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Cleveland women leaders share lessons and advice

By Arooj Ashraf, La Prensa Correspondent

Cleveland: Women of Color Foundation and American Greetings Corporation have launched a quarterly Women’s Speak series to facilitate networking, empowerment through mentoring, and sharing resources to develop leadership in many areas of their lives.

The second dialogue of the series was held on May 17, 2012, at American Greetings Headquarters and featured distinguished panelists who embody leadership.  The panelists included: Susan Jensen, Executive Director, Walmart Team, American Greetings; Anne E. Bomar, Senior Vice President & General Manger at Dominion East Ohio; Diana Bilimoria, Ph.D., Professor of Organizational Behavior at Weatherhead School of Management Case Western Reserve University; and Barbara Danforth, Senior Vice President, Business Development at Ratliff & Taylor.

Alexandria Johnson Boone founded the Women of Color Foundation in Cleveland in 2002 after attending a rejuvenation retreat and realized there was a need for developing leadership opportunities for women. The foundation offers a platform for women to share their triumphs and failures, to learn from each other, something Boone said women shy away from because—“It feels like bragging.”

The organization has helped more than 2000 women and Boone said there is only one thing she asks in return, “Pay it forward!”

She said women often don’t realize so many others are experiencing the same challenges and the exchange of information and ideas leads to the empowerment Boone envisioned ten years ago.  She said the decade provided many opportunities and challenges too, but connect the right people and those contacts turn into relationships that translate into powerful networks. 

The partnership with American Greetings began several months ago with a conversation with Renita Jefferson, Director of Diversity & Inclusion, and the “Speaking of Women” series was developed.  The first seminar was exclusively for women at American Greetings and Jefferson said the feedback was tremendous.  “People stopped me in the hallway to thank me and tell me how much they learned and appreciated it,” she said, and added the partnership is a “win, win” for all involved, especially the women seeking mentors or developing their careers. The series brings together top executive women and allow time for small group interactions for more in-depth discussions.

Panelists shared the evolution of their careers, struggles, and lessons they learned along the way.

Alexandria Boone

Barbara Danforth, Anne Bomar and Diana Bilimoria

Diana Bilimoria

Renita Jefferson

“Dive into an issue and become an expert on it,” said Bomar. Concerned about the lack of women leaders at Dominion when she began her career she chose to step up and fill the role herself. She said while there are many paths to leadership her formula is simple, “Hard work, passion, and have your own expertise to offer.”

Bilimoria’s path brought her from India at the age of 23 and as she navigated cultural challenges her lesson was rather straight forward, “The only limit we have on ourselves is our imagination.” Working in the male dominated academic field, “where you don’t just have egos, but massive egos” Bilimoria advices a gentle approach in bringing about change; “You have to temper advocacy with inquiry,” she said.  Blame stuns growth, while encouragement and support enhances services she said.

Jensen never thought she would end up in Cleveland. The Seattle native began working for American Greetings at age 16 as a register girl and supported herself through college with the same job. One thing she has learned about the greeting card industry, “We attract nice people,” she said.

Jensen said balancing home and work life requires discipline and she maintains a routine along with her hectic travel schedule to maintain her sanity.

Danforth declared work-life balance is a myth; “Surround yourself with caring friends who can help you,” she said. As a single mother, Danforth said not everyone’s needs were met daily but by the end of the week everything balances out. The most important revelation for her, “I learned to forgive myself,” she said and acknowledged measuring herself with her mother, a teacher who worked full time but was home to have dinner on the table. “That didn’t quite work for me and that was ok… at the end of the day I let go of the guilt,” she said.

Danforth said women tend to let life happen to them, while men plan careers; “I am a perfect poster child for this.” She began her career as a social worker, went on to earn a law degree, worked for Mayor Michael Reed White and is credited for reviving the Cleveland YWCA, encouraged all along by friends. At Ratliff & Taylor, I am the happiest I have ever been, “Because I took time out to evaluate what I wanted to do and took into consideration everything I have done in the past.”

Bilimoria agreed, “Whenever I am my true self, I always succeed.”

But leadership is not always about coming out ahead; sometimes it requires stepping back and allowing others to step up. Jensen said in team building she finds talented individuals who are smarter than her; “Talk through problems, listen to all suggestions but be ready to make decisions and move forward,” she said.

Bomar added, collaborative leadership shouldn’t be confused with lack of confidence and pretending to be someone else will guarantee failure. “In a time of crisis pretense will fail you, trust your own instincts.”

There is no membership for Women of Color Foundation; all interested are welcome to participate and scholarships are available, “We do not want cost to be a deterrent for anyone,” she said.

For more information visit: www.womenofcolorfoundation.com

Copyright © 1989 to 2012 by [LaPrensa Publications Inc.]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 05/22/12 19:25:51 -0700.





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