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Pathways to (Non)Profit

By Tunisia L. Riley

On June 23, The National Council for Research on Women’s Emerging Leaders Network and the Girl Scouts of the USA presented “Pathways to (Non)Profit.” This powerhouse panel included women who made the transition from corporate to non-profit careers and others who made their entire career in non-profit sector.

The panel, which included Elizabeth Grayer (Legal Momentum), Tiffany Dufu (The White House Project), Jaclyn Libowitz (Girl Scouts), Sister Theresa Rickard (RENEW International) and Shyama Venkateswar (NCRW ), shared their paths to non-profit work, the importance of mentors and sponsors as well as knowing your strengths, and what the panelists gained and sacrificed by making a career in non-profit. 

Courtney E. Martin, author of several books including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, kicked off the evening by creating an atmosphere of inspiration and a desire for activism as she spoke candidly about what it means to “save the world.” Martin stressed rising above lofty expectations of change, having the self-awareness to know where you fit in to fit the world’s needs, and focusing on good failure, because change takes a long time.

The evening was moderated by Michael Watson of the Girl Scouts of USA whose first job was selling books door-to-door in Georgia with no car or place to live. The challenge inspired his drive and enhanced his sales ability. These skills served him well as he advanced through a high-powered corporate career path. When the Girl Scouts came knocking, however, he faced an important career decision: work to make an impact or continue work in the corporate sector. He chose the former and has been with the Girl Scouts for 12 years. Reflecting on his own career, Watson offered this advice: take risks and be open to transformative experiences.

Watson and Martin set the stage for a galvanizing evening that left me feeling that I was imbued with talents to save a portion of the world and that if everyone in the room does their part, change is possible.

Each of the dynamic panelists shared palpable advice on how to navigate a non-profit career and were truly encouraging to those of us rising through the ranks. Perhaps my favorite part of the evening was witnessing the exchange of wisdom among the brilliant leaders featured on the panel. Each panelist not only shared their unique career path but also their sources of influence and inspiration that have kept them going when the going got rough. Tiffany Dufu recently assumed the role of President at The White House Project. Mentors (or sages as she calls them) and sponsors were most influential to her. She credits women like Marie Wilson, former President of The White House Project, and Jane “Janie” Williams, who took Tiffany under their wings and helped her advance in her career.

Elizabeth Grayer recently transitioned from a highly successful legal career to head Legal Momentum, one of the oldest women’s legal defense firms. She offered great career advice:

• have confidence in yourself and abilities
• engage others and share your thoughts
• have solutions as well as problems--the end is not to explain why it’s a problem, the end is to have a solution

She also offered this pearl of wisdom: success in the workplace is not only the result of hard work and good work. They’re necessary but not sufficient. You also have to figure out the culture of the organization and what you should be doing to get involved. This doesn’t mean you have to play golf, but it does mean networking and getting to know your colleagues.

Jaclyn Libowitz’s entire professional career has been with the Girl Scouts, starting as a volunteer, working to become one of the youngest CEOs of a regional Girl Scout council, and currently serving at the Girl Scouts of USA’s Chief of Staff. Her main piece of career advice was that you don’t always have to know the answer: ask for help, always speak the truth and know when you need help.

Growing up in Queens, NY, volunteerism and faith were foundational core values that propelled Sister Terry Rickard into her career path. She came of age right as Title IX passed and saw sports as an opportunity to be involved rather than cheer from the sidelines. In all her jobs, investing in girls, helping them build confidence and advance in their own lives was important to Rickard. She applies these same desires and core values to her work at RENEW International where she is now the President. For her, leadership is the opportunity to make an impact on others, work hard, and bring up the people around you. Her advice: Wherever you are, be a leader in that area and take initiative. Don’t let others tell you what you can and cannot do. Remember your sense of community and that alone you can’t save the world: “there’s only one savior, and his name is not Terry Rickard.”

Shyama Venkateswar of the National Council for Research on Women suggested that women’s leadership and social justice are intertwined. Venkateswar grew up in India and, like Rickard, was surrounded by women in leadership positions and core values of social justice. She carries these values into her everyday life as a non-profit leader. When you work in the non-profit sector, she said, you live your life and work together: you don’t think about low-income women and then go to a palace. You live your mission. To be successful in this environment, Venkateswar advised bringing your ideas to the workplace along with gumption. In other words, don’t be dead wood. What keeps her hope alive is her children: “I learn from my children every day; they teach me how to love better.”

From the rich dialogue that evening, I left with the following takeaways:
• be confident
• seek out mentors/sponsors/sages
• learn from your mistakes
• take risks
• find where you fit in to make an impact where you are

The event was co-sponsored by 6 organizations/networks to advancing the leadership of young women in the non-profit sector: Asia Society’s Women Leaders of New Asia Initiative; The Ms. Foundation for Women; National Organization for Women (NOW) NY State Young Feminist Task Force; Wagner Women's Caucus; Young Professionals Committee - Metro NY Chapter - USNC for UN Women; Young Women Social Entrepreneurs.

Tunisia L. Riley is a woman who wears many creative hats. She is the Web Editor of Under the Microscope, a website that encourages and promotes women and girls in the sciences. She is also the Senior Associate Editor at New York Life Insurance Company. When she’s not writing or editing for Under the Microscope or NY Life she is involved with NCRW as a 2010-2011 AMEX-NCRW Fellow, NCRW blogger, and as a member of the NCRW Emerging Leaders Network. She’s also an active member of the New York Urban League Young Professionals where she writes for their quarterly publication, The Griot. She holds a BA in English and Women’s Studies from the College of William & Mary and an MA in Women’s Studies from the University of South Florida. She believes “when we tell our stories, we empower those around us to agitate injustice, inspire change, and create activism.”

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