It takes Pamela Joseph a moment to reflect on how all of it started-the origin of the idea that brought her to some of the poorest places on earth and began transforming how women at U.S. Bancorp get things done. Then she nods her head and explains. It was all about aligning actions with words.
It happened in 2010 when Joseph, vice chairman of payment services for U.S. Bancorp, was preparing to speak-yet again-about how mentoring was critical to fostering the success of women in the corporate world. As she organized her talking points, Joseph had a realization. "It was time to stop talking about what we were doing," she recalls, "and actually create something that we could point to as a result."
A women's leadership conference in Atlanta, where Joseph is based, was a catalyst for gathering senior female leaders from across U.S. Bancorp's far-flung payments operation. She invited the women to attend the program and organized an informal lunch where everyone could just talk. They put faces with names and email addresses. They learned about one another's jobs. They decided a gathering like this should happen again-and again.
At that point, Joseph did what any good leader would do: She delegated. She challenged the group to figure out how this federation of women would come together and what its goals would be.
It didn't take these self-described Type A women long to get to work. They set up a schedule for regular meetings. They chose a name-Women Leaders in Action-and defined a three-pronged mission: networking; developing leadership, including through mentoring; and engaging in a philanthropic service that would allow them to bond while doing good work.
The networking part came easy. The women wanted to get to know each other better, and once they did, they found ways to help one another with projects or advice. The mentoring and leadership development took more coordination, and it's still a work in progress because WLA this year is doubling from its 28 original members to more than 50-expanding to a group that includes women lower down the ladder at U.S. Bancorp.
It was when WLA got to the philanthropic goal that things really began to get interesting. Choosing a project was simple: The group wanted to help children, especially girls. But what project? Which children? Where and how?
WLA is an international group. Members live in Poland, England and Ireland and across the United States. The markets they serve are even broader; U.S. Bancorp has operations in more than 30 countries. But there was one place that was neutral, where nobody from WLA lived or worked, and where every dollar collected through silent auctions and fundraising drives could have real impact-Africa. With guidance from Rotarians who have been doing service projects on the continent for years, WLA members decided that furthering education-particularly for girls-would be their mission, and they chose two Kenyan schools that needed their help.
Beth Blaisdell had never imagined visiting the places where these schools are located. In fact, she hadn't really thought about Africa much at all. The continent didn't factor into her work as an Atlanta-based senior vice president of payment solutions at U.S. Bancorp, and Africa certainly wasn't a spot she would choose for a vacation. But that was before she knew of its riches-how hope thrived there amid crushing poverty. How children sang with a beauty and sweetness that blotted out despair.
Now, she carries photos of a Nairobi slum on her iPad. She understands that if you give a child there a meal, she will take only a few bites and bring the rest home to her brothers and sisters.
Blaisdell cannot wait to return.
Ask her what she thinks WLA has accomplished at the Kenyan two schools-one in the slum in Nairobi, the other in a rural village about 75 miles from the city-and she will tell you some facts. At the rural school, in the Masaai village of Oldonyonyokie, girls often stop their education when they're about 10 or 11. That's the age when their responsibilities at home become time and labor intensive, so the girls just stop showing up for class.
A significant portion of the $400,000 the WLA has raised for its African mission has been dedicated to paying tuition and furnishing a girls' dorm so the children can remain at school during the week and continue their studies. If their parents let them stay at school, the girls get extra food to bring home for the weekend.
More than 30 girls now live in the dorm. "Our goal is to see 100 girls make it through secondary school," Blaisdell says.
Cathi Stanton didn't go on WLA's first trip to Africa, in the fall of 2011. It took awhile for her to make peace with the idea of spending a week of her limited free time with children other than her own. But she decided to sign up for the spring 2012 WLA trip, and she says it was worth every minute. The stories and photos she brought back to her children in suburban Philadelphia have broadened their world view and helped them grasp, in some small way, the advantages they have. And the deeper relationships she forged with other WLA members on the trip boost her job satisfaction and motivate her to reach higher.
"I've admired a lot of these women. I respect them, and I love getting to talk to them," says Stanton, senior vice president of product management for U.S. Bancorp subsidiary U.S. Bank. "It makes me really proud to work for the bank and to be led by Pam. She is a phenomenal leader. ... Thinking of myself as a leader is still a shift for me. Being part of the WLA and the work in Africa is a reminder to think big. Through our actions, big things can happen."
The belief that change comes from action defines WLA, Blaisdell says, and goes beyond the work in Africa. For example, members of the group worked together to analyze the results from last year's employee engagement survey. They organized training on how to be more effective leaders and advised one another on ways to improve.
"We spent hours together understanding our strengths and learning how to maximize our teams," Blaisdell says. A year later, WLA members' employee engagement "grades" have risen a collective 5 percent, she says, adding, "There are all kinds of things a collaborative effort can do."
And that, says Joseph, is the point. WLA is not solely about the work in Africa. Most members in fact haven't visited the schools. Many focus on other philanthropic work that they've been dedicated to for years. But, she says, WLA's success with helping the girls in Africa-and in creating the kind of networking environment that men have enjoyed for decades-demonstrates the power women can have when they work together.
A group of dedicated, experienced women who are willing to take risks and make things happen can "reach down" and help women coming up, Joseph explains. And that's true no matter where the women are, she says-whether it's an African slum or an American boardroom.
Kathy Brister is a freelancer. She is based in Atlanta.