… “power” is the ability to create in the world what you want to see. So it’s not power over; it’s power with. It is the ability to cater to a vision. It’s the ability to attract others, to be attracted by others, and to create what doesn’t exist… that people’s ability to create the world they want to see and to create in the world what they want to have is there for everybody.
We had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ana L. Oliveira. Ana has been a voice and a force for change in improving the lives of people in the greatest need for more than 30 years. As President and CEO, she leads The New York Women’s Foundation mission to create an equitable and just future for women and families. The Foundation achieves its goal by uniting cross-cultural and community alliances that ignite action through innovative and bold justice-oriented solutions.
During her tenure with The Foundation, Ana has increased annual grantmaking from $1.7M to more than $8M today. By the end of 2021, The Foundation will have distributed nearly $100 million to more than 500 organizations, impacting millions of women and girls since its creation in 1987.
Under Ana’s leadership, The Foundation has been a pioneer in igniting many cultural justice movements of today, including Me Too, the closing of Rikers Island, and the NYC Fund for Girls and Young Women of Color. She has also led critical cross-sectoral partnerships to advance women’s rights as a co-chair of The New York City Council Speaker’s Young Women’s Initiative and as a Commissioner of Human Rights for the NYC Commission, sits on the Independent Commission to Study Criminal Justice Reform in NYC, and the board of Philanthropy New York. She has also served as a member of the New York City HIV Planning Council and the New York City Commission on AIDS and chaired the NYC Commission for LGBTQ Runaway and Homeless Youth and Mayor Bloomberg’s Young Men’s Initiative.
Before joining The Foundation, Ana’s career focused on issues surrounding substance abuse, HIV/AIDS, and incarceration. She served as Executive Director of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), where she stewarded a complete organizational turn-around of the agency. She previously led and directed innovative community-based programs at Samaritan Village and the Osborne Association, addressing substance users’ needs, persons living with AIDS, and criminal justice involved. She was responsible for developing the first acupuncture detoxification clinic for methadone and alcohol-involved patients in her capacity as Substance Abuse Specialist at Kings County Addictive Diseases Hospital, carrying the practice over from the Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center where she served as a Clinical Supervisor.
In early 2021, Ana joined the Board of Directors for Point Source Youth, a national nonprofit to end homelessness in 50 cities and towns in 10 years. She also was a Board Member for Philanthropy New York and served on and chaired committees for Women’s Funding Network.
Ana’s honors include the Above & Beyond Award (City & State), Isabel Benham Award (Women’s Bond Club), Mutual Welfare League Certificate, (Osborne Association); Liberty Award (Lambda Legal and Education Defense Fund); the Rosie Perez Fuerza Award (Latino Commission on AIDS); the NYCLU Liberty Award, and the June Jordan Claim Award (Brotherhood SisterSol).
Ana attained her M.A. in Medical Anthropology and a Ph.D. (hon) from the New School for Social Research. She was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and resides in Manhattan.
Thank you very much for joining us, Ana. Before we begin, our readers would just love to get to know a bit about your background. Can you tell us a bit about you, your childhood backstory and what eventually led you to this particular career path empowering women?
I grew up in a large city, São Paulo, Brazil, in a family with working parents. My mother was an executive secretary in a large school and my father was a floor manager in some of the larger department stores in São Paulo. I have three siblings, and I’m the oldest. We grew up with a very strong work ethic and the value of education. I’m the first one in my family to go to college.
I grew up with values of responsibility and doing things together as a family and that you don’t succeed alone. It was really important to succeed in school and to be community-oriented. It was a clear, grounded kind of reality that shaped me with the sense of responsibility for others.
I come from a family with modest means. My mother had a strict weekly budget and would make a grocery list. We would go to open markets, street markets, farmer’s markets. She would go early in the morning to get a few essential items. Then towards the end of the day when the market was closing, she would go back to get better bargains on the items that were leftover. ,
I grew up with the sense of using your resources well, being strategic about it, and being creative.
It was not so much a concept of scarcity as it was a concept of using what you have very consequentially. Privilege was not a word we used in our family, but we were very aware of those who had even less than we did and shared with them. We were also very aware of others that had more.
I think my upbringing served me well. It grounded me. I never felt a sense of “we don’t have”. I felt that I grew up with a very good sense of how to be joyful.
Okay, wonderful. So what brought you to the position you’re holding now, leading the largest board that supports, engages, and empowers women?
In the 1980’s Brazil had an economic downturn. I came to New York to go to school and enrolled in an evening master’s program at The New School. It was an opportunity for me to see if I could acquire additional skills that would position me better in the job market. Medical anthropology was my focus, and as part of my studies, I engaged in a practicum which was in the South Bronx.
At the time, the South Bronx was a very poor, non-gentrified area — a very Latino and Black populated area. I know most people at the time felt unsafe there, but I felt very much at home.
After graduation I remained in the South Bronx, working on the issue of drug addiction and abuse, most notably the crack epidemic. Crack brought women into addiction in a way that cocaine, heroin, or alcohol hadn’t caused before and that is what initially drew my attention to concerns around women.
It was striking to me, seeing the continued dependency and destruction of women’s lives. The bond between women and their children is a very important thing. So I began looking for ways to solve the problem and be a part of the solution. surrounding the crack epidemic, such as the separation that happens when babies are born. Mothers could not take care of their children if they had any kind of lingering addiction. There were also large amounts of incarceration that came with drugs, and I felt that it was possible to make a difference.
Then AIDS hit the South Bronx. The picture of those impacted by AIDS was poor people, people of color, people who suffered from drug addiction, partners of people with drug addiction, and women. I worked with those issues and you could see the difference that the work made. — However, I realized that I came in very late to the game, after lives had already been ravaged by poverty, by violence, systemic violence, and illness. I was at a crossroad of how I could make an impact earlier, before the onset of very devastating experiences for people.
That’s when the concept of philanthropy was suggested to me. However, I felt that philanthropy would be difficult for someone like me, with no experience in not-for-profit or direct service in poor communities to enter, but this auspicious opportunity came, and I joined The New York Women’s Foundation. We brought awareness to the concerns of women and families, the concern about economics, the need for people to be able to be financially resourced. It was an evolution of looking to be a problem solver along with others, but also wanting to come in earlier on before the full-fledged manifestation of some really huge challenges occurred.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
There was something that happened at the beginning of my career at The Foundation that was truly transformational for me. That was finding out the need to transcend oneself — transcend what we were born into. It is just as strong in under-invested communities as it is in individuals who have access to an enormous amount of wealth, particularly inherited wealth.
It was my second year at The Foundation, and we have a big event that is the hallmark of our organization, the Celebrating Women® Breakfast. We shine a light on our grantee partners, the people who on a daily basis are making changes and improvements in their lives and the lives of those in their communities. They are working with job training and job placement; they are working with young women in after-school programs, creating a sense of possibility for them that they don’t see yet. They are working with survivors of intimate partner violence. They are working with immigrants and their ingenuity and leveraging the skills that they bring, the cultural contrasts, and cultural additions and growth and perspectives.
In addition to our grantee partners, we also honor women who are making a difference in philanthropy. That year we honored Abigail Disney, who is a big supporter of The Foundation and was a board member for many years. A few days after she accepted our offer to honor her, she called and said she would be making a one million dollar pledge to The Foundation and wanted to challenge others to collectively raise another one million at the Breakfast, to help grow The Foundation’s grantmaking abilities.
Imagine me, my second year on the job, and I hear this from somebody. I didn’t even ask for a gift or contribution and I was like: Oh my God! What propels somebody to act in that way?
A big a-ha moment for me was that there is an enormous need for our grantee leaders to create ingenious solutions to intractable problems and for them to be perceived as engineers of solutions that matter. They can be trusted to be invested in that particular struggle to break prejudices and preconceptions.
Another a-ha moment was that community leaders are not fully capable of receiving investments from growing organizations.
On the other side, there is a need by women of wealth and consciousness to not be boxed in the prejudices that there is an uncaring-ness, or a sense of living with principles of aloofness to humanity and that principles of greed don’t matter. The need to transcend and break those limiting prejudices has inspired me all these years at The Foundation.
Was there a particular book that made an impact on your thinking and your work?
There are a couple of books, but the one that made the biggest impact on me was “Wretched of the Earth” by Frantz Fanon. I read it as a teenager. What impressed me tremendously was the liberation struggle in Algiers. The book talks about it not just as a set of historical events, but from the mentality of the colonized and the colonizer. It talks about something we pay a lot of attention to today, which is the culture. Our mindset, our worldview, how we internalize and how we then reproduce the very structures that can be limiting to us.
It was fascinating to me, and I think the book had a lot to do with my choices around medical anthropology because anthropology is really about the understanding of world views, the understanding of the way paradigms, values and concepts of the collective, our cultures, our belief systems organize society.
Wonderful! Let’s now jump to the main part of our discussion. According to a recent EY report only about 20% of funded companies have woman founders. 20% is certainly better than 1%, and it’s certainly historical progress, but it reflects the fact that a lot of work still has to be done to empower more women to create companies. From your experience and perspective, what generally is currently holding women back from founding companies from becoming entrepreneurs?
This is so important to focus on. There are two things I want to say about it:
One is that women haven’t necessarily perceived entrepreneurship as something they can go into. Economics and handling money has traditionally been segregated to the male gender. These preconceptions are really limiting. I think that as the gender roles have been expanded and the rigidity of it is breaking up, women are seeing other women, and there is growth in that.
The second thing holding women back is the very practical issue of capital accessibility, capital investment, access to capacity-building resources, access to technological and domain knowledge. Women entering the financial world, the entrepreneurial world, and the business world has been something that I would say has really accelerated in the past 20 to 30 years. Microloans were the first approach to supporting women in developing their businesses, and what did we find out? We found that women have over 90% repayment of microloans and that the businesses that are growing more are businesses run by and for women.
The largest growth in women-led businesses is happening among women of color. Why? Because there’s an understanding that women are very capable. Women are very capable of getting it done, of being judicious in financial matters, and are innovative. Remember, while we didn’t always see ourselves as managing budgets in the public sphere, we have always managed the budget in the private domain.
I think that the last impediment is not perceiving women as just small entrepreneurs. We are beginning to show that we can do very well developing larger businesses.
When women are developing businesses, there is a higher concern given for how others are treated in their business. How workers are treated, the roles for women within the business, how they pay, the economic gaps, issues around ownership and, the participation in economic gains.,
In addition to being in the internal economy of the business, there are the external economy issues and the roles women play in the care economy such as raising children, supporting elders, supporting other family members. So women are not just becoming entrepreneurs, they are changing all aspects of how business can be done.
Can we talk about your work in particular? Can you share some of the examples that you and your team are doing to help empower women to become founders?
The first thing we do is listen. We are often the first investors. We listen to what’s happening and we see the opportunity. We are very close to the communities in New York We are often approached via word-of-mouth because when you fund an organization or fund the community, word gets out. People have a network. They are very together. People’s survival is not individual; it’s collective. So they leverage each other. They hear about the Foundation and come to the Foundation.
I’ll give an example. A woman came to the Foundation and said: I’m Jessamyn Waldman Rodriquez, and I’m working with a group of women in Sunset Park. They are immigrants from different countries around the world. Some of them speak some English, but some are just learning, but they have incredible assets. They came with the knowledge of how to cook from their culture of origin. They cook and they know how to make bread from their different cultures. We’ve been coming together and baking together. Each of them is baking bread from their culture. We are now beginning to sell the breads. It has become a form of income. But, we are operating out of a small kitchen. We see the success and would like to create a not-for-profit and get a larger kitchen to create and sell more bread. The women are so heartened, and it’s changing their lives to be able to have an income.
So we fund them. They were not even a 501(c)3 at that point. They founded this organization, and call it Hot Bread Kitchen. The Foundation was the first funder because we saw the possibility.
We fund for a minimum of five years to allow opportunities to develop, to be shaped, and to allow it to succeed and attract additional investors and other funds. So, in the case of Hot Bread Kitchen, they begin to sell their breads in a variety of New York City area farmer markets. Then they break into Citerella and then into other supermarkets and other venues. They grow and then they move and then they diversify.
They not only are working with women who are already bakers, but they are also working with women who they are teaching to become bakers. They work with women who have other culinary assets. For example, if a woman makes a very good rum cake, Hot Bread Kitchen can help them make that into a viable economic entrepreneurial opportunity for them. They are incubators of other food entrepreneurs, and they are job trainers for others within the food industry.
Another example is Custom Collaborative, a group of seamstresses, who are immigrant women leveraging their skills as seamstresses.
Some know a little bit, others know more, but they share and grow their knowledge. They create clothing using discarded fabric from the industry. There’s an enormous amount of perfectly usable discarded fabric that actually is now ecologically and economically recycled by Custom Collaborative utilizing it. They began with three people and they now have close to 15 people. They are creating jobs and also training people in the garment sector.
You mentioned many times that you see yourself as empowering a team, empowering others. So talking in general, can you share a few things that each of us can do? What can we do as a society, as individuals, as a community to help empower more women to become founders?
For me, it begins with my perception, my understanding that the power is there. What I mean by ‘power’ is the ability to create in the world what you want to see. It is the ability to cater to a vision, to attract others, to be attracted by others, and to create what doesn’t exist.
The Foundation understands that solutions are ‘power’ and they often live in the same place as problems.
By engaging with the community we are able to understand them as who they are, identify the problems and the ingenious solutions that women are creating and leading. In turn, The Foundation brings funding and visibility by talking about the solutions that need to be invested in by others.
We were able to see them and understand them as who they were. It was already there.
As you know, you’re a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that could bring in the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? Cause you never know what your idea can, can trigger.
I think that the most effective movements are those that are created by the people and are for the people. Movements are about the sense of possibility, a sense of wanting equality, wanting people to be well, and wanting people to thrive. Movements that seek to bring gender inclusion for all, that understand and highlight the inclusiveness of trans communities, of gender-expansive people, that talk about the continued racial hierarchy and injustices, liberate us all.
Ana I’m so grateful for your time and for your wisdom, and I’m excited to be able to share this with our readers. I thank you so much for your time and this opportunity.
Thank you. My wisdom belongs to so many people. It’s the food of so many people. Our grantee partners are incredible engineers and teachers. I don’t think there is anything I said that hasn’t been composed, said, expressed, or created by a vast number of others who have come before. I hope it will be improved upon by those who will come after.