Cross-posted with the permission of Yawa Hansen-Quao
Earlier this year, I was one of thirteen women leaders from 9 countries chosen to participate in the the Fortune/U.S. State Department Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership; a remarkable initiative that recruits women leaders from around the world and pairs them with women leaders in America for mentorship. I feel so honored to have been nominated and selected for such a rewarding opportunity.
The program more than exceeded my expectations and I will be eternally grateful for the opportunity to learn from some of the most successful women leaders in America and receive some personalized guidance to further my professional growth. During my time on the program, I was mentored by Molly Ashby; the CEO and Chairman of Solera Capital and Sherrie Westin; executive VP at The Sesame Workshop.
I recently confessed to a friend that I nearly said no to the opportunity to participate in the Fortune Program. Honestly, when I received the news of my selection for the program, I had so much going on and wondered if I was in a place where I could fully maximize the opportunity. To further complicate things, a few weeks before I got selected my husband and I became foster parents to an AIDS orphan whose poor state of health required round the clock medical care. We had just been hit with the news that she was showing resistance to almost every antiretroviral available in our country. The doctors prescribed her a new cocktail of drugs which brought on some adverse side effects and I felt super guilty about leaving while she was in such a critical medical condition.
Believe it or not, I decided to commit to the program after re-watching an old episode of The Good Wife (please don’t judge me!) the episode where Alicia is finally offered the opportunity to become a partner at her law firm but then begins to hesitate about accepting the offer. The words of advice from her boss and mentor Diane Lockhart hit me like a ton of bricks: “When the door you have been knocking at finally swings open, you don’t ask why. You run through.” And so, I ran through and boy, am I glad that I did! Without doubt, the Fortune Program has been the most disruptive and most empowering leadership experience I have ever been a part of.
The Fortune Program is managed by a wonderful team from Vital Voices; a women’s leadership nonprofit based in D.C. When I arrived in DC and took part in the orientation program, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Vital Voices was actually named after the Vital Voices Democracy Initiative; a brainchild of then First Lady of the United States (and now U.S. Democratic Party Presidential Candidate) Hillary Rodham Clinton and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. They established the Vital Voices Democracy Initiative following the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing to promote the advancement of women as a U.S. foreign policy goal. And today, Vital Voices continues the work of empowering women leaders from all over the world.
As part our our orientation program, we met Alyse Nelson; President of Vital Voices who shared with us her personal leadership journey which all started with her attending the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. Attending the conference was a pivotal moment that inspired her to devote nearly two decades of her life empowering women leaders from all over the world. As I sat there listening to this remarkable woman, I cried softly because it reminded me of a memory that I had long since forgotten. My mind wandered back to a time when my family and I were immigrants living in America. My father was a news junkie, so we always had the T.V. switched on to CNN. One day, I remember being mesmerized by the image of First Lady Hillary Clinton on our TV screen. I didn’t really know much about the women’s movement then, nor did I understand the effect her words would have on the world. But I did know one thing…-…I was captivated and inspired by the image of a woman speaking intelligently, dressed impeccably and exuding a confidence I had always longed to possess. What I was watching that day as a young twelve year old African girl was footage of Clinton’s speech where she famously declared that “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.” It was the first time I could recall seeing a woman leader that I truly admired. For years that followed, I would read transcripts of her speeches; sometimes even reading them aloud to myself pretending I was the one giving the speech. Having the opportunity to benefit from the work of an organization that Clinton helped initiate made my experience even more meaningful. I’m an African woman with no vote in this year’s U.S. election. I come from a continent where tradition to a large extent, determines the path that most women’s lives take. To women like me, women like Clinton are proof to ambitious girls everywhere that they too can and should aim to be whatever they want to be.
Perhaps the best part of being on the Fortune Program, was the opportunity to learn and grow with twelve other ambitious women leaders from various parts of the globe. The program was masterfully crafted and the mentees so well selected. Never before have I felt so vulnerable yet so safe. Not once did not feel like an outlier but never did I feel too comfortable to take the experience for granted. I cried on at least three shoulders. My shoulders were cried on at least twice. Remarkably, each of us participants have different individual stories yet one unified voice of hope and spirit of determination. We each created space for each other. We encouraged and motivated each other. We had tough conversations. And in the months since we have each returned home, we remain connected and engaged. I am being held accountable as I am keeping others on their toes too. Together, I have no doubt that we will push the boundaries of what the world believes is possible for women.
So, thank you Good Wife, thank you Mrs. Clinton and thank you Fortune Program partners. I have found my tribe.