Shayna Hetzel’s Vision for Gender Equality: An Open Sky as the Norm

Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Shayna Hetzel, Community and Social Impact Investment Director at the American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact. 

shayna hetzel
Shayna Hetzel, courtesy of Shayna Hetzel

1. What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?

 My greatest professional challenges, opportunities and successes have been rooted in unapologetic aspirations, insightful mentors and the brilliance of a team. I wish I had known early on how to set better boundaries and ask for help more often, because I have found that boundaries and help are leverage points for productivity, engagement and inclusion. And, fundamentally, community-based, purpose-driven work only gets stronger and bolder with focused, diverse and inclusive contributions. Asking for help not only builds in resilience and wellness for the individual. It also increases team capacity, levels up organizational competencies, and builds a more diverse and inclusive point of view.

2. What is your current greatest professional challenge?

My current greatest professional challenge is to balance the commitment to our north-star objectives and to stay agile for our partners to respond to their greatest needs and loudest priorities. The COVID-19 pandemic gave American Family Insurance the opportunity to practice both. Our commitment to our communities remained unwavering and, in fact, was emboldened.

3. What inspires you most about your work?

Building on the time and talents of my brilliant colleagues and team, I am most inspired by the evolving role of business to become more active in closing equity gaps in our communities, and, of course, that includes our work at American Family. Based in Madison, Wisconsin, we are stepping out on bold initiatives like our $105 million Free to Dream initiative, managing and distributing funds for nonprofits, small businesses and venture-backable social impact startups; and building deep community partnerships. And, while our company has been committed to its community for 93 years and counting, we’ve really built the organizational muscle, leadership appetite and teams’ skill to strategically grow and scale our impact.

4. How does your gender identity inform your work?

My pronouns are she, her and hers. My gender identity informs my work in many ways. It shows up in power dynamics that I experience and the systems that I work in, participate in, advance or disrupt. And because it is ever-present, I must work at it every day to bring an equity lens to our work, to make room at the conversation and decision table for other womxn, and to challenge my team and my organization to do the same.

And, its intersectionality with being a heterosexual, immigrant Asian American shapes my daily lived experience, influences my priorities, and reminds me of the importance of proximity to any challenge we’re looking to support, whether it’s nonprofits we’re supporting with grants or corporate volunteers, or social impact startups we’re investing in or mentoring, or in-community partnerships we’re building with community leaders.

5.  How can philanthropy support gender equity?

I think philanthropy can support gender equity in a number of ways. First, commit to diversity, equity and inclusion in this profession from board composition, organization leadership, nonprofit partners’ leadership and constituencies. Second, recognize the imbalance of the overrepresentation of women in nonprofit leadership, volunteers and volunteer board positions; and the role that low- to no-wage positions play in pay equity and economic prosperity. Third, examine our own biases and privileges that influence our policies, funding priorities and practices.

6.  In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equity movements taking us?

I hope the gender equity movement takes us to a place where we reflect on 2020 and 2021 realities as rearview mirror moments. Where womxn in the workforce have surged past pre-pandemic rates at all levels of employment from entry level, to executive roles, to founders and business owners. Where pay equity is no longer a campaign, but an inherent value and understood reality. Where education outcomes are statistically insignificant when analyzed by gender. Where shattered ceilings are a historical moment, with open sky as the norm. Where womxn are not pitted against each other or the trans- and non-binary communities. Where womxn have shaken patriarchal business practices and norms off in a new frontier of how we do business.

More on Shayna Hetzel:

Shayna Hetzel is the Social Impact Investment Director for Learning and Academic Achievement at the American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact. Prior to joining American Family Insurance, Hetzel spent nearly a decade in roles at a public research university and in state government. She graduated with a B.A. and M.P.A. from University of Wisconsin-Madison.

This interview has been minimally edited.

Author: Julia Travers

I often cover innovations in science, the arts and social justice. Find my work with NPR, Discover Magazine, APR and Earth Island Journal, among other publications. My portfolio is at

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