O's first-ever Leadership Course
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.

Cerelyn Davis
Photo: Ben Goldstein
Hometown: Douglasville, Georgia
Project: Sisters-in-Law
Challenge: Getting buy-in from her male colleagues on the police force
Breakthrough: Changing the way she presents her idea is key
Takeaway: A six-month plan

As a girl, Cerelyn Davis watched Police Woman so often that her whole family knew she would become an officer herself. But while she has succeeded in earning the rank of major in the Atlanta Police Department, the climb has been a struggle in a male-dominated world (according to the National Center for Women & Policing, women today constitute only 13 percent of the country's officers). "I've had to work above and beyond," says the 48-year-old Davis, "to deal with men not accepting me as a credible leader. A policewoman doesn't get respect until she runs a robber down. But women in these roles contribute so much. I've had experiences where my presence prevented the situation from turning into a shoot-out. And there are some things I can tell a battered woman, things that aren't so protocol." Davis' conviction that women's peacekeeping is essential to police work lies at the heart of her initiative, Sisters-in-Law—a support network for women in law enforcement that also encourages girls to consider the profession by offering real-life role models.

On Saturday morning, Davis and the other Women Rule! winners are divided into breakout groups of five. Led by experts the White House Project has selected, the groups will meet several times during the weekend to focus individually on each woman's project and determine the next steps to move it forward. Davis' facilitator is Aliza Mazor, a consultant for nonprofit start-ups, who begins by going around the table asking, "What is your biggest obstacle right now?" Davis explains she's put out feelers to a few police departments about adopting Sisters-in-Law as an in-house program. "But the men think that I'll bring in an army of women screaming about equality," she says. The group suggests that she change her presentation: Rather than emphasizing the need to serve and uplift women, she should highlight Sisters-in-Law's value to the force, articulating how it will make a department better. Davis pauses to take in the idea. "You're absolutely right," she says. "Just sitting here, I'm already tweaking what I'm going to say."

At dinner that night, Davis listens raptly to a presentation by Julie Gilbert, a senior vice president at Best Buy. "It was a boy's toy store, designed by boys for boys," she says. Gilbert decided that if she wanted to make the store a good place for women to shop, it had to be a good place for women to work. So she started the Women's Leadership Forum—WOLF—to develop a female contingent of innovators within the company. At one point she consulted a male friend in management. "Do you need money?" he asked, trying to be helpful. Realizing that she was about to encounter resistance from on high, she answered, "No, I need a heat shield." Later Davis says she almost wept hearing this story—a heat shield is exactly what she could use in the police department. She also heeds Gilbert's counsel: "Think about all the possible reasons for hearing no, and write them down. It helps you get clear in your own mind."

After the breakout groups reconvene for their next session on Sunday, Mazor asks, "When you push for what you want, what do you feel others are thinking?" There's a simpatico laugh at the response of Evelyn Fernandez-Ketcham, who started a neighborhood center for disconnected young adults in Manhattan's mostly Hispanic Washington Heights. "I probably make people angry," she says, "but I need to let them react and not worry that they're thinking, 'Oh, she's PMS-ing.'" Davis tells the others that her female colleagues are hesitant to "make waves"; Mazor counters by suggesting she look at the younger women—this new generation assumes job satisfaction as a birthright, and they are probably ready to join her. "Form a group and brainstorm around the idea, 'What is women's policing?'" says Mazor. This way, Davis can start speaking publicly about the program as a new concept. They discuss how Sisters-in-Law could be organized along the lines of the Police Athletic League, with officers going out in the community to work with girls. Do some research, Mazor suggests: Measure the program's potential impact and demonstrate that it will not distract officers from their other work. As the session wraps up and each woman states her intentions for next steps, Davis says her six-month goals are to establish a stakeholder group (including, everyone jokes, one token "alpha male" to keep things lively) and develop a mission statement that she can hand to the chief.

Ready to set your own goal? Use the Project Grid included with your set of worksheets.

Photo: Ben Goldstein
Hometown: Seattle
Project: National Urban Indian Family Coalition
Challenge: To increase support and funding for her advocacy group
Breakthrough: Organizing her busy life will help her devote energy to this project
Takeaway: Time-management skills

A member of the Quinault and three other Indian nations, Janeen Comenote was born in Seattle and spent her first few years in and out of foster care. At age 5, she was taken in by her grandmother, who as a young girl had been forcibly removed from her own family and placed in boarding school, where any child caught speaking a Native language had her mouth washed out with soap. "My grandmother hated the American government—she'd send me out to the mailbox for our welfare checks saying, 'Go get the Eagle s***,'" recalls Comenote, 39, a development officer for the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation in Seattle. "So much of our culture has been co-opted. Probably no one who drives a Jeep Cherokee could tell you where the Cherokee tribe is from."

And many Americans may not know that about 65 percent of our country's Native people actually live off reservations, often facing the same, if not worse, socioeconomic hardship as those who live on them. To give what she calls "the silent population" of Native Americans who reside in cities a voice, Comenote created the National Urban Indian Family Coalition, which represents 24 organizations in 19 cities and has already hosted national summits. Her dream is to raise awareness among policymakers and convince Congress to dedicate funding for much-needed services. "Part of my motivation is wanting to help my own family," she says. "My sisters ran away when they were 11 and 12 and started having kids soon after. My sisters are in prison, so I have all these nieces and nephews in foster care that I've never met."

At Women Rule! Comenote can't believe it when she learns that the facilitator of her breakout group, Elisabeth Garrett, is also Native American. Another high point of the session for Comenote is sharing what she's learned about designing her website (using an experienced tech consultant) with fellow winner Roslind Blasingame-Buford, who has started a college prep program for at-risk inner-city kids.

In a workshop about public speaking with Ora Shtull, president of MAXIMA Coaching, Comenote learns that body language, delivery, and wardrobe choices have more impact than the actual words. "In fact, when you communicate, you transmit as much as 93 percent of your information nonverbally—gestures, tone of voice, volume—and as little as 7 percent verbally," Shtull says, "and you have seconds to establish credibility." When addressing a group, she coaches: Keep your feet in line with your shoulders and hands above your waist, make eye contact with multiple members of the audience, and occasionally connect to the back of the room. Shtull strongly advises every woman to have an "elevator pitch" handy for meeting a potential donor or anyone who might support her cause. "Summarize your venture, mention one or two accomplishments, and tell me why I should care," Shtull says. "Too often people stop at features and don't move on to benefits."

In a lecture about time management, Comenote has a moment of clarity about her compulsive e-mail checking. "It puts you in a reactive mode rather than addressing your own agenda," says presenter Julie Morgenstern, author of When Organizing Isn't Enough: SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life. "Wait an hour in the morning before opening your in-box." But Comenote realizes her problem is larger than e-mail: With a full-time job, hectic travel schedule, and an inability to say no when others ask for her time, she's allowing an overstuffed life to keep her from focusing on her project.

Morgenstern offers a number of concrete strategies: "Every time you feel out of control, fill in the blanks: I spend way too much time on _____. I procrastinate whenever I have to _____. If there were a 25th hour in the day, I'd use it for _____." Energized, Comenote starts practicing: "No. I'd love to do it, but I'm simply too busy at this time"words that are "a huge evolution" for her. "And I know I've got to learn the fine art of delegation—the idea that yes, someone else really might be able to do this as well, if not better," she says. Vowing never to get a BlackBerry—"it would be fatal"—she declares herself ready to "do nothing less than change the face of Indian country."

Try it! Julie Morgenstern's smartest time management lessons are in your set of worksheets.

Cary Weatherby
Photo: Ben Goldstein
Hometown: Bloomington, Minnesota
Project: Companies to Classrooms
Challenge: Fear of fundraising
Breakthrough: She can't take rejection personally
Takeaway: Skills for making the "ask"

Several years ago, Cary Weatherby,of Bloomington, Minnesota, salvaged a huge box of alphabet stickers that were headed for the Dumpster, castoffs from a local business that had changed filing systems. She delivered them to a grateful kindergarten teacher at her children's school who had exhausted her minuscule budget for supplies. Then Weatherby thought, "There's probably more of this stuff out there," and Companies to Classrooms was born. Now the 52-year-old "stay-at-home" mother, who spends most of her time running the nonprofit, wants to create "free stores" stocked with surplus business products for teachers across her state.

At the conference on Saturday morning, she finds signs posted around the ballroom describing different emotional reactions to negotiating: "It's a piece of cake." "It makes me feel powerful." "I try to avoid it." "I worry about how others are going to react." Linda C. Babcock, PhD, a professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University and co-author of Ask for It, has instructed the women to stand near the sign that best expresses the way they feel. Weatherby plants herself next to: "Negotiating is like going to the dentist."But listening to Babcock, she realizes that she should ignore the voice in her head saying, "Watch out; don't be pushy" or "Are you sure you're good enough?"

"It's not the voice of experience or common sense," says Babcock. "It's not even your own voice. It's the voice of society. It's holding you back, it's cutting you off from the opportunity to broaden your life, and it's costing you money."

The part of negotiating that's most like a root canal for Weatherby is "the ask": actually requesting money from individuals or institutions. She hates getting turned down, takes it personally, feels debilitated. But in a Sunday seminar, Julia Pimsleur, a veteran fundraiser who has worked for more than 10 years in nonprofits, suggests a different mind-set. "You're offering something that stirs your passion, and anyone would be lucky to be involved," Pimsleur says. "When you get a no, it could mean, 'We don't know you well enough' or 'It's not a priority right now.'"

During Pimsleur's session, Tori Hogan asks what standards donations should meet—she's raising money for a project that will assess international aid programs to determine which ones really work. "Choose two or three issues you won't compromise on," says Pimsleur. "Personally, I don't feel comfortable taking money from pharmaceuticals, tobacco, or alcohol. But too broad a list is unnecessarily limiting." Weatherby has faced the same funding dilemma—to seek investors and go into debt or to work with a limited budget—that is raised by another winner, Cheryl Mathieu, who has created an online resource for caretakers of the elderly. Pimsleur throws a question back at them: "Do you want to own a big piece of something small or a small piece of something big? It's hard to take your company far and fast on your own, but with help you can become the biggest player." Ignoring the negative voice in her head, Weatherby realizes that player could be her.

Are you looking for funding too? Learn the art of "the ask" in a Negotiation Basics primer withyour set of worksheets.

Perhaps the most striking aspect ofthe conference, true to Marie Wilson's prediction, is the cross-pollination of ideas. Evan Ryan, who works for an organization that helps provide books, supplies, and teachers to children in areas of conflict around the world, is thrilled to meet Cary Weatherby. And because Ryan's project is a plan to help returning Iraq vets, she's also excited to meet Amy Callis, who has turned her attention to another war zone, providing stoves to Darfuri refugees. And when Jenny Hwa meets Callis, she has a brainstorm: Hwa's line of eco-clothing could incorporate a Darfuri flower print, with a portion of the proceeds going to the refugees.

On Sunday evening, the participants return to the hotel ballroom. Responding to a random name call, each woman stands and delivers a one-sentence mission statement—a "lite" version of the elevator pitch. ("Through Sisters-in-Law, policewomen will gain invaluable training and professional support in achieving leading roles in their agencies," says Davis. "Companies to Classrooms gets surplus office supplies and equipment into the hands of teachers," Weatherby follows. "The National Urban Indian Family Coalition will improve the lives of Native people in our cities," asserts Comenote.) As they speak, they fulfill the Hopi proverb that says: The one who tells the stories rules the world. Many of them had mothers who directed the show from the backseat, raised to believe that leading would take them away from their duty. Now these daughters can comfortably take charge, front and center.

For a closing ceremony, the women form a circle and, one by one, offer a word to sum up the conference: "Strength." "Strategy." "Invincible." "Network." "Possibility." Hugs are exchanged along with business cards, as they rush off for trains and planes. "I loved the theme of getting knocked down but finding a way to pick yourself up and navigate your way through obstacles in a positive fashion," says Evan Ryan, heading for the Metroliner to Washington, D.C. "Focus, focus, focus—it's the results that matter," says Cheryl Mathieu on her way back to California. "It's okay to be of service to people and make money. The world needs me and my story—yes, me!"

The application for Women Rule! asked: What would you do if you knew you could not fail? As these new leaders head out to change the world, they now have some answers to guide them. We'll be following their progress.

Get started! Visit O's White House Leadership Project to meet each of the 80 winners, plus find resources to help you turn your own dreams into action.


Thanks to everyone from the White House Project who worked tirelessly on Women Rule!, including Marie C. Wilson, Joan Hochman, Jaime Peters, Elizabeth Hines, and Tiffany Dufu; also to Shifra Bronznick, a leadership consultant for the White House Project who collaborated on the training agenda.

Additional reporting by Polly Brewster, Kristy Davis, Lauren Dzubow, Brooke Kosofsky Glassberg, Dorothea Hunter, Kate Sandoval, Blythe Simmons, Sara Sugarman, and Carolyn Wilsey.

Support for rooms and meals was provided by Affinia Manhattan Hotels, Philanthropiece, and the Sunshine Fund.

Thanks to everyone from the White House Project who worked tirelessly on Women Rule!, including Marie C. Wilson, Joan Hochman, Jaime Peters, Elizabeth Hines, and Tiffany Dufu; also to Shifra Bronznick, a leadership consultant for the White House Project who collaborated on the training agenda.

Additional reporting by Polly Brewster, Kristy Davis, Lauren Dzubow, Brooke Kosofsky Glassberg, Dorothea Hunter, Kate Sandoval, Blythe Simmons, Sara Sugarman, and Carolyn Wilsey.

Support for rooms and meals was provided by Affinia Manhattan Hotels, Philanthropiece, and the Sunshine Fund.


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