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Good morning and happy Monday! I hope you had a great Thanksgiving, whether you were able to gather safely with family or opted instead to prepare a delicious 10-course meal for one (Treat Yo’ Self — am I right?). In this week’s newsletter, you’ll meet two women leaders in the nonprofit sector, hear from Women Lead Change CEO Tiffany O’Donnell and Lilian Sanchez, who worked on Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign. Have a great week!
Leading authentically: How two women came to be the heads of Iowa nonprofits
If there’s anything that I’ve learned in interacting with, reading about and listening to women in leadership positions over the last few years, it’s that the path to getting where they are now was not a straight line. Occasionally, I’ll even meet women who have said they never imagined themselves leading an organization.

As I’ve mentioned before, one of my goals for Fearless is to introduce (or in some cases, reintroduce) you to new faces and voices from across the state and in doing so, go beyond surface-level conversations about what they do, and instead focus on who they are.

For this piece, I wanted to focus on women leaders in the nonprofit sector and learn about all of the jobs that they’ve held. I went into these interviews not with the goal of reciting a resume, but rather to really get into the experiences that these leaders have had in different points of their lives that have shaped who they are now. In doing so, I had one essential question: How did you get to where you are today? This is a shortened version of their profiles. To read the profiles in full, click here.

These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Meet Courtney Reyes, executive director of One Iowa since 2019
One Iowa is an organization based in the Des Moines metro area that seeks to advance, empower and improve the lives of LGBTQ Iowans statewide.

How did you start working at One Iowa?

In 2016, I worked at a little spa in West Des Moines. These folks were amazing. They embraced who I was, they loved me and all of my queerness. It was a really great job because I could still hang out with my kids after school. The morning after President Trump was elected, I was putting away lipsticks and I said, "This is not going to work. He is going to be coming for me, my family and my people." I knew that I had a voice that I could use and I needed to use it.

Daniel Hoffman-Zinnel was the executive director of One Iowa at the time, and he and my wife, Kate, were in the Greater Des Moines Leadership Institute together so we had connected a few times. He asked if I was interested in working at One Iowa. I took it, not really knowing what I was getting myself into. I started at One Iowa as an office assistant in 2017 and I only worked 20 hours a week.

To have my one-year anniversary as executive director of One Iowa in 2020 was definitely not the year I signed up for. I have one year of experience, but I will take that as 10 years. At the beginning, I knew I had the skills to do this and lead a team, but then my eyes kept getting bigger. We had 14 anti-LGBTQ bills come out of the Statehouse. Then a global pandemic. Then a liberation of Black people. All of those things happened and we kept showing up and doing our best to provide for LGBTQ Iowans and raise the voices of Black individuals in our community. I keep getting challenged with "What kind of leader do you want to be?"

What is your leadership style?

I lead with a heart-led, authentic leadership style. I think you can engage a lot of people that way, but that also means your heart can be smashed so very easily. This year has brought a lot of that.

Transparency with my team is incredibly important to me. With the pandemic, I could have chosen a route of not disclosing a lot of information with them, or I could have been very open with them about what’s happening with our finances and how we’re going to do this. I feel that has helped build that trust.

One of my biggest strengths as a leader is to be able to ask for help. A good friend of mine told me that we don’t have to be experts at everything. We can be really good at a few things and have other people help us. That was some of the best advice that I’ve ever received.

Why do you do what you do?

I want LGBTQ people to be able to show up and thrive, and not just survive. And to be embraced and celebrated. I believe you should be able to live your life and not be fearful. That because I’m holding my wife’s hand downtown, that I’m not going to get called something.

Meet Lisa Ambrose, CEO of Amani Community Services since 2014
Amani Community Services is a culturally specific domestic violence and sexual assault agency serving African Americans in Black Hawk and Linn counties.

Why did you start Amani?

I became a domestic violence advocate in 2010. I couldn’t put a name to what domestic violence was until I went through the training to be certified by the state of Iowa. I like helping people.

What were some jobs that you've held before starting Amani?

My first real job was probably when I worked in a nursing home as a nurse aide. It took a toll on me though because there was never enough help. I also saw people coming into work and doing it for the money and not because they care about the people. Eventually I said, "I’ve got to get out of this." I got carpal tunnel in my hand. I had to have surgery. My doctor said, "Your body is really not meant to do this type of work. You need to go back to school." That was the first time that someone talked to me about going to college.

I worked at a lot of fast-food restaurants. At Hardee's, I was the biscuit maker from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. When I was at Wendy’s, Arby’s and McDonald’s, I worked as a cashier and in the drive-thru. I actually liked working in fast food. The fast pace of it makes the time go by quickly. I liked to serve.

I even worked at a chicken plant one time. I remember getting on the bus, going there and I remember putting on boots and heavy gear. I didn’t even last a week. Factory work was not for me. I was doing a variety of jobs because I really didn’t know what I wanted to do.

When I finally decided to go back to school, I went to Hawkeye Community College and Upper Iowa University. I knew I wanted to be in a field where I could help people. But I wanted to work a career where I could have weekends and holidays.

When I graduated from Upper Iowa University, I got my first social working job at Operation Threshold in Waterloo in the low income energy assistance program (LIHEAP). When I was working there, I had my first bout with domestic violence. My partner had called and got me fired on the 87th or 88th day. I was so close to my 90 days. Once I graduated from college, I had a different mindset, different friends and wanted to move forward. He couldn’t handle it.

From there, I went to work in the Waterloo school district. I thought I was going to be a counselor. But then the school [Longfellow Elementary] closed. They lost their funding, so I didn’t have a job.

Then I started working with people with disabilities at Families First. I learned how to advocate for them. I did that for a couple of years. I realized that I knew I wanted to get back into the field in terms of working with families. I ran into my old principal and he was working for Seeds of Hope. He said, "I know you have the degree; all you need is the training. So the next time an opening comes up, I’m going to tell them about you." And that’s what happened. That’s when I really got the passion to work with victims of domestic violence.

Why do you do what you do?

In my community, Black people have already had a lot of trauma in historical experiences, racial disparities and systemic differences set up against people of color. We experience trauma on a daily basis. I want to have an agency where they can come to talk to people that look like them and have that experience and still experience. Just because I’m a CEO doesn’t mean I don’t get discriminated against or go through the same trauma. There is hope. You have to find in this crazy world that we live in, you have to find something that you really enjoy to help others.

How it started and how it’s going
Have you seen the memes about "How it started/How it’s going?" You’ll see things like a couple’s wedding picture (how it started) adjacent to their now grown family (how it’s going). Or the first day on the job as a line worker next to that same line worker now owning the company. You get the idea.

Friends, I offer you this version. On one side is the picture of a female leader at her work-from-home desk, complete with a large monitor for video calls (how it started). Adjacent to that photo is a picture of that same desk, empty. The monitor is now on the dining room table, facing an elementary school-aged child navigating this week’s math lesson (how it’s going).

The empty desk and, more importantly, absent leader are a part of what’s being called the women’s recession. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the workforce lost 865,000 women during September. That’s four times the number of men who left the same workforce.

McKinsey reports that 1 in 4 women are considering downshifting their careers or dropping out of the workforce altogether. If that number holds, we could lose 2 million women in corporate America.

One hundred thousand senior leaders will leave the workforce.

The reasons range from burnout to increased caregiving duties at home. Any attempt at work-life integration is proving challenging at best, impossible at worst. For the women in the numbers above, leaving work was the best option in a lose-lose situation.

This is not just a women’s issue, it is a business issue. When women lose, we all lose.

The business case for women in leadership is strong. Through McKinsey, we know that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above the median for their respective industries. Companies with the highest representation of women on their boards outperform those with the lowest on return on equity, sales and invested capital.

We need to be using this moment to develop our leaders, not diminish them. COVID-19 provides the opportunity to explore new workplace culture and structure.

A few ideas:
  • Adjust productivity and performance goals to align with work-life integration in mind.
  • Communicate flexibility and mean it.
  • Establish no-meeting hours in the day.
  • Adjust policies and programs to support employees, including paid time off, mental health support, child care/home schooling support.
  • Communicate expectations and plans. Be transparent through multiple checkpoints.

Organizations that are purposeful in retaining a talented workforce during the pandemic will thrive in a post-pandemic world. If a women’s recession is how it started, let’s work to ensure that how it’s going includes a massive recovery.

It’s not just the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do.

Left: Ruth Klotz. Center: Claudia Schabel. Right: Janet Yellen.
In the headlines
Things worth consuming
Advice from seven women on how they overcame their pandemic struggles (NPR). Why undocumented women are afraid to get prenatal care (NYT). Women have long been the leaders in Navajo culture. Now they’re steering the fight against COVID-19 (The Guardian). Portraits of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s favorite collars and the stories behind them (Time). A documentary about illegal sterilizations in women’s prisons (PBS). Women of color made history in local political races around the country (The 19th). Women in finance have to ask for promotions. Men don’t (Fortune). "Maybe resiliency is bouncing back. But it’s also just rolling out of bed some days" (USA Today). A day in the life of an Amazon warehouse worker (WSJ). Heat waves may be bad for your pregnancy (NYT). What does a year of isolation and anxiety do to young children in quarantine? (The Cut). Women of color won congressional seats in record numbers. How will they legislate? (Washington Post). Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, shares her story of miscarriage (NYT).
‘A vision to see what can be unburdened by what has been’
I grew up the proud daughter of an immigrant. A single mom who sought refuge from an abusive household in the state known for its Field of Dreams. I grew up proud of my Mexican roots surrounded by strong and resilient women who would do anything and everything to give their children a better life than the one they had themselves. A life with "a vision to see what could be unburdened by what has been." A life full of possibilities.

Almost exactly a year after I became a U.S. citizen, then-Sen. Kamala Harris was named the first Asian American and the first female African American to be nominated for vice president on a major party ticket. And less than four months after that I found myself, a first-time voter, at my local county auditor’s office alongside my mother voting for our country’s first woman and woman of color to ever be elected vice president of the United States.

Like me, she’s the proud daughter of an immigrant single mother. Like me, she understands the gift and beauty that comes with our multicultural backgrounds. Like me, she represents the future of our country. This historic election is a nod to all the little Black and brown girls across this country to embrace their story and be unapologetically ambitious. It is a symbol of hope and a challenge to all of us women of color to never give up on the dreams our ancestors passed on to us. We are our ancestors' wildest dreams and we will be our country’s greatest legacy.

Lilián Sánchez is a proud immigrant, first-gen graduate of the University of Iowa, and served as Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ Iowa deputy political director. She is currently the recipient of the prestigious Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Public Policy Fellowship, working with the American Civil Liberties Union's National Political Advocacy Department.

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