Words of Wisdom from the 2019 Academy of Women Achievers Luncheon

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This past Tuesday, June 4th, YW Boston hosted the 24th Academy of Women Achievers Luncheon at The Westin Copley Place in Back Bay. We were thrilled to nominate the following awardees into the academy: Maureen Alphonse-Charles, Julie Goodridge, Karen Morton, Grace Sterling-Stowell, and Irene Li. Irene was awarded the second annual Sylvia Ferrell-Jones award in honor of YW Boston’s former President and CEO, an award that honors a young woman of color who embodies the leadership qualities and commitment to YW Boston’s mission that Sylvia represented.

We welcomed close to 500 attendees to the luncheon, which featured remarks from YW Boston President and CEO Beth Chandler, two YW Boston youth leaders Shandira Soto and Emma Njigua, and each of the awardees. In addition, the Academy of Women Achievers Co-Chairs Jessica Ragosta Early and Annis Gill-Miller kicked off the event by welcoming the audience and we also heard from outgoing Board Chair Mim Minichiello and incoming Board Chair Marguerite Fletcher. We could not have such an amazing event without our three-time emcee Latoyia Edwards. Latoyia, an Emmy Award-winning anchor on NBC10 Boston and necn, who brought great energy to the stage and to honoring each of our five awardees.

More Than Words bookstore joined us this year to host a pop-up booksale featuring books from YW Boston’s Annual Reading List. They sold featured titles, such as Beth Chandler’s favorite Heavy by Kiese Laymon and picks from each of the awardees. Thank you to More Than Words for joining us. Stay tuned for the digital edition of YW Boston’s annual list.

We are excited to announce that with the help of our generous attendees, we raised $26,935 towards the cost of a $30,000 InclusionBoston program for a local nonprofit or school. If you haven’t already, you can still help us reach $30,000 by making a gift today. With this important support, YW Boston works help individuals and organizations create more inclusive environments where women, people of color, and especially women of color can succeed. Thank you to our many sponsors, individual donors, and ticket purchasers who helped us real our goal.


The women who spoke throughout the luncheon told the stories of becoming unstoppable women. Each have dedicated their work to fighting structural inequities and ensuring more opportunities for women, people of color, and women of color within Boston’s institutions, and they have learned a lot along the way. Take their words of wisdom as inspiration and fuel for your continued work toward equity:

Shandira Soto

It all goes back to identity. To understand how to battle the unjust systems we face today, one must first understand how they themselves contribute and/or live in those systems.” -Shandira Soto

Shandira Soto, YW Boston Youth Leader, spoke about her experience in the Youth Leadership InItiative, or InIt. As a student at Boston Latin Academy (BLA), she has worked as apart of the Student Immigrant Movement and joined InIt to learn more about organizing around issues she cares about. She spoke about Immersion Weekend at the beginning of the nine-month-long program, when she first got to know her fellow delegates. By exploring issues of identity with them, she came to realize that “It all goes back to identity. To understand how to battle the unjust systems we face today, one must first understand how they themselves contribute and/or live in those systems.” She spoke about coming to recognize herself as a youth leader and realizing the adultism many youth leaders face. After recognizing this, she worked with her delegation and her fellow BLA students to create a video exploring why her school’s administration did not seem to take students’ concerns seriously. She will continue her organizing efforts at Connecticut College this fall, where she will study Women and Gender Studies, English, and Political Science.


Emma Njigua

“I was inspired to look between the lines of the systems and find ways that I could take part in ending the injustices.” -Emma Njigua

YW Boston Youth Leader Emma Njigua spoke about how InIt not only taught her about systems of injustice in Boston and the United States, but helped her identify ways to disrupt these injustices. As she shared, “While learning about such topics, I was inspired to look between the lines of the systems and find ways that I could take part in ending the injustices, particularly in education and healthcare.” As a student at KIPP Academy Lynn Collegiate, she had not realized the disparities between her educational experience and those at schools with more or less privilege. Through her time as an InIt delegate she grew more confident in her ability to make change and spoke out about injustices she saw at her school and in her community. This has led her to want to get more involved with youth-led organizations and incorporate social justice into her future career.


Maureen Alphonse-Charles

“Over the years I have come to appreciate that the essence of leadership has everything to do with the ship rather than the leader, and that is the key to uplifting others.” -Maureen Alphonse-Charles

Maureen Alphonse-Charles, Managing Director of Koya Leadership Partners, with over 20 years of executive recruiting experience, knows about building a strong team. What she has learned, she shared with the crowd, is “the best leadership focuses on participation and team development. It defies gender stereotypes and rigid models. We need to advance leadership models that emphasize participation and that honor and value the efforts of the team.” For this reason, she has found that “essence of leadership has everything to do with the ship rather than the leader, and that is the key to uplifting others.” Only by recognizing how important it is to support one another and work together can we recognize our own ability to create diverse, inclusive workplaces.

Maureen put it out to the crowd to do their part, stating that given to the wide economic disparities between Black families and white families in Boston, “There is no other choice than to continue to open the gates and level the playing field.” As a graduate of YW Boston’s LeadBoston program, she has seen both the work that needs to be done and the power of the collective to address it. As she stated in her remarks, LeadBoston “gave me a voice and a network harnessed with respect.”


Julie Goodridge

“All of our policies happened at NorthStar because we pushed aside the minimum standards for equality and crafted what we need to do to do our best work and its allowed us to bring our full selves to work.” -Julie Goodridge

As Julie Goodridge puts it, she founded NorthStar Asset Management almost thirty years ago in order to “think expansively about the direction I wanted to go in my field and I wanted to escape the role of constantly defending my perspective.” In her remarks, she spoke about being a white, lesbian woman in finance and the barriers that women face in her field, such as having their ideas co-opted by men. Recognizing this, she set out on her own to “create a firm of phenomenal female employees” which has led her to understand what it means to create policies for an inclusive workplace. Having such a firm meant welcoming “gay weddings, pregnancies, nursing babies, sick kids, aging relatives, emergency travel, school closings, birthday party worries, botched childcare arrangements,” etc. and responding with policies for “running home early, coming in late, finishing the Halloween costumes during investment committee meetings, competitive salaries, retirement, vacation, and healthcare benefits.” In doing so, NorthStar has become a workplace that has “pushed aside the minimum standards for equality and crafted what we need to do to do our best work and its allowed us to bring our full selves to work.”

While she recognizes that she finds talking about gender to be easy, Julie admitted that she has a harder time talking about race. In 2008, she decided she no longer wanted to lead an organization that was simply inclusive for white women. NorthStar Asset Management, a firm dedicated to socially responsible investing and using their resources “as a creative force for change”, needed a truly diverse team in order to best address the issues they cared about such as divesting from prison labor and deforestation. With this understanding, Julie has succeeded at building a staff of “fourteen women and Robert” with a staff ranging in ages 23-82 who are “diverse humans and diverse thinkers.”


Karen Morton

“We are our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers. She stressed upon us that you do not need to wait for someone to ask for help. If you see a need, you need to extend your hand to help, and that has carried over into my professional life.” -Karen Morton

Karen Morton, Senior Vice President and Deputy General Counsel for the Litigation and Coverage Group at Liberty Mutual Insurance Group, spoke about the impact her mother’s teachings have had on her life. Her mother, who recently passed, spoke taught her that “We are our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers.” As Karen explained, “She stressed upon us that you do not need to wait for someone to ask for help. If you see a need, you need to extend your hand to help, and that has carried over into my professional life.”

Truly, Karen has made it a priority to use her power within the organizations she has worked for to advance women and people of color in the legal industry. In her role at Liberty Mutual she realized that when working with external law firms, Liberty Mutual was rarely represented by women or people of color. Alongside her colleagues, she formed Liberty Legal Academy for up and coming lawyers, specifically women and lawyers of color, to develop a pipeline of diverse outside counsel attorneys. That way, “the next time these law firms showed up at our door, they could not tell us they didn’t have any women or people of color to do our work because we had met them, we knew them, and we had taught them.” Karen also spoke about a time, in a previous role, when an outside counsel lawyer was planning to retire and hand his work to another white man. She knew an African American woman who would be perfect for the role, and was able to leverage her power in the business relationship to secure the successful transfer to this woman. Through these examples and more, Karen has put uplifting others into practice.


Grace Sterling-Stowell

“True leadership challenges us to step up, speak out, and strive to ensure that we may live in a world that supports full equity and inclusion for all of us.” -Grace Sterling-Stowell

In her remarks, Grace Sterling-Stowell, Executive Director of BAGLY, spoke about how her life experiences and how they have lead her become a activist and leader in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) youth communities. Growing up as a gender non-conforming child, she spoke about being the target of harassment. However, like Karen, she received her model of leadership from her mother who worked within her community and led their church youth group. As Grace learned from her mother, we “have a responsibility to give back to our community by giving back to the next generation of leaders.”

As Grace explained, “”As someone who has been targeted for both my gender identity and my sexual orientation throughout my life, I know how important it is for all of us to come together to support the most vulnerable among us. No child should have to experience what I did when I was growing up, and so I have always believed that it our responsibility to open doors so that others may go through them.” With this recognition, she has served as a founding member of both the MA Commission on LGBTQ Youth and the MA Unaccompanied Homeless Youth Commission, a Steering Committee member of the MA Transgender Political Coalition, and an activist for the Freedom MA Yes On 3 Campaign in 2018. What makes a leader, she has learned, is the working “to step up, speak out, and strive to ensure that we may live in a world that supports full equity and inclusion for all of us.”


Irene Li

“Not everyone can do everything, but everyone has to do something.” -Irene Li

Irene Li, Founder of Mei Mei Street Kitchen & Mei Mei Restaurant, never saw herself working in or owning a restaurant, especially not when she was an InIt youth leader. In her remarks, she admitted that she thought she’d work somewhere like YW Boston, engaging with topics of social justice, seeing as how “Social justice was my number one extracurricular. It was my varsity sport since I didn’t play sports.” However, the James Beard-recognized chef found that “in restaurants a lot of social issues intersect. Race, class, gender, immigration, capitalism, and the environment are all issues that we face every day. Sexual harassment, wage theft, lack of career opportunities, and poor mental health are all too common in our industry.” She has made it her mission at Mei Mei to equip her employees with the business, finance, and management experience necessary to becoming leaders in the industry.

By providing this training for her staff, Irene speaks of Mei Mei’s saying,”We believe that it is about recognition and equity and really seeing our staff as people. We are able to live our values as a community and that is what brings meaning to the work.” To her, Mei Mei isn’t just about making food – it is about community, and all organizations can learn from this model of leadership. We can all take part in creating this community. As Irenee thinks she learned from her time as an InIt leader, “”Not everyone can do everything, but everyone has to do something.” She also recognizes that “Its true that I am a young woman of color, and it is also true that I grew up with and still hold tremendous privilege. That is something that my time at InIt helped me to understand. So I think it is my responsibility, my honor, and my privilege to hold those doors for those who come behind me and when I can to kick them down.”

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Learn more about each of our awardees by reading our interviews with them: Maureen Alphonse-Charles, Julie Goodridge, Karen Morton, Grace Sterling-Stowell, and Irene Li. Find more photos from the event on our Facebook.

Thank you to our awardees, speakers, More Than Words bookstore, The Westin Copley Place, our incredible sponsors, and everyone who attended the 2019 Academy of Women Achievers Luncheon!


Learn more about our programs DE&I services InclusionBoston and LeadBoston as well as our youth programming and advocacy work.

Your support continues our work to help individuals and organizations create more inclusive environments where women, people of color, and especially women of color can succeed. Please consider donating to support YW Boston.