Photo: Jennifer Stimpson
Last spring, more than 3,000 women with great ideas applied for the first-everO-White House Leadership Project contest. The 80 winners got to attend an inspiration-packed three-day program, with coaching by some of the top women trailblazers in the country. Aimee Lee Ball watched as our winners learned to "make it happen."
On a warm June evening, Cerelyn Davis is scanning a hotel ballroom in New York City, acclimating herself to the surroundings like Dorothy just landing in Oz. A major in the Atlanta police department, she's seen plenty during her career of more than two decades—but nothing like this astonishing scene. Across the room, there's a similar gaze of anticipation on the face of Janeen Comenote, who works for a Native American foundation in Seattle. And in another corner, a self-described "ordinary mom" from suburban Minnesota, Cary Weatherby, is wondering how she got here. Dinner has been served with a rousing welcome by O's Gayle King and a stirring performance by Grammy-winning singer Angelique Kidjo. But the palpable exhilaration isn't coming from the stage; it's pulsing among the crowd: Davis, Comenote, Weatherby, and the other remarkable guests, all winners of an unprecedented leadership training contest called Women Rule!
It's no secret that now is a time when women's strengths are urgently needed in their communities, in business, and in the world. It was with this in mind that O magazine partnered with the White House Project—a nonprofit organization committed to advancing women from all backgrounds into positions of power—to create Women Rule! Over the past 10 years, the White House Project has perfected the art of teaching leadership skills. And with a sponsorship by American Express, its staff customized a star-studded training program specifically for O's winners.
The contest got off to a start in our April issue with a call to women who had already initiated a project—a nonprofit, business, public policy initiative, or run for political office—and wanted to take it to the next level. More than 3,000 entered, despite the extensive application, and it took weeks to select the standouts, who were then invited to New York City for three days of leadership training.
Now the lobby of the Affinia Manhattan hotel is buzzing with women from all over the country, ranging in age from 18 to 69, burning with ideas and wild dreams. Déborah Berebichez wants to launch a TV science series for girls, encouraging interest in "the physics of high heels" and "chemistry in the kitchen." Nadine Bean has a plan for social work students to help rebuild the spirit of New Orleans's beleaguered Lower Ninth Ward. Rahama Wright hopes to expand the fair-trade shea butter cooperative she's started in Mali. Lea Webb intends to get her underserved upstate New York neighborhood a grocery store. And Joanne Tawfilis is creating a pyramid in Egypt from 12 miles of murals by worldwide artists to celebrate International Day of Peace 2010."I need a business plan because I'd like to turn Art Miles into an income-generating, self-sustaining project," says Tawfilis, a mother of nine children, seven of whom are adopted from other countries. "My family is tired of seeing me with paint on my clothes."
The staff of the White House Project have forsaken business attire for Women Rule! T-shirts—"and anyone wearing a T-shirt, consider her your new best friend," says national program director Erin Vilardi at the orientation. The women are in for an intensive weekend of lectures, workshops, and individual coaching by top leaders in business, philanthropy, and politics. But the truth is, they will probably glean as much from one another as they will from the experts, according to Marie C. Wilson, founder and president of the White House Project. "If the energy and vision in this room were applied to world problems," she says at the opening dinner, "the morning paper would look completely different."
That energy and vision were clearly evident in the three women we chose to follow through the weekend. Find out what they learned.
We Hear You!