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How Cross-Sector Leaders Build Power & Pathways to Leadership

The Women’s Foundation of Minnesota’s annual Equity Summit on Friday, May 6, was a great day of listening, learning & connection as we collectively build power for gender & racial justice.

After a welcome by President & CEO Gloria Perez, keynote speaker Dr. Rachel Hardeman explored the intersections of reproductive justice and police violence, and described how structural racism affects reproductive health outcomes. Bringing antiracist practices to the field of health, Dr. Hardeman shared how health and all systems must incorporate equity and inclusion so all patients can thrive. Following the keynote, donor and corporate partners joined a breakout session designed to activate their leadership and meaningfully support women of color’s pathways to leadership in all fields.

In this breakout session at the WFMN Equity Summit 2022: Building Power for a New Day, leaders in government, corporate, nonprofits, philanthropy, and higher education shared their insights on what it takes to build power within institutions and as individuals for gender and racial equity and justice. Their inspiring conversation uncovers new insights for leaders seeking to build stronger pathways for women of color into leadership and executive positions. The panel asked: How do today’s leaders see their role as agents for positive change? How can we all better coach, mentor, support, share power, and stay present during unique leadership challenges? Speakers emphasized the importance of listening to community-led solutions, speaking up to own your leadership, writing your vision for the future, collaborating, and sponsoring young women of color in leadership.

See the Summit Session:

Looking to build strong and sustaining pathways for women of color into leadership and executive positions? Listen to this recording featuring transformational leaders who inspire, challenge, and call us to action,

About the Presentation:

Dr. Verna Price, founder and CEO of The Power of People Consulting, facilitated a conversation with dynamic leaders from across sectors who shared what it means and looks like to build leadership and community power for women and girls in our state. Joining the discussion were Chanda Smith Baker, Chief Impact Officer and Senior Vice President of Impact at The Minneapolis Foundation and the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota’s Board Vice Chair; Mayor Maria Regan Gonzalez, Systems Director of Equity Initiatives at M Health Fairview, Mayor of Richfield, and member of the Executive Council for the Young Women’s Initiative of Minnesota; Dr. Nerita Hughes, Dean of School of Business, Careers, Education & Workforce Innovation at North Memorial Community College and President and Chief Executive Officer of JG Consulting; and Debarati Sen, President of Construction and the Home Improvement Division at 3M, and the Board Treasurer of Women’s Foundation.

Dr. Price began the session reflecting on her work as an educator for more than 30 years. “As I think about my career, one of the things that would have taken me much farther so much faster would have been mentors like these women who have already been there. They know what’s going on. And they don’t mind telling their stories.”

Chanda Smith Baker spoke to the importance of growing up in a supportive community that pushed her by presenting opportunities to lead, show up, and speak that opened the door to see more possibilities in life.

As a public health professional, Maria Regan Gonzalez never considered a career in politics, but she knew and cared about her community and saw the gaps experienced by people of color at a local level. “I have something to contribute,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not just about a seat for me. It’s about opening that seat for a whole community.” She went on to become the first Latina mayor in the Midwest and in the state of Minnesota.

“When you’re a first, there is no playbook. We create our own playbooks. And to be honest, we don’t need a playbook. There’s not a playbook that includes us. There’s not a playbook that includes us and welcomes us. So as a first, we create our own playbooks. And the answer to any type of leadership, I will say, is to own who you are. Know who you are. And own that genuinely and authentically. And that will open the doors to how to lead.”

– Mayor Maria Regan Gonzalez

Dr. Nerita Hughes addressed the challenges experienced by women of color in higher education administration, and the biases facing Black women who advocate for themselves or their ideas. “I don’t necessarily follow a path. I make my own path,” she said. In her role as Dean of School of Business, Careers, Education & Workforce Innovation at North Hennepin Community College, she sees the need for a holistic conception of education and the values offered by community colleges and technical institutions.

Deba Sen shared the biases she faced head-on when she came to the US from India in her mid-30s and joined 3M as the first woman MBA and engineer working on her floor. She addressed the importance of diversifying the fields of STEM, and shared that less than 1% of Fortune 500 CEOs are African American. For women and girls, if they don’t see themselves represented in the field and they don’t have the context for the purpose of science, engineering, math, and technology, they will not stay with the field. “Self-selection is the biggest issue for STEM for girls and especially for women of color,” she said. “I remind myself every day if I don’t find my cause worth fighting for, why should somebody else? Corporate America has a lot of work ahead of it.”

Elevate What Needs to Change, Identify Your Role

Mayor Gonzalez offered the challenge: “How do we create a future that is abundance-based, that is asset based, that is rooted in our cultures, in our communities? And that’s going to be the approach that we need to take to govern. To have communities that are welcoming and inclusive. That build wealth, that build prosperity. And all those isms are the issues that we need to tackle. It needs a different type of approach.”

Chanda Smith Baker shared that leaders must continue to elevate what needs to change as much as elevating the inspirational stories of change. “It is a personal responsibility, if you believe in progress,” she said, “to make sure you understand how your light is either shining or diminishing someone else’s.”

“I believe wholeheartedly that we have a role to continue to individually push ourselves into saying what we know is right in our hearts and our heads and our minds, and on behalf of our community.”

– Chanda Smith Baker

Listen to Communities, Collaborate On Solutions

Dr. Hughes challenged leaders to create community through collaboration on issues.
Chanda Smith Baker noted that to be effective and create change, leaders must listen. “Communities have been sharing their story and their pain. They have been walking away from corporations, schools, all kinds of things. We have been in the streets. We have communicated about police violence. I think that and I hope that our state is learning from these lessons.”

Be More than a Mentor

The panel closed the session by sharing their action steps for building leadership and power with the next generation. Dr. Hughes invited leaders to reach out to a young woman or young person and become their sponsor. “That is very different from a mentor. A sponsor is really going to invest. A sponsor invests in individuals. Share your stories. Share, you know, the positives, the negatives, the in-betweens. So they see you.” Share how you got to where you are, and who helped you along the way.

Identify Your Goals

Mayor Gonzalez encouraged young women and girls to identify their own vision. “The great recalibration is our opportunity to own our leadership and our vision for the future. Go have a beautiful, quiet, space somewhere that is a refuge, whether it’s your bedroom or your backyard or go somewhere out and dream about what is that leadership description for your next step for your career, for your future? And write it down and make it happen. […] Write down, this is how much I want to be making. This is the scope of work. This is the level of leadership. Here’s the kind of life I want to live. Sit down. Write it down. And pitch it to the world. And share it with your mentors. Now is the time for us to say, here’s how we can contribute to improving the world.”

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