“Equity Begins with Empathy” and 5 More Lessons Learned During the 2023 Women of Influence Summit

Published on March 20, 2023 in

It’s so good to be back.

After going virtual for two years, United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s Women of Influence Summit came back live in a big way – welcoming more than 600 women and supporters to the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino for the event’s seventh year.

The sold-out event was presented by Walker-Miller Energy Services and hosted by Women United, a philanthropic group of women dedicated to supporting United Way’s early childhood education and literacy work. Other key sponsors included Ilitch Charities, Roush, Stellantis and DTE Foundation.

Since its inception in 2017, the summit has raised more than $1.2 million to ensure every child has equal access to the support and care needed to help them thrive. The event broke all previous fundraising efforts this year, raising more than $285,000 thanks to the support of donors, partners and sponsors.

From first-time attendees like Kyra O’Guinn, who shared a powerful story on the impact of United Way’s 2-1-1 and early childcare resources, to summit veterans like Allyson Waldman, who chairs Women United, the event included something for everyone – even a market.

Bath Savvy
Detroit's Future Is Female
Peacock Room
Bon Bon Bon
WOI women with gift bags

Each guest received a tote bag and tickets to shop at a marketplace full of women-owned brands, including Motor City Spreads, CommodiTeas, Bon Bon Bon, Rebel Nell, Mend on the Move, Soul Roots Wax Co., Bath Savvy Naturals, The Lip Bar and The Peacock Room. Source Booksellers provided copies of “Brown Girl Dreaming” by keynote speaker Jacqueline Woodson, a multi-award-winning author who has celebrated multiple books on the New York Times’ best-sellers list.

Jacqueline moved the audience to a standing ovation after reading excerpts from “Brown Girl Dreaming,” which chronicles her life growing up as an African American woman in the 1960s and 1970s. She also shared personal insights on literacy, education and the power of books.

United Way Board Member Kelle Ilitch of Ilitch Charities delivered remarks on the fight for true equity and the special role books play in creating change.

“Dedicated women make progress happen,” Kelle said, calling on women across the region to be a model for what’s possible.

“That means creating more equity in education: Helping transform schools to create safe and empowering learning environments, enabling positive relationships where every child feels a sense of belonging and seeing each child as a whole child – ensuring they have equitable access to enrichment activities and books.”

As United Way celebrates International Women’s Day, we’re acting on the day’s #EmbraceEquity theme and summarizing six powerful lessons from the Women of Influence Summit that we hope will inspire every woman.


Carla Walker-Miller leads by example. As the CEO of Walker-Miller Energy Services, Carla centers equity by hiring from the surrounding community and creating onramps to help diversify the clean energy industry where minorities continue to be underrepresented.

Dr. Darienne Hudson, president and CEO of United Way for Southeastern Michigan, introduced Carla at the summit, calling her “An industry powerhouse and a powerhouse in the community.”

Carla encouraged others to act with the same enthusiasm and tenacity that drives her. She said people need action, not words.

“We’re not just talking about it,” Carla said. “We’re not just having meetings about it.”

“We’re not just walking towards equity, we’re embracing equity, which is totally different because it means we’re bound to integrate equity into everything we do.

“Now that we know what equity demands, we must do what equity demands.”


Both Kelle and Jacqueline reflected on the power of books as windows and mirrors – an idea introduced by Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita at Ohio State University, who has been referred to as the “mother of multicultural children’s literature.”

Echoing Rudine, Jacqueline spoke out against recent ban efforts, saying it’s critical for children to have books because they provide “mirrors so that they can see reflections of themselves and windows so that they can engage in communities they may not otherwise ever get to know.”

“That builds empathy,” Jacqueline said. “And that’s one of the foundational blocks of us becoming whole humans – learning empathy.

“If you can’t get it in the homogenous environment you’re living in, you can get it by meeting characters in books. When those characters get taken away, people don’t know how to engage with other people.”


Soul Roots Wax
Midtown Strings WOI
Motor City Spreads
The Lip Bar
Karen Drew and Jacqueline Woodson

As the market hummed with conversations and excitement about products from well-known brands and new entrepreneurs, too, one thing was clear: When women support women, we all win.

Founder Shea Kondrat, talking as people gathered around her Soul Roots Wax Co. table, praised the event. She said Women of Influence brought her company’s largest order to date.

Shanita Richards, who started Motor City Spreads in 2019, also expected the summit to provide a major brand boost.

“We typically do farmer’s markets and things like that but to have an opportunity like this – to be among other vendors who are successful – that’s huge for a small business,” Shanita said.

Rebel Nell, a sustainable jewelry brand that provides equitable opportunity and wraparound support for women with barriers to employment, offered necklaces from its Unique Collection. Each piece comes emblazoned with words like “fierce”, “unique” and “strong”.

Kim Blair, regional manager for the brand, said the collection was “perfect for the summit.”

“It’s a trifecta of words that define who we are and who women can be for a moment in time,” Kim said.


The summit represented Jacqueline’s first return to the speaker’s circuit after a fateful conversation with her older sister forced her to reassess her priorities.

“I was going, and going and going – travelling, constantly getting on planes, and then one day my sister asked me, ‘How much money do you need?’”

The question stopped her in her tracks.

“I literally stopped,” she said. “I stopped travelling around speaking and started doing the work at home.”

After that hiatus, Jacqueline said she felt inspired to speak at Women of Influence.

“It’s such an important event to me,” Jacqueline said. “To bring together women from all economic classes, all educational backgrounds, various races and sexual orientation and gender markers – all of that is really important – to gather in a room with y’all and have these conversations about creating change in the world because we can do it, and we have done it.

“We’ve done it because we’ve survived. As women we survive childbirth. We survive the choice not to have children, which is sometimes harder than childbirth because I know my sisters that have made a choice not to have children get all types of judgement and all types of questions all the time.”

Dr. Hudson, a new mom to a 6-month-old son, thanked Mark Stiers, board chairman for United Way, for helping her execute a pause by way of maternity leave.

“The way he partnered with me through all of this before Bryson came, and after, was exactly as a friend would and as a brother would,” Dr. Hudson said. “I think it’s important that everyone knows that we can all do more to support women in the workplace.”


To bring together women from all economic classes, all educational backgrounds, various races and sexual orientation and gender markers – all of that is really important – to gather in a room with y’all and have these conversations about creating change in the world because we can do it, and we have done it.

Dr. Hudson also shared her own struggles with finding quality childcare despite her access and credentials.

“It is not easy, but we have people who are standing watch to make it easier for our families – that’s United Way’s Early Childhood team,” she said.

She stressed the importance of early education and literacy, noting the team’s commitment to prioritizing education and literacy from birth.

Jacqueline, who knew by age 7 that she wanted to write, echoed Dr. Hudson’s sentiments.

“It was my teacher seeing me at that very young age and understanding that this problematic child who talks too much and is always lying has a path to success and her work was to show me that path,” Jacqueline said. “Here I was this kid who read very, very slowly and always got in trouble: That’s the work of trying to create change – being able to see people beyond what our stereotypes of them are and beyond what we think we know about a person.”


Kelli Illitch, , Jacquelin Woodson
Jacquelin Woodson and Karen Drew
Tonya Adair, Sarah Grutza, Audrey Walker, Tina Saad, Ashleigh Imerman
Dr. hudson

Many of the speakers who graced the Women of Influence stage reflected fondly on the women who impacted them along the way.

Carla spoke about her mother being a woman of influence.

“If I am blessed to operate with just a percentage of the love, the empathy, the grace, the badness that my mother was, then I will be blessed,” Carla said.

For others, like Jacqueline, it was more about looking ahead toward her own legacy than looking back. She also encouraged others to think about the type of ancestor they will be to future generations.

“I believe what we do in this world impacts what happens in the next place for us and for the people we love and the people we don’t even know,” Jacqueline said. “I’m so proud to be here as a part of the summit because the work United Way is doing to literally change the narrative for young people is such important work.”

“I’m honored to be here. I’m honored to include myself in this world of people trying to have an impact on the next world – the next generation.”

She challenged others with a question and a call to action:

“As people who made it to the other side of something in our lives, the question becomes: What can we do to change this world and leave it better than we found it?”

Missed the summit but want to join us in making an impact? There’s still time! To support United Way’s early childhood education and literacy work, simply text SUMMIT to 50503.

Our Women United affinity group is accepting new members. Learn more here.