Words to Live By: 5 Key Lessons from the 2024 Women of Influence Summit 

Published on March 19, 2024

United Way for Southeastern Michigan kicked off International Women’s Day in a big way – welcoming more than 700 women and supporters to MotorCity Casino & Hotel for our eighth annual Women of Influence Summit, presented by Stellantis.

This year’s event raised more than $331,000 including a $20,000 donation match from PNC Bank. Over the past eight years, the celebration, hosted by our Women United affinity group, has raised more than $1.5 million to help families find quality childcare, secure access to reading materials and provide child caregivers the opportunity to earn their Child Development Associate certification.

Each attendee received a 2024 Women of Influence tote filled with bookmarks, keynote speaker Andrea Davis Pinkney’s book “The Red Pencil” and four tickets to use at any of the Marketplace stores— courtesy of our sponsors Rocket Companies, Roush Enterprises and Walker-Miller Energy Services.

United Way is grateful to all sponsors who made the event possible. Other sponsors included DTE Foundation, Borg Warner, and our 35 table sponsors.

The Cass Tech Jazz Band set the scene as the Sound Board Theater was transformed into a bustling Marketplace offering various products for attendees from lotions and bath products to spices and jewelry. All of the businesses are proudly woman-owned including Nave Aromatics, Konjo Me, Not Sorry Goods, Love Travel Imports, Inkcourage, MG Studios, Rosemarine Textiles, Serenityy The Brand, Astouri, Bath Savvy Naturals, Rebel Nell and Clear As Crystal.

WDIV Anchor and Reporter Karen Drew emceed the event for the fourth consecutive year – guiding guests through the program with her signature sense of humor and smile before settling in for a fireside chat with Andrea.

Several local dignitaries including Lt. Gov Garlin Gilchrist, Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield, and Wayne County Commission Chair Alicia Bell also graced the event stage with words of wisdom.

“Any community, institution, society, city, state or nation that is afraid of the influence of women will not succeed,” said Gilchrist. “When we embrace not just the potential but the power of women, that is how we move forward, full-throated into a future where everyone is better off.”

Embracing the power of women was only one of a long list of lessons women walked away with following the summit. Below, we summarize the top five takeaways from the inspiring event.


During the keynote, Andrea, now a best-selling author of more than 40 books shared her early struggles with writing and finding her voice.

“When I was in second grade, my dad could see that I was struggling, and he got me a notebook,” said Andrea. “He said, ‘I want you to write in this, write anything. Write how you feel, write if you’re happy or sad or mad— and that was the beginning of my storytelling.”

Storytelling doesn’t always happen on the page, but it can be just as impactful when shared between friends.

“One of my closest friends is the kind of person that just being near her you feel like you’re doing something important,” said Dr. Hudson. “She said to me, ‘I’m so glad that we’re having dinner because I just needed a friend.”

“We need each other, and we need friendship,” added Dr. Hudson. “We need to share our stories and create spaces like this where we can come together and be vulnerable with each other.”

Last year, when Dr. Hudson opened up about difficult moments along her journey to motherhood, it opened the door for others to share.

“After the event, so many women came up to me and said, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m glad you said something, I didn’t know if I was going to try anymore but we are going to keep trying,’” said Dr. Hudson. “Or, ‘I didn’t know if I should go for that promotion, but I’m going to go ahead and do it.’”

By leaning on each other and sharing our stories, we expand our knowledge and inspire others to continue their journeys.”


When we tell our stories and connect, we can change lives. Barbara “Barb” Pilarski, global head of business development at Stellantis, recalled when she was surprised by the impact of her words on her mentee, Alora.

“Alora was a beautiful, young girl— well-spoken with aspirations of becoming a singer,” said Barbara. “In her first semester of high school with a GPA of 1.6, it was crystal clear she was capable of more, but not very motivated.”

Barb spent their one-on-one mentoring sessions listening to Alora and giving her advice.

“I provided her the same advice that I had given to my own kids on so many occasions,” Barbara said. “Saying things like if you don’t improve your grades, Alora, you’re going to eliminate options for yourself.”

“And, work hard now, Alora, and it will pay off for years to come— just like it did for me when I was your age, I promise.”

After 12 months of meetings, Barbara and Alora went their separate ways. Two years later, Barbara was shocked to see Alora on television, being honored as the Midwest Region’s Youth of the Year for the Boys and Girls Club of America.

“During her interview, Alora recalled one of the critical turning points in her life— and believe it or not, it was the one-on-one mentoring we did,” said Barbara. “Needless to say, I broke down crying. How could such a simple encounter have had such a meaningful impact? But somehow, it did.”


Along the journey to success, it’s important that we get smart feet.

“Smart feet run away from negativity,” said Andrea. “As a woman and human, my energy is currency and I want to spend it wisely.”

Andrea advises that when we are met with naysayers and people who believe our dreams are unattainable, it’s time for smart feet.

“We are the rescue squad from the doom chorus of no,” said Andrea. “We can say to that child, ‘Oh yes, look up and you’ll see that sky filled with possibilities. The world belongs to you. You can get there because you have smart feet.’”

As a woman and human, my energy is currency and I want to spend it wisely.”
– Andrea Davis Pinkney

A positive attitude can open doors. Susan Alonzo, health and wellbeing program manager at Stellantis, agreed as she experienced the summit for the first time.

“I always tell my son, if you think you can’t, you can’t – that’s how important a positive attitude is,” said Susan. “When you are surrounded by negativity or if you are having a rough time, go help others and you’ll feel better.”

“People have no idea—it’s almost selfish how good it feels to help others,” added Susan.


Being a woman of influence doesn’t mean you have all the answers; it means you’re smart enough to ask for help.

“The myth of genius is the false belief that one must climb a hill that seems insurmountable,” said Andrea. “In time, we learn a genius is someone who accepts help, gathers a circle of support and starts walking one step at a time.”

When Andrea was entering middle school, she feared books. Without support, she felt hopeless.

“Something wonderful happened— a circle of strong women showed this little girl the road of yes,” said Andrea. “They said, “We will find you the right books and we will climb this hill together.”

Across our region, around 61% of children live in neighborhoods that lack public libraries and booksellers. Over the last year, United Way has put more than 43,000 books into the hands of children in these areas.

“United Way’s Education team works to build a love of reading, eliminate book deserts, and increase equitable access to books,” said Dr. Hudson. “We believe everyone deserves to grow up with books in their home.”


Women of all ages, races and backgrounds came out to the event – their rich tapestry of experiences showcasing the fact that anyone can be a woman of influence.

In the Marketplace, Helina Melaku, chef and owner of Konjo Me, shared how her Ethiopian food pop up and cooking classes have inspired community among Detroiters.

“I’m from Ethiopia and I’m sharing my culture with Detroit,” said Helina. “In my cooking classes, people come together to learn something and then, we all dine together.”

“Sharing a meal builds community— that’s what it’s about, and it is very important in Ethiopian culture.”

Helina hopes to see the diverse food scene in Detroit continue to blossom as it welcomes chefs from all over the world. Food and music often go hand in hand when bringing people together and allowing them to experience authentic inclusion.

As the band began playing a beautiful rendition of the Brazilian classic song, “The Girl from Ipanema” Alline Brandão’s face broke into a huge smile. Alline, sales manager at BorgWarner, moved to the US five years ago from Brazil and the warm bossa nova tunes reminded her of home.

“Oh, I love this song— this is a Brazilian song!” said Alline, beaming with pride.

“Happy International Women’s Day!” said Alline still beaming. “It’s really powerful what United Way is doing here today— with connecting and networking.”

Learn more about Women United and more upcoming events here.