed to go straight to my mom, and she would keep us safe from my perpetrator’s threats of what he would do if I told anyone. It’s difficult to imagine how that decision would have impacted my life, but I think at the end of the day my life now would still be about transforming the lives of other survivors, and I’m so grateful that something so horrific has been transformed into something beautiful that spreads hope and healing.

Q: What, to date, has been your most impressive or rewarding accomplishment in both your professional and personal life?

A: I think one of the absolute most rewarding moments in my life was the ribbon cutting for Courtney’s SAFE Place; I was surrounded by Dallas cops who I’ve been working with for more than a decade, funders who have been with me far longer than a decade supporting my fight to establish a SANE Program in Dallas and then expand it to more hospitals, SANEs from Dallas programs as well as SANEs that are working at Courtney’s SAFE Place, incredible community leaders, The Turning Point and Courtney’s SAFE Place Staff, and so many amazing friends and partners—all standing in the FREEZING cold wind and weather to celebrate and support the opening of a truly SAFE place for survivors of sexual violence. The opening marked twenty years since I was raped and fifteen years since I started what has turned into an incredible campaign. As I spoke and looked at the huge crowd standing in the parking lot, it was as though I could see all the amazing strides that have been successfully made over the years and all the heroes who have dedicated their lives to improving and transforming the lives of survivors. I saw incredible inspiration and hope. When D Magazine first did a story in March of 2009 about my mission and the fact that a SANE Program was finally coming to Dallas, the story marked the first time I had ever come out as a rape victim publicly, which felt terrifying at the time. But as soon as I saw the story, I realized that if the program helped one single victim, everything I’ve been through and survived was well worth. Now, 16 years later I would still do it all to help one single survivor, but it’s amazing to know that we’ve all banded together to transform the lives of thousands, and now I tell my story with the pride of a survivor who strives to bring hope and healing to victims.

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