Leading is hard, especially during a crisis. I’ve never felt so vulnerable and I’ve never questioned myself more. Sleepless nights and clenched jaws but also tears of joy and swelling hearts have become a quarantine regular. Every challenge I’ve faced has been solved by this community: connecting entrepreneurs struggling to keep their businesses alive, diversity leaders advocating for companies to not take steps backwards in their inclusion efforts, fellow leaders navigating the merging of their personal and professional lives
As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristy Wallace.
Kristy is the CEO of Ellevate Network and is responsible for executing Ellevate Network’s mission to close the gender achievement gap in business by providing professional women with a global community to lean on and learn from.
Kristy is also the host of the Ellevate Podcast: Conversations with Women Changing the Face of Business. Recognized by the New York Business Journal as a Woman of Influence, Kristy is also a regular speaker and thought leader on driving business change through leadership engagement, impact of diversity on business, social entrepreneurship, and networking. Most recently, Kristy was invited to testify in front of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Small Businesses on the force of small businesses in driving positive impact and rang the Nasdaq Opening Bell marking 2020 as a pivotal year for gender equality in the workplace.
Kristy obtained her BA in English/Sociology from Villanova University. She currently resides in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and three wonderful children.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in a small town in southern New Jersey. My twin sister and I are the oldest of four children. My dad is was a dentist and my mom was a nurse; she later became Dean of Nursing at a local community college. My high school graduating class was quite small — 64 kids. The local economy was driven by tourism and many of the residents were small business owners of restaurants, hotels, stores, and service providers. I worked as a waitress every summer throughout high school and college and worked at my dad’s dental office. Summer was a magical time for us. We would walk on the boardwalk every night and most days you could find me reading a book by the ocean. Moving to NYC after college was a big adjustment in many ways but mostly due to not having the beach a few miles away.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I’m an avid reader and I love fictional mysteries. My grandfather bought me a series of Nancy Drew books at a yard sale when I was 10 or 11 years old. I remember them having dark blue leather-bound covers and aged, yellow pages inside. I would read the books late into the night and absolutely loved them. Thinking back on it now, what resonated with me about Nancy Drew was that she was a heroine I could associate with. There is still too little diversity in storytelling, but in the 80s many of the books with female main characters were centered around your stereotypically “girly” stories. I didn’t relate to those characters and narratives. I was also drawn to Nancy’s ability to solve problems. Critical thinking, observation, and helping others are traits inspired by Nancy Drew that I still embrace as a leader.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
When I was about five years into my career, I had the opportunity to attend the weekly meetings for my company’s senior leadership team. I always had a lot of ideas and perspectives but was hesitant to speak up. I was worried the idea would be a bad one or that I would come off as inexperienced so I would often go back to my desk and email my manager my thoughts. Then one day he told me that he would not read my post-meeting emails anymore, that my ideas were valuable, and I should own them and speak up. I’m not naturally outspoken and I still struggle with speaking up in situations where I’m not fully confident. But that feedback from my manager really changed things for me. I realized the importance of “owning your voice”, of speaking up, and of amplifying the ideas of others. I lean on this memory quite a bit through my work at Ellevate, I always want to see diverse perspectives represented in every conversation and do everything I can to ensure that they are heard.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?
Ellevate has been committed to advancing women in the workplace for over 22 years. During these uncertain times, we know that the economic burden of the pandemic falls on women (especially women of color) — they typically bare childcare and household responsibilities and have represented the majority of the layoffs thus far. As the largest coalition of women at work, we feel a great sense of responsibility to act on our mission and be a welcoming, supportive community for those who are impacted especially right now.
We have launched several projects to help connect our community at a time of crisis, the most recent one being EllevateHER Forward. Through the EllevateHER Forward fellowship granting fund, we are equipping women who have been economically impacted by the crisis with tools and resources they need to restart their careers. So far, we have received applicants from all corners of the world — women of all ages, identities, and industries have applied to find their way back into the economy. With the contributions we are continuing to receive and our pledge to match all contributions up to 250,000 dollars, we will be able to grant hundreds of women the chance to take back their careers.
This stems from Ellevate’s larger vision of what it means to help women get ahead — careers come in all shapes and sizes so we do not believe in a universal solution for every woman. Today, over 60–70% of open positions are being filled without even being posted online — that is through networking, community building, connections, friend of a friend, you name it. The hidden job market has very much been an aspect of the corporate world women have been excluded from for years because for many years networking was a male-dominated world. Our role is to connect women with others who can open doors, develop their skillset, introduce them to new opportunities and career paths, and ultimately place them back into the workplace.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. We just don’t get up and do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
At a previous company, I worked hard to develop content and events focused on diversifying the legal industry. I was thinking about going to law school myself, so this was personal. After one event where we had thousands of diverse candidates in the room, I couldn’t wait to talk to a recruiter to hear about the positive change we were generating. But the response from that recruiter was not what I was expecting — he indicated that it was hard to change a recruiting hierarchy, bias, and system that was so ingrained within the industry. The legal industry “cared” about diversity but was still recruiting and attracting candidates using an outdated mindset around “top schools, GPA, class rank.” Many companies and individuals are resistant to change, why change a structure that benefited themselves in the first place? I realized in that moment that change needs to be disruptive — it needs to change mindsets, systems, and structures.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
One of my favorite things to do is to read the stories of EllevateHER Forward fellows, because they truly reflect the diverse experience people are having during this time. Here’s one from a woman in Maryland:
“Prior to being laid off due to COVID-19 (mine was one of several positions eliminated from the department), I was finally given the room to really demonstrate my high-level skills. In my exit conversation, my director mentioned being highly impressed with my contributions. However, now I feel I have to start over and that my resume isn’t strong enough on its own without the ability to get in the room and have a conversation with decision-makers. This is the place where I feel Ellevate Network will be a tremendous asset and a space where I can not just develop a support network, but also create a platform for me to do the same for others.
Finally, as an immigrant, Black mother who is also a member of the LGBTQ community, I want to show my teenage daughter the kind of resilience and tenacity that flows through her as well. I want her to be surrounded by women who can show her that as well. I am currently without a strong network, or mentorship and am hoping by becoming an EllevateHER fellow, I can begin to build the foundation for not just myself, but also my daughter.”
I can tell you thousands more stories. Each one resonates so deeply with me and with what we are working to accomplish. Personally, I also have an Ellevate story. Leading is hard, especially during a crisis. I’ve never felt so vulnerable and I’ve never questioned myself more. Sleepless nights and clenched jaws but also tears of joy and swelling hearts have become a quarantine regular. Every challenge I’ve faced has been solved by this community: connecting entrepreneurs struggling to keep their businesses alive, diversity leaders advocating for companies to not take steps backwards in their inclusion efforts, fellow leaders navigating the merging of their personal and professional lives. Every time I’ve fallen, they have lifted me up. During a time when I’ve personally never felt lonelier, Ellevate has helped me to feel deeply connected.
Are there three things that the community can do to help you in your great work?
Thank you for asking. Yes, we all need some support during this time. Like I’ve mentioned, we are working hard on EllevateHER Forward supporting women facing the economic burden of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our efforts through EllevateHER Forward are only as strong as the community that supports it and there are a few ways you can take part:
1 — If you’re able to, help lift up the women in your local communities and across the globe by sponsoring the return to work of as many women as possible via EllevateHER Forward — just 125 dollars helps us support one woman for an entire year
2 — if you or someone you know may benefit from an EllevateHER Forward fellowship, please encourage her to apply at ellevateher.com. The fund is open to applications from women and femme-identifying individuals who have lost their jobs, been furloughed, or economically impacted by COVID-19.
3 — And finally, help us spread the word! We’re so grateful for everyone who has been sharing how they uplift women and how they are a part of EllevateHER Forward with the hashtags #EllevateHERForward and #SheMatters
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Listen with the intent to listen. so often we listen with the intent to respond which means that we aren’t really listening, we are formulating a response. When you listen with the intent to listen, there is magic in the stories of others.
- The world of sales isn’t dirty. Early in my career a friend recommended that I take a sales job. I did not want to; I thought salespeople were slimy. The reality is that they aren’t. When you “sell” from a place of passion, authenticity, and understanding what the customer needs then a sales career helps you develop the skills that you will need throughout your career.
- Networking isn’t dirty either. Networking, like sales, feels like it is all about the “ask”, but it isn’t. Networking is about building relationships, connecting with a community, learning from others, and supporting peers. Networking is the most powerful lesson I’ve learned, and my network has helped me obtain insights, support, opportunities, and more.
- Speaking of networking…you can do it every day. It doesn’t take a lot of work. When networking comes up, many people think of endless cocktail parties and bad wine, but this isn’t the case. I’m connecting with the Ellevate community via virtual roundtables, I’m connecting with a Women CEO community via a Slack channel, I’m connecting with my broader industry when I share content that resonates with me on social media. You can network every day; you just need to start from a place of “how can I share this insight/experience/expertise with someone else” and “how can I amplify and support others.”
- Listen to your customers. As business leaders, we often solve problems with solutions that resonate with us. Go beyond that. You are one person. Listen to your customer and care about their needs, priorities, fears, and moments that bring them joy. This will always steer you in the right direction.
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious during this tumultuous time? Can you explain?
- Take care of yourself. We’re all impacted by this time in different ways and, for many of us, there are a lot of ups and downs. Start by taking care of what you need. As a mom of three, and a business leader it is hard for me to put myself first or even stop to think about what I need but I’ve come to realize that if I want to help others, I need to first help myself.
- Give others the space to share. Your partner, neighbor, co-worker, or family member is likely also working to understand and navigate these times. Let them know that you are there to support and listen. It doesn’t have to be forced or with the expectation of immediate response, but oftentimes just knowing that someone else is thinking about you can go a long way.
- Incorporate community into the workplace. At Ellevate, we have Slack channels dedicated to mental health, parenting, cooking, remote life. We also have weekly community hours to create the space for conversations about what is weighing on us. If there is one thing that this crisis has taught the world of business, it is that we all need to support our people wholly, and not just from nine to five in the office.
- Embrace belonging and understanding. Not everyone has the same experiences, the same history, the same challenges. The pandemic is impacting each of us in vastly different ways and also amplifying the underlying inequalities that have been pervasive in our world. You might be quarantining at home while an essential worker needs to head to work or while someone does not have a safe home to quarantine in. Use this as a time to better instead what others are experiencing and going through. Use this as a time to question your own view of the world and how to broaden your perspective to include more diverse experiences.
- Cut yourself some slack. We are all navigating the pandemic and learning together, which means it’s okay to make mistakes, to try, to feel lost, to fall, and to get back up again. It is understandable for you to not be at a 100% every day and this is a good time to learn to love yourself for all that you might be experiencing.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
I’d encourage them to first be curious. It is easy to go through life with your head in the sand. Look at the world around you and push yourself to understand the challenges facing your local community. Attend community board meetings and talk to neighbors. Second, identify what inspires you. What topic or issue really resonates with you? And finally, take action. There is so much we can all do: run for office (of your school, town, or state), raise awareness by talking to your friends and community, meet with leaders and influencers to share your viewpoint, organize a park cleanup, rally, or fundraising event… These are all ideas but at the core the call to action is to ask questions, be inspired, and act. Don’t be afraid to use your voice and inspire change.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
There are so many, but I am currently very focused on subsidized childcare. This impacts caregivers, especially women and even more so single parents (majority of whom are also women). The high cost of childcare is oftentimes a barrier for women to remain in the workforce and a significant cost for those who work minimum-wage or low wage jobs.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I’d love to meet with Rose Marcario, CEO of Patagonia! We are both women CEOs of B Corps, social impact focused for-profits, and her leadership — especially through adversity — inspires me tremendously.
How can our readers follow you online?
LinkedIn: Kristy Wallace and Ellevate Network
Twitter: @ellevatentwk / @kristyawallace
Instagram:@ellevate_ntwk / @kristyawallace
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!