5 Powerful Lessons from Our 2022 Women of Influence Summit

Published on March 7, 2022 in , , ,

For the past six years, hundreds of women and supporters have gathered at United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s Women of Influence Summit to celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day.

Women United, a philanthropic group of women dedicated to supporting our early childhood education work, hosted the event. Women shared personal stories and professional experiences while highlighting those who have inspired them along the way. Money also was raised to help fund Child Development Associate certifications for childcare providers across the region.

Since its inception, the summit, sponsored by DTE Energy, has raised nearly $1 million for childcare provider trainings and certifications, as well as other supports for early childhood education, with a goal to ensure every child has equal access to the support and care needed to help them thrive.

As Dr. Darienne Hudson, president and CEO of United Way for Southeastern Michigan, said during the summit, “It’s not just about the impact individuals have had on families in our community, but also the undeniable power of quality early childhood education, and indeed, the power of empowered women.”

Esteemed speakers included Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Susan Taylor, founder and CEO of the National CARES Mentoring Movement and editor-in-chief emeritus of Essence Magazine. Kamilia Landrum, executive director of the Detroit branch of the NAACP; Maha Freij, president and CEO of ACCESS, and Debbie Manzano, Director of Manufacturing – Transmission, Driveline and Powertrain Components for Ford Motor Company, all participated in a dynamic panel moderated by WDIV Anchor Karen Drew.

Although the summit participants hailed from a wide range of places, backgrounds and experiences, many common threads were shared throughout the event. Below, we’ve summarized five of the most powerful lessons that we hope will inspire every woman on their own journey to success.

Lesson 1: Beautiful things can arise from difficult moments 

During a fireside chat with Karen, Susan shared that the inspiration for CARES arose from the devastation she witnessed after Hurricane Katrina.

“Before Katrina, I’d seen poverty, but I had not seen hunger the way that Katrina exposed it,” Susan said. She was particularly disturbed by the number of children who were suffering and began to pursue what she called “a higher purpose.” CARES has since expanded that early model to develop programs that are “consciousness shifting,” so that individuals can change their mindsets about what’s really possible for their futures.

Like Hurricane Katrina, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented devastation and exposed layers of inequality. At the same time, it has sparked new programs, inspired a new generation of entrepreneurs, and forced businesses to add flexibility and employee perks that may not have otherwise been adopted. It has also changed conversations and opened doors for positive change.

“Two years ago, we couldn’t even talk about healing,” Susan said “Now, everybody is talking about healing because of these difficult two years.”

Lesson 2: Anyone can be influential 

Many of the summit’s most heartfelt and impactful moments came from discussions about influential people in our speakers’ lives. Susan, for instance, talked about how her father and Madam C.J. Walker helped pave the way for her career. Our own Audrey Walker, corporate relations director, talked about the influence her 9-year-old daughter Helena has had on her.

Lynette Dowler, vice president of public affairs at DTE Energy and president of the DTE Energy Foundation, echoed the sentiment.

“Influence is not just those with the power or funding to make a difference, but those who impact our lives in sometimes small, imperceivable — but still powerful — ways,” Lynette said.

Kamilia, the youngest-ever executive director of the Detroit NAACP, prides herself on being a role model. She doesn’t take lightly her role as a woman of influence.

“It’s a compliment, but it’s also a responsibility,” she said. For her, it’s important to show the positive and the negative, as both can have an impact on the next generation. “You have a responsibility to show them the wins, to show them the improvements and ultimately to know you’re making an impression on how someone else is choosing to live their life.”

Lesson 3: The playing field remains uneven 

Across the nation, the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “Breaking the Bias.” It’s a call to action that celebrates achievements by women, raises awareness of the intersectional biases women still face and encourages women to take action for equality.

Maha pointed to a recent study from the Heartland Alliance that showed women of color still fare worse than white women in almost every domain.

“They are paid less,” she said. “Have less wealth. They’re more likely to have poorer health outcomes and are more likely to be incarcerated and experience domestic violence.”

As more people begin to acknowledge the intersectionality of gender and race, more programs are being developed to give women of color tools to overcome the broader structural racism and inequities that uphold gender inequities. As the summit speakers demonstrated, we all have a part to play in advancing gender and racial equity.

Lesson 4: It will always take a village 

Maha said whether one is established or just starting out, it’s important to figure out your purpose and stand in that truth.

“It’s about … realizing that your real influence is to see whether or not you can bring other people to the table to see what you see and then act on it,” Maha said.

Debbie, who has worked in the male-dominated automotive and manufacturing industries for 27 years, spoke to the importance of networking groups.

“Later in my career, I realized how networking provides influence across the organization,” Debbie said. “When I think about women starting out their careers or even in mid-to-late careers, I always encourage them to get involved with employee resource groups, because it really serves as an outlet to share experiences, challenges, and of course, continue building that network.”

She also said it’s critical for women in leadership roles to help lift other women and give them opportunities.

Lesson 5: Advocacy can make all the difference

It’s true that women can be their own best advocates at work, at home, in the community and in every single space that they operate.

“If you have the ability to speak, you have the ability to say something when you see something that’s not right — that’s advocacy,” Kamilia said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in civil rights, in fashion, in business or education, everyone has the opportunity to change things that are not being done well. As women, we have the responsibility — the opportunity — to have influence that others cannot have.”

Susan closed by echoing Kamilia’s call to action.

“Come on women,” Susan said. “It’s time for us to stand up — to link arms and aims and use our own way of being, not the dictatorial model that makes people right or wrong, but to use our power to push our society in the right direction.”

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