Editor’s Note: The following personal essay is a reflection on one individual’s participation in the EllevateHER Forward Fellowship program. This is not a program endorsement or a sales post. Philanthropy Women was not compensated for this article.
This fall, I had the good fortune to be selected as an EllevateHER Forward Fellow, one of a group of women selected to participate in Ellevate‘s Fall 2020 cohort for women’s leadership and career growth programming. As part of the Fellowship, I participated in the Ellevate Squads program, which redefines traditional “networking” groups by pairing women all over the country with a consistent “Squad” for twelve weeks.
I’m writing this today in reflection on the Ellevate program, and the wonderful group of women I found myself paired with. In an era of constant change, competition, and stress, it was incredibly refreshing to know I had an uplifting meeting to look forward to every Tuesday at 1:00.
This came up often in conversation — how much we all looked forward to meeting together, because those video calls were a source of camaraderie and validation for all of us. We really, in the truest sense of the word, became a Squad.
I found the program at a necessary time in my life, when between the COVID pandemic, a cross-country move, and many changes to my personal routines, I felt like I’d been cut adrift from the world as I knew it. In this program, however, I found both validation and support from a group of strangers. Here are five takeaways I have from my time in the program — and how participating in Ellevate helped me keep the feminist finish line in perspective.
1. Ellevate taught me that when women lift each other up, the whole world benefits.
This is what we’re all about here at Philanthropy Women, and it’s always both refreshing and empowering to hear that other people believe in this mission as much as we do. The Squad experience was noncompetitive, built on collaborative discussions rather the endless, “And what do you do?” repetitions that accompany traditional networking circles.
As a group, we all believed in the power of women — we spoke often about our experiences as women in the workplace and the ways we could leverage our individual skills to lift each other up. I’ve joined many networking groups and quit a few weeks in because it felt like the same three people (usually male, twice my age, and in some sort of sales role) dominated every conversation. In the Squads, however, we got to be half “girl gang” and half hardcore mentoring group, solving each other’s problems as they came up and empathizing over our shared experiences.
2. Sometimes, simple validation goes a long way.
As women in the workplace, many of the members of my Squad faced similar problems: Men “talking down” to us, pioneering discussions, or taking credit for our work. Being passed over for promotions in favor of a less-qualified male colleague. Fear of speaking up in meetings — or more often, advocating for ourselves and what we are worth — and the fear that being seen as “bossy” or “off-putting” could jeopardize our job success.
Joining this group did not end the pandemic, or solve all of my life problems, but the simple validation I received from the other women in my group helped put into perspective that we all face similar challenges. Sometimes, something that in the moment feels like an HR emergency or the end of your career can turn into an excellent learning experience once you’ve had a chance to get some distance to the problem and then laugh about it. And in the same way, if you’ve felt like speaking up about a problem, but the little voice in the back of your head tells you not to make a big stink over nothing, there is significant empowerment in a group of women telling you that your feelings and concerns are valid.
3. “Networking” doesn’t have to be about sales or business cards.
In the simplest terms, Ellevate Squads are networking groups. But unlike their hors d’oeuvres-and-happy-hour counterparts, the Squads offer a form of networking that combines mentoring with career development and public speaking — almost a crash course in professional confidence-building that forced me to learn how to speak to the group as both a professional and as a person.
I’m often uncomfortable in “networking” settings because I worry about what people will see first: My age, my gender, the coffee I spilled on my shirt on the drive to the venue. With the Squads, however, just showing up was enough — the group was so comfortable with each other that we could share our professional woes and stories without fear of judgment or dismissal. Comparing this experience to the dozens (if not hundreds) of other “networking” groups I’ve been a part of in the past, the Squads offered an inclusive and supportive environment that wasn’t about how many business cards I could collect, but rather about how to solve a particular problem in half an hour, and how to apply that solution to my own professional life.
4. Funding women’s success is critical to the future.
This one may seem obvious, given my role at Philanthropy Women and the amount of work I’ve produced in the feminist giving sphere over the last year. However, being in this Squad — where approximately a third of the group was made up of Fellows like me, and another third on program scholarships — showed me the firsthand impact of offering strategic resources to women who would not participate in these programs otherwise.
There were a few significant “life events” over the course of our twelve-week program. One woman approached her boss about a long overdue promotion, practiced her pitch with the Squad, and earned herself a raise. Another member made a case with her HR department about why she should be considered for an open role (one the company had decided would have no internal candidates) — and after a lengthy review process that the Squad was able to advise on at every phase, she was selected for the position. I myself moved across the country from Florida to Utah in a “snap decision” I probably would not have made without the support of this group of women in my corner. (And funnily enough, I took one of our Squad calls from my phone while driving across Wisconsin.)
My point here is that such a simple program — half an hour of dedicated career and leadership conversation, once a week for twelve weeks — had immediate and lasting impacts on our careers and lives. And that many of the participants, myself included, had financial constraints that would have kept us from participating if we did not have funding options from the Ellevate team. This makes a small but poignant case for the fight for feminist philanthropy: The more we fund our sisters and daughters, the more we can look forward to a future that is built on genuine equality.
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