Taking the Wheel: A Conversation with Younger Women Non-Profit Leaders

By Alissa Vladimir

On Monday, Oct. 24, the Emerging Leaders Network of the National Council for Research on Women hosted Taking the Wheel, an event featuring younger women who have founded or lead non-profit organizations. Held at the Ms. Foundation for Women and co-sponsored by the Third Wave Foundation, this eye-opening conversation featured two exceptional leaders in the non-profit sector, Emily May of Hollaback and Tiloma Jayasinghe of Sakhi for South Asian Women. Kyla Bender-Baird, Co-Founder and Co-Chair of the Emerging Leaders Network, moderated the discussion.

The conversation began with Emily May, Founder and Executive Director of Hollaback, a movement dedicated to ending street harassment using mobile technology. Hollaback started out as an activist collective in 2005, but May soon realized the movement had the potential to grow and expand into other communities, forcing her to decide whether or not to start a formal non-profit organization.

“I felt like I had to,” said May, explaining how she came to realize that the collective was growing into a larger movement and would need full time staff and funding. This feeling of inevitability came about after rigorous testing of the Hollaback model and May’s tireless work to ensure that the issue and model of using technology to combat street harassment was relevant. “The stories of street harassment kept coming in and I felt compelled to do it,” she explained. “Everyone was telling me not to. I basically jumped off a cliff and built wings on the way down.”

Hollaback now operates in 34 cities around the United States, as well as 14 countries and in eight different languages. May proudly announced that she is now on salary and has one staff member. The biggest hurdle she faces is of course funding, “I have as many rejection letters from foundations as I do media requests,” she said. “No one has a street harassment portfolio.”

The conversation then turned to Tiloma Jayasinghe, Executive Director of Sakhi for South Asian Women, a community-based organization working to end violence against women of South Asian origin. Jayasinghe began with the topic of work/life balance in a social justice sphere, stating that many people will claim, “you are not really committed to the cause unless you are the last one in the office.”

After leaving her position as an attorney at a private law firm, Jayasinghe found herself working hours that were just as long at her new job with National Advocates for Pregnant Women. “I felt if I didn’t leave the office after my boss, that it wasn’t enough and it wouldn’t demonstrate that I was really committed,” she explained. “It’s a juggling act, even at a junior level. You have to have a line that you draw. A movement is something that you invest in, and to be part of that movement you have to take care of yourself.”

In her current ED position at Sakhi, Jayasinghe does her best to enable all of her employees to take time out for themselves and their personal lives. This is especially important to individuals working in the area of violence against women, as many of them will become burnt out and unable to handle the horrible situations of abuse that come across their desks.

When speaking about the difficulty of juggling roles and responsibilities as an executive director, both Jayasinghe and May agreed that EDs often think they have to be “Everything all of the time.” But as May explained, it is important to find people who you trust to work with who can help you achieve your goals and give you advice along the way.

“You have to have good staff,” added Jayasinghe. “You’re not going to get everything done and you have to be ok with the fact that you are human and you are not going to get everything done yourself.” In preparing for her role as an executive director, Jayasinghe read Harvard Business School case studies on corporate and for-profit management, applying the concepts she learned to the non-profit sector. “I realized that it’s not about the mission,” she added. “It’s about getting the right people on the bus, the right people off of the bus, and everyone in the right seat.” Only then will doing everything all of the time become more manageable for an executive director.

Whether you are looking to create your own non-profit organization, or leading an existing one, the main piece of advice given by both of the evening’s speakers was to be passionate about the movement, but take care of yourself along the way; realize everything that needs to be done, but find the right people to do the job with you instead of taking on the entire monster of a social justice organization on your own. All of us in the non-profit sector have a passion for the movements we are working for, but we must remember to take care of ourselves, and each other.

Alissa Vladimir, a feminist activist living in New York City, is the Co-Chair of the Emerging Leaders Network. She currently works as a Program Associate at BRAC USA, a global development organization based in Bangladesh dedicated to alleviating poverty by empowering the poor to bring about change in their own lives. She holds a BA in journalism from Temple University and a Masters of Public Administration from the NYU Wagner School of Public Service.

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