The calm that cut through Eckles Library as I prepared for “the moment of truth” was stirring.
I was a senior at the George Washington University and trekked from our central Foggy Bottom campus in the heart of DC to the beautiful, fully-integrated Mount Vernon Campus, breezing by the orange and yellow leaves that kicked up into the air along my shuttle ride. On a Saturday morning, few seniors could be found on “The Vern”, and the campus was a ghost town, with the freshmen residents taking time for a much-needed respite in the fall semester routine, especially with it being Halloween weekend.
But I was there for a reason; I was there to witness history.
I was there to help produce the 2012-13 Hot Mommas Project Case Awards, a moment that sticks with me among the Obama Administration campus visits and other “Only at GW” opportunities that we would tout while giving campus tours.
It was the Hot Mommas Project’s first global web telecast, the “Super Bowl of Mentors”, and a celebration of the world’s largest women’s case study library. Even more, it was an occasion to hear and honor women and their stories, with 20+ countries worldwide serving as home to watch parties in some form or fashion.
And I was the social media manager, helping connect the dots in the digital space. And I think a lot of it went right over my head.
Sure, I helped produce the event in coordination with “Chief Hot Momma” Kathy Korman Frey. I read the case studies and heard the stories of the women being honored throughout the 32 minute telecast. I reflected to Brigid Schulte of the Washington Post that “after seeing all these case studies, it makes sense that [striving for a balanced work and life] should be on men’s minds, too.”
But there was at least one thing I really didn’t “get” at the time – even through being part of the filming, and sitting in that library and launching the broadcast on social media – that I do now.
What I didn’t really “get” at the time was that, while the stories are there, powerful and real, we need more stories like those to be told.
More precisely, I’ve learned that it’s an all hands on deck effort; we need storytellers everywhere to put in the work to amplify the voices of women and girls, in business and in policy, internationally and domestically, and in society overall.
How can we as a society tell stories that uplift the voices of women and elevate much-needed perspectives?
This question was at the center of a recent bonus episode of Let’s Care: The 180º of Impact Podcast as I sat down with four leading women to help find an answer. They were Stephenie Foster, Partner at Smash Strategies; Deloris Wilson, Head of Strategy and Operations at BEACON: The DC Women Founders Initiative and an Inclusive Innovation Fellow at Georgetown Law’s Tech Institute; Annalisa van den Bergh, visual journalist and Founder of Miles of Portraits; and Rachel MacKnight, Principal at Sycamore Strategies.
While I walked away from the conversation with plenty of learnings, one of them was that many of the qualities I witnessed in the Hot Mommas Project process more than five years prior, including the organization’s approach to story discovery and storytelling, reigned true in the work of Stephenie, Deloris, Annalisa and Rachel.
Through our podcast conversation, four tips for paving pathways to storytelling jumped out at me.
1. Storyseeing precedes storytelling.
While in her role at the U.S. Department of State as the Senior Advisor and Counselor of the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, one of Stephenie Foster’s duties was to get women into the conversation for the foreign policy debate. While, in her own words, this may sound simple, creating a space for women at the table, especially in a world where we often, instinctively look to men as experts, takes being purposeful! In order to tell the stories of women, we need to be able to see them; they need to be in the room. We also need to ensure that they feel seen and safe when faced with those opportunities to be heard.
Storytelling pieces like the New York Times’ Overlooked and online databases like Women Also Know Stuff play a critical role in uplifting the voices of women. They remind us that the marginalization of women’s voices is nothing new and, at the same time, that we can do something to better recognize and integrate the voices we often relegate to the sidelines.
2. Storytelling begets connection.
Senator Barbara Mikulski is the longest-serving woman in the history of the U.S. Congress. With that said, it didn’t come without its obstacles. Rather than face her obstacles in isolation, Senator Mikulski decided to speak out, according to Rachel MacKnight, a Capitol Hill veteran who served as U.S. Senate Chief of Staff as well as Senior Director of Communications to Senator Mikulski. Look no further than the National Women’s Hall of Fame to see that Senator Mikulski was not shy about standing in her truth as she traveled the country, meeting many women along the way. According to Rachel, as Senator Mikulski vulnerably shared her obstacles and lessons learned as a woman in politics, “it created a shared experience and an openness to hear the lessons.”
Storytelling has the power to build bonds and create an impact, something all of the women engaged in Women, Impact and the Stories We Tell acknowledged. For instance, Annalisa van den Bergh, who biked 4,000+ miles across America and 1,000+ across Alaska while managing her own Type 1 Diabetes, cited numerous women who motivated her in her trip across America, including friend Olivia Round. Olivia’s story of cycling from Florida to Oregon and, in the process, overcoming her own fear of men, helped Annalisa overcome her own fears as one of only a handful of women biking the Trans-America Trail.
3. Connection requires inclusion.
Citing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story”, Deloris Wilson of BEACON: The DC Women Founders Initiative shared that, in working with her community of founders, she discovered a strong desire not just for stories, but relatable stories. In the entrepreneurship ecosystem which Deloris knows so well, there are many stops in the life cycle of a business. Often, the stories that are featured on the covers of magazines or going viral on social media are the stories of “unicorns” – businesses or individuals who are thriving as the exception to the rule, not the rule itself. According to Deloris, what the founders she connects with are seeking are the voices of real people doing the work who they can see themselves in. These are the not-so-glamorous stories, including those of women starting businesses out of necessity or building practices out of previous careers. The stories they’re seeking represent the diverse range of perspectives and backgrounds of women founders wholeheartedly.
Uplifting the voices of women does not mean uplifting the voices of only the women who fall into the dominant narrative; it means making a place for the women whose stories are often overlooked and not seen. This includes women of various ages, races, nationalities, and economic status, among other identities. In the process, it’s so critical to ensure that we’re creating a welcoming space for those people, especially when considering that they’re often “othered” in the dominant narrative.
4. Inclusion feeds progress.
“Gender” is not a synonym for “woman”. And yet, as acknowledged by countless voices including Ernesta Redi Neudert of the Women’s Leadership Board of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, when we discuss gender, men often have a tendency to disengage. As mentioned earlier, we need people everywhere to put in the work to amplify the voices of women and girls. This doesn’t only mean women in storytelling; this includes the men who create and aggregate content, and who have positions of influence, too.
We’ve discussed inclusion in the sense of showcasing diverse voices; we also should consider looking to a diverse and inclusive range of problem solvers. As with any complex problem, including issues of gender equality, that’s what’s going to help drive us forward!
The question still stands: How can we as a society tell stories that uplift the voices of women and elevate much-needed perspectives?
While that question can be the prompt for a novel, I believe Stephenie Foster summed it up beautifully in our podcast conversation: “We need to look and celebrate the women who’ve come before us, because we’re only here because of all of those people.”
We – women and men alike – stand on the shoulders of underappreciated giants, many women whose names we’ll never know. While we can’t always recover the past, each and every one of us has the power to write our future.
We have the power to invite women to the table, to sit on panels, and to write their own real, raw and inspiring case studies. While the Hot Mommas Project and countless others are leading the way, there’s room and a need for the rest of us to follow in their footsteps.
Listen to the inspiration for this post, Women, Impact and the Stories We Tell, an episode of Let’s Care: The 180º of Impact Podcast, available on Soundcloud, iTunes and Stitcher.