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Thought Leader Uncategorized Financial Inclusion

It’s Not My Turn

Operation HOPE

By Anita Ward, President Operation HOPE

This isn’t my week to write for Saporta.  It’s not my turn. But isn’t it time for women to stop waiting their turn?   Today is the anniversary of Women’s Equality Day, and if Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt had waited their turns then women would never have had one.  Suffragettes and activists broke the ground for women 99 years ago providing us with the right to vote and paving the way for remarkable women to achieve equally under the law.  Because of them, it is our turn. 

I am fortunate.  Many mentors, mostly men, shaped my 25-year career. They were my sherpas identifying dangers and providing guidance.  They empowered me, gave me access to resources and allowed me to both fail and succeed. Reflecting back, I acknowledge that the time, the industry and my skills aligned.  I was a cultural anthropologist, a social scientist, leading IT at a time when the bridges between business and technology needed to be constructed. I am a builder whose foundation is always people and culture.  It’s the language I speak – a little geek and a lot of human behavior. Yet, despite my unique qualifications (there aren’t many boxes on an organization chart entitled Cultural Anthropologist) and my influential mentors, many times I waited my turn.  I have my horror stories, like most women executives, but they pale in comparison to the stories of the women who paved the path for our equality.

In my role as President of Operation HOPE I have the privilege of working with women who are demonstrating that we no longer have to wait our turn, and it seems most appropriate today to share some of my personal sheroes.  Ellen Alemany changed the world of banking for women by leading a bank through vision, strategy and empathy, and now she is breaking down walls and silos associated with access to capital for women business owners. 

Alemany leads CIT Group, which recently announced the acquisition of Mutual of Omaha Bank.  When she stepped out of retirement to turnaround the then-troubled CIT, Alemany silenced her critics by systematically delivering on a vision.  She is a fixer, a cultural genius, and one of the most powerful women in banking. Among her many accomplishments at the Bank is the appointment of more women to her executive team and her board.  She and they are paving a new path for women in financial services serving as examples and mentors for young women in banking.

Alemany walks her talk.  This year she and CIT Executive Vice President Gina Proia worked with Operation HOPE to launch a Women’s HOPE Inside dedicated to developing women entrepreneurs.  Launch + Grow is a free 12-week entrepreneur training program for women. Early-stage women entrepreneurs refine their business plans, develop their financials, work with mentors and business experts, improve their credit scores and personal financial position, and prepare for access to capital.   The first Launch + Grow was delivered by Operation HOPE and CIT in Harlem with support from Mastercard’s Mercedes Gracia, and Francine LeFrak and the LeFrak Foundation. The New York Launch + Grow initiative was so successful, Alemany and her team decided to expand the program to Los Angeles. 

Women supporting women.

Women taking their turn – not waiting for it.   

Coca Cola lit the women’s commitment spark in Atlanta five years ago when they sponsored Operation HOPE initiatives in support of women around the country.  Through their support, and under the leadership of Helen Price and Wanda Rodwell, Operation HOPE has delivered empowerment and financial dignity to more than 100,000 women. Now other women are creating sparks and catalysts of their own, and here in Atlanta several powerful women are joining the cause.  

Operation HOPE and Georgia Pacific’s JaKathryn Ross have teamed up to offer a Women’s Entrepreneurship Accelerator to educate and empower women small business owners in the Atlanta area.  This HOPE Inside initiative is designed to get women business owners to the Next Level. 

Commissioner Lorraine Cochran-Johnson and Operation HOPE are launching a Women’s Entrepreneurship Accelerator in DeKalb County.  Recognizing the need, the Commissioner worked with her constituents and partners to designate a HOPE Inside the small business accelerator in the county.  Set to open in September, this will be a first for DeKalb.  

Theia Smith and Operation HOPE will create a series of Women’s Entrepreneurship Accelerators in Georgia.  Focused initially on Atlanta, the program will address the need for rural opportunity and will extend beyond the city.  Smith will lead the initiative and will provide the infrastructure, counseling, and relationship capital that women entrepreneurs need to build a sustainable business. 

Many women leaders and Operation HOPE Board members are committed to supporting other women, and I have the great privilege to work with them.  

Nandita Bakhshi, President and CEO of Bank of the West, and Jenny Flores, Head of Community Affairs and Social Responsibility, are uplifting women and creating community programs in Oakland with Operation HOPE to address the challenges faced by women entrepreneurs.   

Jan Jones Blackhurst, Executive Vice President, Public Policy & Corporate Responsibility for Caesars Entertainment In 1991 broke the glass ceiling as Las Vegas’ first female mayor.  Jones-Blackhurst increased the management positions held by women at Caesars to 41% during her tenure, and is now advancing financial dignity for women with Operation HOPE in Las Vegas through education and HOPE Inside.  Stephanie Couser, SVP Mutual of Omaha Bank, has joined Jones-Blackhurst in the Vegas Uplift project with a particular passion for supporting women veterans. 

Susan Sumersille Johnson, Chief Marketing Officer of SunTrust, is Lighting the Way to Financial Wellbeing through her support of HOPE Inside SunTrust branches with more than 50% of those dedicated to entrepreneurship.  Her soon-to-be teammate, Sharon Jeffries–Jones, BB&T Executive Vice President, sponsored a Next Generation initiative at Operation HOPE to ensure that young women in the next generations have equal access to education and programs. 

Women supporting women.

Women taking their turn – not waiting for it.   

On this day celebrating Women’s Equality let’s recognize the progress we have made, and let’s acknowledge how much more we have to do. Today nearly half of US workers are women, and more than 11.6 million firms are owned by women creating jobs for nearly 9 million people.  5.4 million of those firms are majority owned by women of color. Despite the numbers women, particularly women of color, face significant hurdles accessing capital.  

Let’s close this gender gap. Take your turn.

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